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Self-guided Tours and Tourism Recovery

This week, Destination Canada released its Revisiting Tourism: Canada’s Visitor Economy One Year into the Global Pandemic. The report paints a bleak picture of the state of tourism for 2021 and beyond. With an anticipated drop of 35% compared with 2019’s $67.9 billion total Canadian tourism demand, the report  portends “the state of the visitor economy is more dire than the impacts following 9/11, the SARS outbreak, and the 2008 economic crisis combined.” 

A crack in the dark, however, is the suggestion that 80% of Canadians are eager to travel again once restrictions are eased and people feel it is safe to do so. Furthermore, the authors argue, if we as Canadians redirected two-thirds of our travel dollars domestically vs internationally, we could reduce the length recovery of the sector by as much as one year. This, in turn, would go a long way to (re)creating jobs and supporting local businesses. 

When I compare this news from Destination Canada with a forum I participated in last week, the potential of self-guided tours to help operators and local communities during and after the pandemic  seems like an obvious choice. 

Arival’s Self-Guided Tours Forum, a two-day, international virtual conference was all about the growing world of mobile self-guided tours or SGTs.  

Many presenters pointed out that, while SGTs were already gaining popularity prior to COVID, 2021 and beyond could see an even greater proliferation as travellers place an increased importance on safety, physical distancing and hygiene.  

In their report, Mobile Self-Guided Tours – 2nd Edition (February 2021), Arival researchers identified multiple benefits of the SGTs, including: 

  • The opportunity to explore solo or in private tour groups – without having to worry about being in close proximity to other travellers. Approximately 50% of travellers choose to not join tours because they do not want the group experience (I get that!), but that doesn’t mean they don’t want help learning more about the local history, culture, best places to eat, etc. (I get that, too!) 
  • Much lower-cost alternatives to exploration – Often, SGTs are free or minimal charge, which, especially now as people continue to be very money conscious, can be very attractive when compared with a $100 guided tour.  
  • Flexibility of scheduling – Self-guided tours allow the traveller to linger at a location longer, pause the tour at their discretion (for an unexpected stop at that incredible café or craft brewery), and start and stop when and where they want (24/7). As the authors point out, “there is no risk of being late…and these tours never sell out.” 

A common question raised at the forum was whether SGTs pose a threat to the traditional guided tour thereby presenting a cannibalization risk for tour operators. Those I heard speak definitely did not think so. As Thomas Dunne, CEO of STQRY said in one of the expert panel discussions, “[Use of SGTs] is not an either/ or option. It’s an and option. A plus option.” According to Dunnne, the technology is affording “endless options” with the opportunity of unlimited content, tying in ticketing and retail choices.  

For the DMO or operator, SGTs can provide an enhanced tour experience by: 

  • providing additional content that the visitor might want but isn’t possible to cover in a guided tour; 
  • allowing for digital souvenirs that travellers can save and share as dynamic and ‘relivable’ memories of their experiences; 
  • integrating ticket sales, vouchers for retail outlets and restaurants; 
  • including additional information in the app about local attractions and amenities that will be of importance and value to the traveller. 

As the Revisiting Tourism Report cogently declares, “Tourism in Canada was first hit, hardest hit and will be last to recover.” Any and all tools and resources that can help mollify this impact should be examined. And as many presenters and participants argued at last week’s forum, digital self-guided tours are one that is worthy of adding to the toolkit.