The irrelevance of mass tourism today
The early 18-1900s, the age of industrialization, brought the world closer together with the widespread construction of railroads, the first flights and the first automobile. The burgeoning middle class could soon own their own wheels and take their first trains, travelling to places they never could, once accessible only to the mega rich. The age of mass tourism began in earnest.
Today, more than 200 years later, it is still very much alive, albeit in a different form. Mass tourism today is characterized by the package tour industry – The most efficient form of travel where you see the most places in the shortest time possible. The caveat is that you only get to spend a pre-determined amount of time at each location, bounded by the schedule set by the tour company and other more demanding passengers.
Personally, this is one of my most hated travel methods. You generally get only a very short time at each of the attractions, rushed by the tour guide with ridiculous demands to be back at the bus by 45mins. It sucks the life out of travel, where you’re supposed to enjoy the place and fully take the sights and sounds in as you experience the history, the marvel and beauty of a place. And if you’re late, you get slapped with a shaming act designed to make everyone come back on time for the good of the whole group. While yes, if you willingly signed up for this, you should subject to it like and be treated like a kid, and at times an army recruit. BUT, you don’t have to sign up for this, really. And while they rush you at the attractions, they indulge at the shopping destinations. Haven’t we all wondered why we needed to rush so badly at the amazing palace, but yet take all the time in the world at this ginseng wholesale centre? The angry ‘ WHY ARE YOU LATE’ face from the tour guide quickly changes into a ‘Don’t worry, take your time’ angelic face complete with smiles from ear to ear. There is absolutely little value in these mass tours, unless that’s exactly what you’re looking for.
Not only that, these type of travel is heavily monopolized by the tour companies, motivated by commissions instead of experience, supports and encourage the culture of irresponsible mass consumption and builds the barrier of a continued inequality in tourism.
Change, is however, inevitable. The same way agoda and booking.com destroyed the tour companies’ monopolistic grip on the hotels, new startups will destroy their grip on the last frontier, the tours and activities market. Technology, coupled with an increasing sophistication of travelers and the desire for customized, unique, flexible experiences tailoring to their every need and want will give rise to this new group of platforms. Just like when cars had only one colour, nobody thought it could be any other colour, but now that we have so many colours, people wonder how could anyone have lived with just one.
Choices and options not only increase customer satisfaction, but captures the long tail of niche tastes and likes which were once cut out by the need for economies of scale for everyone to do the same thing. This is not relevant anymore with technology being able to fully match each individual travelers’ tastes to the independent provider without the need for a middleman to aggregate, consolidate and extract value from providing the economies of scale.
I believe here the new class of startups riding this wave will be able to wrest control from the tour packages like how the hotel booking sites did. (Disclosure: I am the founder of one of such websites: Backstreet Academy Which is already happening, but it has not yet reached the tipping point yet. The largest activity booking site by far is still Viator which got acquired by Tripadvisor and probably the next biggest among a few other being getyourguide. Once these guys grow big enough, then will come a platform that not only makes booking commercialized tours easy but also peer to peer travel, an Airbnb for activities. A ton of such sites exist, including us, and while we may not come to be the successful ones, what’s inevitable is that there will be a market leader emerging in the next few years.
We look forward to that day where it will be so easy to book the best experiences of every city all from one site. And not just the commercialized ones, but also the individualized peer to peer experiences that is often the accidental highlight of many travelers’ diaries.