Tomorrow’s Tourists: Fluid or Simple Identities?
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Consider the future. What will tourists seek? What will be the factors influencing their decisions? Dr Ian Yeoman, the world’s only futurist specialising in travel and tourism,
looks at the values, behaviours and thinking of future tourists: new and meaningful experiences versus value and function; the power of peers and cultural kudos or family values and nature. Which route will the demands of tourists take the industry? It all comes down to economics. This interesting analysis considers fluid and simple personal identities and illustrates the differences each can have on the tourism industry.
Rising incomes and wealth accumulation distributed in new ways alter the balance of power in tourism. The tourist is the power base which has shifted from the institution of the travel agent through the opaqueness of online booking for holidays and travel to the individual. At the same time, the age is rich for new forms of connection and association, allowing a liberated pursuit of personal identity that is fluid and much less restricted by influence of background or geography.
The society of networks has facilitated and innovated a mass of options provided by communications channels leading to a paradox of choice. In the future marketplace people can holiday anywhere in the world whether it is Afghanistan or Las Vegas, the North Pole or the South Pole and everywhere in between including a day trip into outer space with Virgin Galactic.
The growth in world tourism is founded on increases in real household income per head, which doubles every 25 years in member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). This increase in disposal income allows real change in social order, living standards and the desire for a quality of life with tourism at the heart of that change. Effectively, consumers want improvement year-on-year. The change in disposable income has meant greater and enhanced choice for tourists.
The tourist has demanded better experiences, faster service, multiple choice, social responsibility and greater satisfaction. Against this background, as the world has moved to an experience economy in which endless choice. What has emerged is the concept of fluid identity.
However, as wealth decreases that identity becomes increasingly simple, and a new thriftiness and desire for simplicity emerges . This desire for simplicity is driven by inflationary pressures and falling levels of disposable incomes, squeezing the middle class consumer.
Between now and the future the world will go through a cycle of economic prosperity and decline which is the nature of the economic order. When wealth is great, a fluid identity is the naked scenario, however when a recession emerges belts are tightened and tourists, like other consumers, search for a simple identity. This article looks at the values, behaviours and thinking of the future tourist, and the differences a fluid or simple identity can have on the tourism industry.
Future tourists will be interested in both a two-week ecotourism vacation for an authentic and sustainable experience and a short break in Las Vegas for retail therapy, gambling or something more erotic. Some of the factors shaping a fluid identity, and how they can impact on tourism, are outlined below.
Tourists cannot be labelled according to their attitudes and beliefs – what they say and what they do, are two totally different things. People constantly evolve and seek something new, just like David Beckham and his hairstyles . This is why segmenting tomorrow’s tourist is becoming increasingly difficult.
If the future is rising incomes and wealth accumulation, distributed in ways that alter the balance of the power to even more centricity, along with an age of richness in new forms of connection and association, it allows a liberated pursuit of personal identity which is fluid. This identity is less restricted by background or geography, and more influenced by achievement. In the fluid environment communications channels and technologies are fast moving and instant, which produces a culture of choice enhancement.
A fluid identity means tourists want to sample a range of new experiences, hence the emergence of bespoke tourism products and experiences such as those offered by Insight Cruises, the Australian Gnome Festival or Joyce James Knitting Tours to Scotland. These types of holidays are bespoke and individualistic with relatively small markets, which Chris Anderson labels the long tail  in his book of the same title, rather than traditional and large volume mass market tourism experiences.
A heightened sense of personal freedom has undoubtedly increased the growth in world tourism, where identity is built on liberal attitudes reinforced through education and knowledge. The exposure of tourists to a multi-cultured society allows greater expression of individuality, whether this is sexual behaviour or unconventional lifestyles.
The degree of liberalism differs around the world. Fundamentally, as economies grow they become more liberal in outlook and seek to push out their identity. As such, they will try new things and visit new places, destinations in the far away places that seemed inaccessible to previous generations.
Globalisation shapes people’s lives and the mix of cultures provides exposure to new ideas and different identities. The tourist is the centre of the globalisation of experiences, where holidays in exotic locations deep inside countries are becoming the norm. No longer is an international holiday confined to a resort, people want authenticity and engagement with local cultures.
Globalisation is brought to us all through social media and a personalised communications world. People can communicate and find out about places 24 hours a day, almost anywhere in the world.
The power of personal mobile technology also opens up new communication channels for tourist providers to engage with future tourists.
Tourists have the power to express opinion, and they do so through TripAdvisor or YouTube for example. Travellers form their opinion not on trusted sources from authority but peer review. Consumer-generated content and the advocacy of local authentic information is very important, as illustrated by the citizens of Philadelphia at uwishunu - Philly from the inside out.
Consumers are excellent at using networking tools to get a better deal or complain about poor service. A fluid identity allows tourists to be frivolous, promiscuous and just plain awkward, and one of the challenges for tourist destinations is how to protect brand equity when it quickly can be destroyed or ridiculed on YouTube or Facebook.
The tourist’s sense of timing and patience is changing – they do not like delayed satisfaction in a society that is just a click away. Patience is now measured in nano-seconds driving an immediacy culture. The tourist has become programmed to want more all the time, in an instant. In Tokyo, 30% of hotel reservations are on the day of arrival as smartphone augmented technology allows tourists to look at a hotel through the smartphone camera, gauge availability, then book accommodation through a related website like Expedia. 
Longevity is a key trend associated with fluid identity. As consumers live longer with wealth they expect richer and more frequent experiences. They visit places and do things that their parents couldn’t afford or would not have even known about. They search for experiences that hold back the wrinkles of old age, whether it is a spa treatment in Hungary or a medical procedure in South Africa. Health and medical tourism become more important, along with any service that rejuvenates the soul or a tired body.
Longevity also changes life courses, so change becomes the norm and is unpredictable. Although tourists may have their favourite place they like refreshment and renewal. This means they ask themselves who they are and a multiplicity of answers suffice. Michael Wilmot  calls this ‘complicated lives’, in which the broad range of holiday and travel choices means that tourists have brought complexity and complications upon themselves, resulting in some anxiety.
The manifestations of a fluid identity are wide-ranging, from overt and status-driven to anonymous and elusive. Yet the common characteristic is that tourists don’t just want to consume, but to experience consumption in several ways, increasing aspirations and higher order expectations .
One noticeable trend shaping a fluid identity is the change from conspicuous consumption to inconspicuous consumption by well-travelled tourists from mature economies. It has become the norm not to parade wealth and success, but to be more conservative, wiser and discreet and to seek out deeper, more meaningful experiences.
Tourists talk about destinations and experiences in terms of cultural capital. The importance of cultural capital defines identity and status, it becomes the critical currency of conversation, for example, ‘have you been to South Africa’, ‘I swam with the dolphins in New Zealand’ or ‘I built a bridge for a community in India’. It is the knowledge and experiences of the arts, culture and hobbies that help define who people are rather than their socio-economic grouping.
Sociologists such as Rifkin  and Bourdieu  argue that consumers are moving from an era of industrial to cultural capitalism. Cultural production is increasingly becoming the dominant form of economic activity and secures access to the many cultural resources and experiences that nurture human psychological existence. This is important in terms of shaping identity as it changes the definition of culture.
People now enjoy both a highbrow opera and a lowbrow comedy. Witness the rise of the creative class and ‘no-brow’ culture associated, for example, with Edinburgh’s festivals, which combine the diversity of cultural capital with a breadth of experiences.
To a certain extent fluid identity is about wealth and a have-it-all society. Tourists can afford holidays several times a year and a multitude of short breaks, they can afford to be concerned about the environment and so don’t mind paying a little bit extra.
In a have-it-all society the desire is for sociality, economic gain, family involvement, leisure and self-improvement. These desires are not defined by stages of life or gender but are reflected in holiday activity, whether it is an extended family holiday at Walt Disney or a cultural short break in Paris.
Although rising wealth means more opportunity, for some, it is also means a fear of loss. Writer such as Frank Furedi  label this as ‘the culture of fear’. Here the consumer turns to therapies and anti depressants as a remedy. From a tourism perspective, tourists seek authenticity, tranquility and health and spa treatments.
The Global Financial Crisis (GFC) plummeted the value of the High Net Worth population by US $32.8 trillion, or 19.5% according to the World Wealth Report  published by Capgemini and Merrill Lynch, so the rich are less rich.
Flatters and Wilmott  argue that in most developed economies before the GFC act of preceding consumer behaviour was, the product of 15 years of uninterrupted prosperity, driven by growth in real levels of disposal incomes, low inflation, stable employment and booming property prices.
As such, new consumer appetites emerged – the consumer could afford to be curious about gadgets and technology, and tourists were happy to pay for enriching and fun experiences on exotic locations. People could afford several holidays a year and rent premium experiences, such as hiring a Ferrari for the weekend in exotic locations like Japan.
The GFC changed that, propelling tourist trends into slowdown, halting or even reversing the trajectory of growth in world tourism. Is this a sample of the future, an era of the pension crisis, scarcity of oil, inflation and falling levels of disposal income in which tourism expenditure falls year-on-year? If so, what will the future tourist look like? Rather than having a fluid identity it will more akin to simplicity.
Some of the factors shaping a simple identity, and how they can impact on tourism, are outlined below.
During an economic slowdown tourists tend to travel less, stay nearer to home (increasing domestic tourism) and seek simplicity. This includes value-based holidays offering basic facilities, meeting locals and lots of free time in exotic locations throughout the world.
Combined with simplicity is thrift where tourists trade down, accepting functional rather than luxury accommodation. The use of technology and social media assists tourists in the search for bargains.
A simple identity also means that advice becomes extremely important, whether it's on websites, or via price comparison technologies found on many online booking services.
Thrift and simplicity also combine to drive the trend of visiting friends and relatives (VFR). As incomes fall, getting back to basics and developing human relationships is very important, and the most important aspects of tourists’ lives are friends and relatives.
Research by the Trajectory Group  highlights that affluent consumers revealed mounting dissatisfaction with excessive consumption and, instead, seek a wholesome and less wasteful life. As such, there is a desire to get back to nature, to experience something that is tranquil, basic, rooted, human and simple . As a consequence, the desire for more authentic and simple luxury experiences accelerates.
Take the phenomena of the ‘staycation’ or the ‘haycation’, where holidaymakers pay to stay and work on farms. Holidaymakers are turning to haycations to experience a world far removed from their daily life. At Stony Creek Farm in Delaware County, USA (part of the Feather Down Farm Days), for example, tourists are charged up to US $300 a night to work on the farm; they pick their own food and cook in the evening in a location with no mobile phone signal.
During times of recession people search for back-to-basics experiences that are simple, with a sense of community and authenticity. About 50% of the tourists to Stony Creek Farm are locals from the same county. This is a typical example of inconspicuous consumption and a desire for a simple identity.
In a simple identity ethical consumption declines. This includes paying a premium for a Starbucks coffee, even if they use organic coffee which supports children in a third world country. From a tourism perspective, many of the ethical tourism projects in third world countries, such as Africa and India, who depend on independent travellers will also suffer.
At the other end of the spectrum, during an economic slowdown there is also a slowdown in extreme experience seeking. It is seen as expensive, frivolous, risky and environmentally destructive. Conspicuous consumption is out of favour and the trend of simplicity and discretionary spend is in.
The GFC has focused consumers’ minds on the boardroom, in particular the executive bonuses of companies such as AIG, Royal Bank of Scotland or General Motors. Excess has become a dirty word and, as such, business travel and the meetings industry has taken a hit too as many people consider this to be excessive and unnecessary expenditure.
People are very good at searching for late bargains and offers which economists call mercurial consumption. Websites such as lastminute.com or www.5pm.co.uk, which offers diners the chance of discounted meals after 5pm that evening, are ideal resources. Technology and social media further accelerate this trend of mercurial consumption.
Tourism is an unpredictable industry, shaped by events, world economy and the socio-political environment. Tourists are fickle and when times are good will spend large amounts of disposal income on tourism. To a certain extent, tourists retrench and focus on lower order basic needs when times are hard so tourism declines.
Given the global financial crisis and the forthcoming demographic and pensions time bomb we could see a year-on-year decline in tourism expenditure. Tourists with a simple identity seek simplicity and thrift and mercurial tourists will hold tourism business and brands accountable.
When tourists do have money they possess a fluid identity of constant change in a fast moving world, in which they are easily bored, seek novelty, desire thrill and something new and enriching.
Tourism has always been about fun, relaxation, entertainment, enrichment and enjoyment. But will it be simple or fluid? Only time will tell.
- Yeoman, I. 2008. Tomorrows Tourists: Scenarios & Trends. Elsevier, Oxford
- Flatters, P & Wilmott, M. 2009. Understanding the Post Recession Consumer. Harvard Business Review. July-August 2009
- Anderson, C. 2008. Long Tail: The Revised and Updated Edition: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More. Hyperion, London
- Hatton, C. 2009. The Future of Technology. Tourism Futures Proceeding. Goldcoast 18th August 2009
- Wilmott, M & Nelson, W. 2005. Complicated Lives: The Malaise of Modernity. Wiley, Chichester
- Furedi, F. 2006. Culture of Fear Revisited: Risk-taking and the Morality of Low Expectation. Continuum, London
- Rifkin, J. 1984. The Age of Access: The New Culture of Hypercapitalism, Where all of Life is a Paid-For Experience. Tarcher, London
- Bourdieu, P & Nice, R.1987. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Harvard Business Press, Boston
- CapGemini & Merrill Lynch. 2009. World Wealth Report.http://www.capgemini.com/resources/thought_leadership/2009_world_wealth_report/
Dr Ian Yeoman is the world’s only futurist specialising in travel and tourism, resident at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. Ian has a PhD in Management Sciences from Edinburgh Napier University and prior to moving to the southern hemisphere was the Scenario Planner at VisitScotland. Ian’s forthcoming books include Demography and Tourism and World Tourism 2050. More further details about Ian’s predictive works, visit www.tomorrowstourist.com