Tourism and Travel Trends Column

Here’s my column that appeared today in the Yakima Herald Republic:

In late May, I attended the U.S. Travel Association’s International Pow Wow in San Francisco. It’s one of the largest international travel trade shows, with nearly 3,000 people from around the world conducting business, selling travel products and promoting destinations. It’s also a great event to get the pulse on current and future tourism-related trends.

Many things can affect the tourism industry, from unstable governments to natural and man-made disasters, but there are general trends that are shaping the future of tourism and travel. The good news is that inbound international visits are on the rebound. Last year, the United States hosted a record 60 million international visitors, generating more than $134 billion in receipts. The Department of Commerce is projecting that the U.S. will see average growth of 5 percent to 7 percent in international tourism over the next five years.

While countries like Canada, Germany, the United Kingdom and Japan will remain top countries of origins, inbound visitors from China, Brazil, India and Australia will grow. This is good for the country as well as Washington state, as international visitors spend an average of $4,000 on their vacations here.

It goes without saying that technology has already changed the travel industry, from computerized reservations to how we make travel plans via the Internet. The current wave influencing travel decisions is social media — Facebook and Twitter, plus public review and user controlled websites like TripAdvisor, WikiTravel and Yelp. Surprisingly, research shows that simple e-mail continues to be a powerful means that people use to discuss favorite destinations and activities. Word-of-mouth has always been paramount in helping people decide where to go and what to see. Now, it’s just gone online.

From a business perspective, this trend is important on two fronts. First, quality products and exceptional service will generate positive cyber-word-of-mouth and could result in more business. Second, business owners need to utilize and embrace these resources to monitor what is being said and to actively interact with consumers. In social media, if you snooze, you’ll lose.

Another trend is that Americans are traveling. Because of the economy and media outlets, there’s been a misconception that people are doing nothing more than “staycations” (a hackneyed phrase that I think was coined by a bored reporter).

The fact is that while many Americans changed their travel due to economic conditions, there is a pent-up desire to travel. That statement is supported by a recent USA TODAY/Gallup Poll that found more than six in 10 Americans say it’s important to get away from home this year — with many finding ways around higher gas prices, airfares and hotel rooms. The survey found that 71 percent of those who tend to travel expect to spend more on travel costs, while 44 percent plan to pay more for food, lodging and entertainment. Europe may be off the list, but places within a day or two drive may be more of the norm, which is good for the Yakima Valley as we are within a day’s drive for more than 5 million people in Oregon, Washington and British Columbia. And if it’s a wet summer “over there,” count on the sun seekers to come in numbers.

The next generation traveler is also an interesting factor in the future of tourism. Right now, baby boomers are a solid market with more than 75 million in their ranks. But coming up are the next generations like Generation X (born in the mid-1960s to 1980) and Millennials (those born in the 1980s and 1990s). Their travel interests and demands vary greatly from boomers. They are far more technologically in tune, often plan at the last minute, are less likely to be brand loyal, seek culturally authentic experiences and rely on their friends and networks for ideas of places to go and things to do.

John Cooper

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