More at home than the locals.

How is the democratisation of information affecting tourism?

I’ve only been to Amsterdam three times, twice before this weekend. Yet while having dinner in a restaurant full of Dutch speakers, without a tourist in sight, I found myself explaining to our waiter the concept behind one of the city’s latest avant-garde dining experiences, where the customer judges the worth of the meal at the end of their evening. This wasn’t meant to be suggestive at all, Flemish cuisine’s come on a long way since my last visit, but I was struck by this bizarre scene where I was more knowledgeable about the city’s cutting edge scene than a young man who had lived in East Amsterdam his entire life.

The following day, whilst walking down Keizersgracht canal, I watched as an alien, foreign looking craft drifted past. Despite being very familiar, it felt misplaced and insensitive to its surroundings: it was a sightseeing boat. As the ogling passengers stared out the windows, I felt an enormous divide between myself and them; both fundamentally tourists, but with radically different approaches.

These two anecdotes highlight the transforming face of tourism in our connected world. The democratisation of information through the internet (or in my instance, niche creative editorials) has enabled the tourist to take control. No longer is the predictable and prescriptive experience of the sightseer the only option open to visitors, as independent voices like that of Tripadvisor ring truer than traditional guidebooks and louder than ever before. Due to these consumer-content led platforms, users are more able to make informed and tailored decisions to best suit their preferences, rather than their status as a ‘tourist’. Thus they are able to bridge the gap between ‘tourist’ and ‘local’, not only giving them more relevant knowledge of their surroundings, but also making them feel more at home. This dynamic and responsive way of learning about and then experiencing different cultures puts the individual first, increasing the likelihood of each visitor having a unique experience. In turn, this encourages interaction with both the locals and the likeminded because those present are brought together by shared interests. Compared to traditional forms of tourism, the latter seems incredibly dated and out of touch with the increasingly culturally aware explorers of the digital era.

There has traditionally been a certain irony related to the activities of tourists: travelling to a new and unknown location, to immerse oneself in foreign culture, and discover how the locals live; all the time surrounded by other tourists. In this respect, the experience has a sense of artificiality to it: the tourists’ perspective of a place goes little beyond that which is presented to them through the rounded frame of a canal boat’s window, looking in on the culture they fail to meaningfully interact with. The experience is orchestrated and controlled. But this new style of tourism is becoming increasingly prevalent; it can already be seen ingrained in certain tourist activity through businesses such as Tripadvisor and Airb&b, services that encourage interaction and engagement beyond the Red Light District. So what does this mean for traditional tourism? In a sector where consumers are increasingly looking for real and genuine experiences, is the very definition of tourism as the ‘operation of holidays’ an indication of the current failings of the industry in being overly staged and prescribed? Perhaps in the future, locals will come to expect to get their local news from tourists.

 

Thomas Holliday

21.10.15