As locals represent the face of a destination, understanding the sentiments of the resident community can provide invaluable guidance to destinations in structuring their tourism developments. Olivier Henry-Biabaud, CEO of TCI Research tells TTG Asia’s Karen Yue why and how
TCI Research has pioneered the Resident Sentiment Index model. What is it and what does it do?
The Resident Sentiment Index model is a survey that has been created to help destinations gauge and benchmark the level of tourism support they have in their community. It is very concrete and turn-key, with 40 key sentiment indicators which are related to the residents’ perception of tourism impact and the level of tourism engagement. It also tracks points of vigilance for tourism promoters to address.
It has been successfully developed in Europe over the past four years, and has now expanded to the US and Asia.
The survey is standard, but there is room for specific destinations to apply particular context. For example, some destinations using the survey are very cruise-dependent or event-driven, so we will have a specific set of questions for them.
Today, we have a specific set of questions to take in the Covid-19 context.
Why is a regular study on host community sentiment important?
Residents are the faces of destinations. We know from our surveys that the local population attitude is the number one factor shaping visitor experience and satisfaction. We know that the local attitude can impact visitor experience and satisfaction even more than the quality of accommodation or attraction.
Local attitude today has the power to activate a positive story for a destination. Today, there is a uniformity of tourism products across destinations – the same shopping brands, the same hotel brands, and even the same type of attractions. So, for destinations to differentiate, they will need to rely on local attitudes.
Furthermore, destinations can create unique experiences with supportive locals, as well as enhance and secure a safe sense of place – something that visitors are now prioritising.
From our work in tracking hundreds of destinations and looking into their competitiveness based on visitor experience, we find clear evidence that destinations cannot be competitive and appealing if they lack local community support.
Another great benefit of having strong local support along with other key factors, including safety and cleanliness, is that destinations can justify the high prices they demand from visitors.
What are the risks of rising disenchantment towards tourism?
There is the risk of local community pushing back against tourism, which affects visitor experience in a bad way and creates a negative reputation for the country.
We know that people tend to choose a destination based not just on the selection of tourism products, but also the environment and context of visiting. If the destination is constantly in the news for protests against tourists or rejecting tourism, there is a lower chance of it being selected by travellers compared to a destination that is seen as always being welcoming.
Would a contented host community mean the absence of overtourism or overtourism potential? Should destinations still work to ensure balanced tourism development even when their residents are happy about the state of development?
Yes! This is interesting. Some destinations have said to us that there is no need to capture resident sentiment because they feel that their people are happy or have never heard anything negative.
It may be true that nothing is wrong when residents are not complaining. However, taking care of resident sentiment is important and should be a permanent concern because when problems happen, it is often way too late to remedy.
The other thing is, the vast majority of your community may be happy with tourism but we know from experience, particularly in Europe, that a vocal and angry minority of just 10 percent can generate a lot of problems and plenty of negative media exposure as well as a bad experience for visitors.
That is why we have also created a predictive indicator in this Resident Sentiment Index model. Destinations should monitor at least once a year, and make sure the level of tourism-phobia is kept below 10 percent on average. Once a destination sees double-digit tourism-phobia, there is potential anti-tourism activism and protests.
Destinations can improve visitor satisfaction easily through products – develop something new, encourage better quality among their stakeholders, train staff on customer service, and so on. But once they get a growing minority of angry residents who lash out and get negative media coverage, bad reputation can be hard, long and pricey to fix.
What was the tourism-phobia level pre-pandemic?
We have good data set in Europe where we first started the Resident Sentiment Index model, as well as in the US. On average, there was a five percent tourism-phobia level – a safe level – in Europe pre-pandemic; in the US, it was three percent.
The problem we saw there was that the numbers were just an average. The dispersion of tourism-phobia across European cities ranged from one percent to 25 percent. It was a low one percent in cities like Lisbon and Prague, and above 20 percent in cities like Barcelona.
Our other concern was that the tourism-phobia level could also range widely across different parts of a city and across the year. For example, a city with a popular ski resort might get a safe average level all year round, but that level would spike to 20 percent during peak season and in a particular district that received a lot of tourist traffic.
It is interesting to note that a tourism-phobia level is not correlated to tourism pressure. Popular cities like Rome and Paris get a relatively low and safe tourism-phobia score.
The profile of tourism-phobiacs is rather interesting, in that their fear of tourism development wasn’t driven by personal experience of overtourism. Why do you think they have felt this way?
Tourism-phobiacs are defined as people who do not want to see tourism in their city. The roots of tourism-phobia can be very diverse. Sometimes it stems from very tangible problems in their everyday life, such as traffic jams, overcrowding, environmental degradation and encounters with disrespectful visitors.
Others may complain because they have seen tourism increasing housing prices or depleting livable spaces in the city centre in favour of tourism developments. There are some places in the world where we see residents believing that tourists are spreading the Covid-19 virus.
There are some signals in the survey of residents wanting their government to put a cap on arriving visitors to better control potential contamination.
We have also seen tourism-phobiacs using tourism as a weapon for pushing their political agenda. Now, there’s a risk of having just one or two percent of residents who have nothing against tourism but see an opportunity to go against local authorities.
Fortunately, we have seen in most cities a strong overall support for tourism.
It remains important for destination authorities to understand the roots of tourism-phobia, and address them early. In most cases, problems can be easily resolved, such as by rearranging traffic in the city centre, directing more tourist taxes to public cleaning and maintenance, or communicating to visitors on the right way to behave and to respect the locals, which will also show residents that the authorities are taking care of them while pushing for tourism business.
Seeing how tourism-phobia levels could fluctuate so wildly throughout the year, should destinations therefore do more than just one annual measurement?
Absolutely. Destinations can track it through the year, and we can bring in a complementary methodology that listens in on social conversations across various channels. That allows us to detect emerging conversations by citizens or local media about growing problems in tourism in their district.
In the survey, we will also ask direct questions to determine if tourism is only generating problems during a specific time of the year or in specific districts. This will produce a better measure for destinations.
There has been media content and social channel discussions on the good of zero tourism during the lockdown – thriving nature, clear skies, and all. Did these have a significant impact on host community sentiments?
I think there is some impact. The pandemic is casting a bright spotlight on pre-existing sentiments that are now reinforced.
During the lockdown, people have seen their surroundings becoming quieter and less polluted, native animals coming back or coming out, and so on. These observations have strengthened the pre-existing belief that tourism has a direct impact on nature and the environment.
Our studies now show very clearly (that respondents perceive) that the main at-risk impact of tourism is the environment.
In Asia, the net sentiment score for impact of tourism is very high and positive for factors like the economy (51 percent), cultural activities and leisure on offer (50 percent), infrastructure development (49 percent), and the atmosphere and entertainment in town (43 percent). However, right at the bottom of the list sits cleanliness of public spaces (30 percent) and protection of the environment and natural sites (20 percent).
It is important to understand that these impacts existed before the pandemic. The pandemic has not created new negative or positive sentiments, rather it has changed the ranking of these sentiments.
So, as tourism is restarting now, people will be more sensitive to the environmental factor than before.
Despite negative discussions on social media on the tourism industry’s continued push even during the pandemic, your study has yielded largely positive sentiments. Why do you think this has happened?
Perhaps, at the beginning, people have forgotten the good of tourism when tourism was thriving. When they saw the problems created by the absence of tourism – the loss of jobs and empty shops, for instance – they realised that they are missing something.
While people have been happy to enjoy less polluted skies, silent surroundings and improved nature conditions, many are also sad to see the destruction of local businesses and so many jobs. For many residents, knowing that people travel from afar to visit their home is a sense of pride.
The lockdown has highlighted both the positive and negative impact of tourism.
Few may have realised that balanced tourism has benefits. If you speak to residents, few would understand the meaning and concept of sustainable tourism. But they now see, through the lockdown, concrete examples of what it means to not have tourism. Today, the public is more aware of the ills of overtourism, and also that there needs to be some visitors.
What other surprising findings did you get from your latest community sentiments study on Asia?
I was delighted to hear that across the six iconic Asian cities we surveyed (Seoul, Sydney, Shanghai, Bangkok, Tokyo and Singapore), overall sentiment is very supportive of tourism. Most are ready to welcome visitors again and are very proud to see tourists return.
There is a good contrast between the growing discrimination against certain tourists that emerged from our social listening and the actual findings from our survey; at least 70 to 80 percent are still very much in favour of tourists coming back. We had expected more negativity.
Another good surprise is the very supportive attitude from young Asians. If this generation is able to see the good of tourism, and want to be part of tourism planning and development, then it is promising for the future of tourism. It also means that when tourism recovers and more talents are needed, the industry can pick from a pool of passionate youths.
Editor’s note: TCI Research’s Asian study, Mapping the new post-Covid-19 residents’ sentiment towards tourism, can be accessed here: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1PJFeA9O4LhRgxFUEg38PbBEkbNDEZA5Y/view
You mentioned earlier on that some tourism-phobiacs regard visitors as virus carriers. Will ongoing government messaging around Covid-19 prevention as well as health and safety protocols applied to hospitality facilities help to reassure these residents?
Absolutely. The issue of safety is the number one concern for residents and visitors. The better destinations communicate to tourists their health and safety protocols, the greater support they will likely get from their residents.
But destinations have to do more than just communicating it. We have seen some destinations that are restarting and having problems enforcing the protocols. It is not so much due to the lack of professional staff to enforce the practices, but more due to guests learning how to interact correctly with tourism staff and residents.
It is easy to put in place protocols in hotels, attractions and restaurants, but not on the streets or non-touristic places.
Editor’s note: More information on impacts of health & hygiene on a destinations competitiveness can be accessed here: https://crc.pata.org/health-hygiene-post-covid-19-destination-competitiveness/
Can you give some examples of cities that have done well in getting their residents on the side of tourism development?
There are good resident inclusivity initiatives in Asia but because Europe has had problems before, there are stronger examples from that part of the world.
Flanders, a small region in Belgium, has invented the concept of ‘flourishing destination’, where everything done for tourism development must have a positive impact on the visitor experience, the residents’ quality of life, and the local business ecosystem which will in turn attract new investments to grow the city.
Copenhagen has developed the concept of localhood, which regards visitors as temporary residents. Every tourism development is measured against a set of KPIs that consider the satisfaction of both visitors and residents, and tourism experiences are co-created with residents. They rely on residents to spot shops or experiences that visitors could patronise.
In Lisbon, in order to not be the same as other popular European cities, the DMO has worked with the local population to create a label for specific shops or attractions that reflect the roots of the city and tell the real story of the destination.
New York is putting its residents at the heart of their current tourism rebound campaign (All In NYC), using New Yorkers as the face of the destination rebound. It is very smart because the city has seen very bad publicity from being portrayed as the epicenter of the Covid-19 pandemic today; this strategy to get locals to support the tourism rebuild will protect the destination’s brand equity in the long-term.