Why you need to stop selling tourism products (and start telling better travel stories)

Why you need to stop selling tourism products (and start telling better travel stories)
romania storytelling responsible tourism
Travelling by cart through Transylvania, a land rich in stories to excite visitors

A post this week on Hotel and Resort Insider declared that two of the three travel trends for 2014 were ‘The Green Revolution’ and ‘Travellers Today Aspire for a Meaningful Holiday’. (The third trend I will talk about in the final paragraph).

How then, can businesses  marketing responsible tourism respond? First, they need to understand why these trends are happening.

At its worst tourism is homogenous and destructive. It is disconnected from the places and communities around it. It lays waste to environments. Provides people with poorly paid, uninspiring jobs. I can go on holiday to Thailand and have the same experience as I would in the Cayman Islands, never leaving the resort, never discovering anything, never meeting anyone.

This is why for most typical tourists, the best part of the holiday take place before they actually go. When they are full of anticipation. When they have begun to escape a little from their work mindset, and dream of where they might end up, of what might happen. They are writing stories in their heads, fantasising, imagining the memories that they shall create, the adventures they will have.

And then comes the reality, and the bland, boring food, the disinterested staff, the same whitewashed walls. The story they were sold is too often an irresponsible and disappointing lie. No wonder they are looking for something with more meaning.

Meanwhile, the best people I know working in responsible tourism offer the opposite to this paltry packaged deal. They offer experiences for travellers that exceed the dreams and expectations they had at home. They connect visitors to local people who are engaged in the tourism narratives being created, because they see themselves not as bit part actors but significant players. Their stories play out in locations that are truly remarkable and that are unique and specific to the tale being told. And they ensure guests enjoy experiences and encounters that they will remember and retell for the rest of their lives. Not those ersatz after-dinner dances by a few jaded performers trotting out some quasi-cultural routine that no one who lives in the place would ever take any time to experience. But authentic, privileged, unforgettable encounters with whatever it is that makes life distinct around the world.

So why aren’t all these trendsetters rushing to buy our meaningful trips? What is the disconnect? I would argue that one major reason is that too many people are still selling holidays as products, when the travellers are looking for stories.

The key to tourism storytelling – it isn’t a product

ger to ger responsible travel through Mongolia
Visiting Mongolian nomads provided some of the most memorable encounters of my life

Products have parts and functions. The key factors when selling them are volume and price.

A story has a beginning. An end. Characters. Events. Locations. Drama. It has Meaning. And it is bought and sold in a very different way. When you go to the cinema to watch a story played out on the big screen, does the way the film stock was produced, or the chemicals used in cleaning the seats, or whether the camera crew were fairly recompensed play any part in how the film is marketed, or in your decision about what to see?

But when it comes to marketing responsible tourism, this in large part is what we do. We shout about our unique features: It’s Fair Trade. Organic. Locally Sourced. We have a towel reuse scheme. We use no child labour. No animals were hurt in the making of this holiday. All good, vitally important things that people should do as a matter of course. But how do they impact upon the quality of the experience that people are seeking to enjoy? How do they make the memories more meaningful?

The answer is to present them not as features of our products, but components of our tourism storytelling. The wonderful characters you’ll meet. The incredible locations we visit (and yes, protect and conserve). The amazing adventures and experiences (authentic, fairly traded ones) that travellers who join our stories will have. Because we don’t just have the best features – we actually have the most meaningful stories. And these, as the Hotel and Resort Insider report makes clear, are what people are trying to find.

The third trend – mobile

As I said at the beginning, there are three trends. The third is ‘Cellular Technology’, which the article says is ‘The primary and the foremost factor influencing travel.’ Now you might say this is not a responsible tourism issue. Maybe not when you treat travel as a product; but if you see it as a story…

Tourists are now a network of mobile authors travelling in search of good stories. They come armed with camera phones, updating their blogs and profiles in real time from the free wifi in their hotel room. When they do this they are not just satisfying their own creative urges, they are working as your marketeers and ambassadors, sharing your stories with the people that trust their advice on where to go on holiday the most – their friends.

We have the green, meaningful stories they are all looking for. All we need to do is provide them with the characters, plots, and locations, and they will share our stories with their world.

The Secret of Good Tourism Communications (or Why I Hate Towel Reuse Schemes)

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Jeremy Smith is a writer, speaker and sustainable tourism consultant. He is co-founder of Tourism Declares a Climate Emergency, an initiative that supports tourism organisations in declaring a climate emergency and working together to reduce their carbon emissions in line with the Science Based Targets. He is the author of Transforming Travel - realising the potential of sustainable tourism (2018), and co-founder of Travindy.com, the travel industry sustainable tourism website news site. He consults widely on sustainable tourism strategy and communication, with recent clients including Bruges Ommeland, GSTC, English National Parks, Tripadvisor, the Travel Foundation, and the European Travel Commission. He is a member of Travalyst’s Independent Advisory Board and was a member of Rotterdam’s International Advisory Board in 2019, helping develop a new vision for the city’s tourism.


  1. Excellent post Jeremy – thanks for the contribution. As far as I know, the word “product” came into fashion not long after the arrival of mass transportation and emerged about the time time as “packaged holiday/vacation” (please correct me readers if my history is faulty). Both expressed the belief that tourism development should be based on an industrial model of production and consumption. That model was efficient and effective in terms of growth but, over time, seems to deliver less and less in terms of value as experienced in emotional, psychological, even spiritual terms for the guest and net return for the host.

    All travel is about stories. You’re right journeys and stories each have a beginning, middle and end and both travel and journeys have the power to connect people and places emotionally, psychologically and spiritually – in short, inspire and transform.

    Your last paragraph is particularly important in terms of the potential for hosts’ to inspire and subtly educate guests. Often it is the human story of struggle & overcoming obstacles and resistance that proves more infectious than the brags and assertions.

  2. Yellow says:

    Problem is the best storytellers are compulsive lying, paranoid delusional types. I’ve learnt to avoid people who are good at telling stories, it’s the same skillset used for manipulating people and shows a damaged ego that needs feeding. The stories are exciting and cool, but get caught up in a storytellers world and they’ll take you down with a web of creative lies.

    • Xavier Font says:

      Which proves the power of storytelling- and as every powerful tool, it can be used well or badly. Jeremy, congratulations because you are managing to find a way to cut through all the eco-jargon and talk some sense that allows us to mainstream sustainability

  3. Jeremy, I am thrilled and so happy to learn that I am not alone. Your word come from your deep insights and experience. I have always questioned the concept of ‘products’ in tourism. I have said in my travel network site http://www.traveltocare.in that “the cultural and natural heritages and experiences of destinations are not products to be sold. i have also said that travelers are not ‘clients’ but participants (conscious or unconscious) in a change process. So Jeremy, as long as the stories are told by the traveler himself, it is authentic (unless it is a paid story). I have always wondered whether a traveler can travel freely and make an informed choice about his itinerary without these sellers of products (I call them parasites in tourism) breathing on their neck. Hats off to you Jeremy for this bold and factual post.

  4. Carole says:

    This is a great post; I taught customer service for 13 years and worked a lot on the concept of features and benefits of a product, which is so totally basic but which so few people seem to understand. To highlight features is lazy and business-centered; to identify benefits requires time to focus on the client, and its needs. It amazes me that so many in the service industry still forget that their aim should be to give their clients a fantastic experience.

  5. Meaningful Trips says:

    Great post Jeremy. Its the journey, not the destination… so true. Stories exist everywhere… afar, at home, on adventure, and even in the mundane. As important as telling ‘your’ story is, so is the absorbing, honoring, sharing and connecting to the ‘others’ story.

  6. Ahmet Guler says:

    Great article about what travelling needs to be all about. As a tour operator organizing boat holidays in Turkey region I just can’t understand why people are encouraged to cage themselves in the all inclusive 5 star hotels and not explore the rich history and gorgeous natural wonders of this amazing country. And unfortunately in the process of building those hotels you lose the natural beauty more every year. The tourist boards and governments need to approach tourism from a different angle. It’s not just a money making apparatus. It’s more than that.

  7. I’m delighted that someone has the guts to point out that the emperor is not wearing anything! There is no reason why storytellers should be liars. More people need to ‘engage’ with locals when they are abroad, but ‘all – inclusive resorts’ and global-brand hotels are distancing these two groups.

    Great post.

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