Whenever I think of the destination life cycle, I’m reminded of a road trip I took to Atlantic City with some friends years ago. We rented a car and headed north, excited about a night of casinos, entertainment, and people-watching. Sadly, the vision in our minds was far more glamorous than the reality of our visit.
To say that it felt like the scene of a zombie movie might be an exaggeration, but only barely. I won’t go into the details because there’s enough news about Atlantic City to show how far they’ve fallen over the years. It does make for a great cautionary tale about the transgression of the destination life cycle and how a great place can fall into decline.
Every city, town, state, country, etc. is on the destination life cycle or Tourism Area Life Cycle (TALC), a concept initially developed by Professor Richard W. Butler, a geographer, and professor of tourism. Knowing where you currently stand can inform the choices you make to progress, maintain, or decline in visitor growth, community support, and business attraction.
The destination life cycle states that most resorts, cities, towns, etc. start on a very small scale and grow over time until stagnation occurs.
Your growth starts when people choose your neck of the woods for something new and different. They’re attracted to your culture, natural beauty or history. There’s no tourism program and very few resources for visitors. You may have a tourism section of your government website or even a small standalone site, but there’s very little budget or staff to promote tourism.
Over time, other people visit and the locals seize the new economic opportunities that these visitors bring. Restaurants and services grow to meet the needs of these visitors.
Of course, you don’t need to wait for people to find you. Developing a strong online presence can speed things up.
You know when you’re in this stage when local people start to notice increasing numbers of new people in the area. Larger businesses in the accommodations, guides, and transport industries start to appear. Tourism becomes a topic in city council and chamber of commerce meetings, and budgets are re-evaluated.
It’s during this time that increasing resources are dedicated to your online presence and social media platforms become more active, taking advantage of user-generated content.
Your growth in hospitality businesses doesn’t go unnoticed. Big companies are now starting to see the potential of the area and start to invest money in the region. They build large hotel complexes and sell package holidays (a package might include travel, accommodation, food, and excursions). The number of visitors swells dramatically, impacting job opportunities for people in the local region, in both tourism and infrastructure.
It’s at this time that economic development begins to follow suit in department growth. An effort is given to strong marketing to attract larger businesses and entrepreneurship. It’s important to avoid common mistakes other municipalities make during this phase of growth.
In the consolidation stage, new problems begin to emerge. The local economy is probably dominated by tourism, and more and more of your workforce is relying on tourism. This creates a void in other professions like construction or infrastructure. Buildings begin to show signs of neglect and older econ0mic functions start to decline.
As more people visit, facilities are now fully utilized. This may cause some resentment with locals that have not benefited from tourism or from the loss of the distinct identity that the destination once had. They feel that the local culture is being washed away by a more cosmopolitan, generic look and feel.
This is the time to strongly consider discussions with your community, working together to bring back the things that made your destination great in the first place. Essentially, you need a brand review.
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At this point, most destinations overlook the advice of reviewing the brand and getting back to what makes your area special. After all, why would they consider it? Revenues are better than ever and resident complaints aren’t immense.
However, the consolidation phase almost always leads to stagnation – the critical fork in the road in the destination life cycle.
Visitors become bored with the destination once its initial appeal has waned. Little of the original natural environment remains, leading people to find somewhere new to discover. The effect of failing tourism leads to economic decline and under-utilization of tourist infrastructure, leading to increasing unemployment.
At this point, you have two options since you can’t stay at this point for long. You have two options: either fall into decline or rejuvenate with strategies that work with lower visitor numbers.
Option A: Decline
The decline of your destination can be slow or rapid, as high-value tourists are replaced by people seeking a cheap vacation or a discount day trip. User-generated content on social media dries up and more complaints about infrastructure or lack of natural beauty become prevalent.
The larger businesses that once saw opportunity notice this decline and consider relocating to greener pastures. Atrophy in the tourism industry and bitterness about the lack of unique culture cause population numbers to drop.
At this point, there’s a lot of work you need to do to bring this type of destination back. If you need a visual of this type of destination, go to Atlantic City (I’m sure flights are competitively priced).
Option B: Rejuvenation
The longer you fall into decline, the harder it is to climb out of it. Your reputation will be hard to repair – even after you’ve done all of the work to bring your destination back to its former glory.
Rejuvenating a community often involves a cash injection from either private investment or the government, but I’ve seen other ways of bringing it back. It starts with a brand strategy that emphasizes the elements that brought people to you in the beginning; the timeless attractions like culture, natural beauty, and the people that truly love to be there.
In many ways, you’re getting back to your roots. It’s a long road back and it’ll feel pretty slow at times (after all, you’ll have far less tourism and economic development budget than you’ve had in recent memory), but determination and effective strategy can get you back on track to your destination’s growth.