The following article is an edited extract from a Master of Tourism degree dissertation by Marlien Lourens, and is as valid today as it was when first drafted in 2007.
Some observers describe the notion of ‘route development’ as the world’s best hope to secure sustainability in travel and tourism. The concept of tourism routes refers to an “initiative to bring together a variety of activities and attractions under a unified theme and thus stimulate entrepreneurial opportunity through the development of ancillary products and services”. Route tourism is thus a market-driven approach for tourism destination development.
In several parts of the world, the concept of rural trails or heritage routes has been used, particularly in the context of promoting rural tourism. Routes seem to be a particularly good opportunity for the development of less mature areas with high cultural resources that appeal to special interest tourists, who often, not only stay longer but also spend more to pursue their particular interest. Routes appeal to a great variety of users such as overnight visitors that visit the route as part of a special interest holiday, or day visitors that frequent the route (or part of it) on excursions. The essential concept of route tourism is simple, namely that of the linking together a series of tourism attractions in order to promote local tourism by encouraging visitors to travel from one location to another.
The development of tourism routes offers opportunities for the formation of local development partnerships. Some of the best and most successful examples of such ‘rural routes’ are the development of wine or food circuits, which have been widely researched in Europe, North America and Australasia.
In South Africa, considerable activity also surrounds the development of ‘route tourism’, involving a linkage together of the tourism resources of a number of smaller centres and collectively marketing them as a single tourism destination region. For many South African small towns, route tourism is a vital component of local economic development. The development of wine routes as part of the strong and growing interest in special interest, wine tourism represents one of the most well-known examples.
Tourism is an important economic sector in Africa within more than half of Sub-Saharan Africa countries. The possibilities of tourism are of growing interest to governments and donor organisations in respect of poverty alleviation. Indeed it is regarded significant that the South African Government’s Trade and Industry Chamber, through its Fund for Research into Industrial Development, Growth and Equity (FRIDGE) commissioned the development of a strategic plan for routes and community-based tourism in 2005 (ECI Africa, 2006).
In common with the international experience, in South Africa it can be argued that there are considerable research gaps regarding the changing nature of the market for routes tourism, the needs and motivations of visitor markets, awareness of tourism routes and whether visitors rate touring routes as attractions in their own right or as a means to reach an end destination. In addition, best practice on route tourism development and marketing experience from both overseas and South Africa is not being documented or shared among local stakeholders.
Steps to successful route tourism development
At the outset, it must be recognised that most destinations involved in route tourism in South Africa are emerging destinations. It is evident that these destinations need guidelines to assist them through their development phases. The developmental phases of routes have been identified as establishment and positioning, growth and maturity, as graphically portrayed in Figure 5.1. The various phases of development are recognised by specific characteristics. Each phase and its characteristics are described below.
Figure 5.1: Process of Establishing and Positioning of a Route Tourism Destination
When a new route destination is developed, it is usually unrecognised in the marketplace with only a small number of visitors to the area and limited tourism infrastructure. During this phase committed leadership is required to see the potential and develop a vision for the region. The establishment and conceptualisation phase of a route as shown in Figure 5.1 contains nine steps, which could take between one and five years to complete. Precision and inclusiveness are required during the establishment and conceptualization phase to ensure the desired long-term effects.
Firstly, the route must be conceptualised based on solid market research, which identifies key target markets and their requirements. Market research must be conducted on a continuous basis to ensure that the latest tourism trends are included in objectives and strategies for the area. When budgets are tight, it is necessary to align the destination to a local, regional or provincial tourism authority or link to a local university to provide students or volunteers to assist with market research.
Secondly, an audit of tourism products within the designated area must be conducted. This audit may include the natural environment, man-made products and human assets.
Assessments of the existing product must be conducted to ensure that products are keeping up to date with the changing dynamics of the tourism industry. The association must clearly determine a minimum standard (equal or higher than the national grading system) for members and a system for regular re-assessment. Failing to set minimum standards, might jeopardise tourist experiences in the area and cause negative marketing which, in the long run, may result in unsuccessful destinations.
Unique selling features
The third step is to scrutinise the tourism assets and identify the unique selling features or experiences of the area and its products. Unique features are extremely important to distinguish and position the destination in the marketplace. Once the unique selling features have been identified, a macro-level strategic plan must be conducted that combines the market requirements and the tourism assets of the region, providing a consolidated approach towards the future development of the area. It is important that the area consults its local, regional and provincial authorities regarding its strategy and future plans for the area. This will ensure that the envisaged route coincides with the macro planning for the region and potentially could link with broader planning or funding initiatives.
The next step will be to determine the potential size of the possible membership base.
Tourism products with the ability to complement the unique features and main themes of the route must be lobbied to join the organisation from the early stages. If a legal structure is not yet in place, legal advice must be sought on the best structure suitable for any potential management organisation. Once the organisation is formed, specific portfolios for committee members must be developed according to the identified strategic objectives and to ensure nominated members have the willingness and experience to perform within these portfolios.
It is advisable to incorporate mentorship within the committee and sub-committees or task teams for sustainability of skills. Care must be taken not to incorporate products that are not complementary to tourism or the envisioned branding and values of the area for revenue gain. The association should avoid putting dominant members who act for personal or political gain into management positions. It is also important to be inclusive of all stakeholders within the region to ensure that the benefits are shared by all members of the community.
Further, destination managers should encourage product diversification in the area by putting systems in place to incentivise the correct product mix for the area. For example, it is not healthy for an area to have only accommodation establishments. Accordingly, an association in an area with many accommodation establishments should have high joining fees for products falling within this category. Research conducted as part of this study shows the importance of unique attractions in a destination and how these products could be used as draw-cards to induce the use of support services.
After the membership plan is finalised, the association must determine and plan a clear brand identity for the region. The importance of marketing the destination according to its identity, determined by its unique features must be stressed. Marketing in the form of public relations is more affordable and sometimes more effective than hard core marketing, especially in the case of emerging destinations. The misrepresentation of the destination in marketing material can be fatal to the reputation of a destination, it is crucial not to overstate and under-deliver.
When marketing a destination it is important to know which market is targeted and what its key requirements are. As shown in the case studies, it is likely that the largest proportion of the market for a route will be locals from within a region. It is thus essential that proper signage of a route, according to the chosen branding, should be one of the first marketing actions to perform. The signage and branding of the region is important for the development of public awareness and acknowledgement.
The next step must be to determine a clear strategy to direct the work plan and day to day operations of the organisation. This requires an operations plan that ensures good communication between the association and its members as well as the roles and responsibilities of committee members and staff. In this way, the association avoids the danger of fragmentation between committee members and other members.
The planning of finances is crucial for the overall survival of an association. Initially, it is important to allocate resources according to strategic importance. The association and its members must constantly remind themselves to think on a long-term basis especially as most projects start small and can take 20 to 30 years to mature and deliver substantial economic benefits. The association must, therefore, be realistic about its setting goals for itself in the short term. Nonetheless, it is advisable to work towards the appointment of full-time staff for the achievement of faster results.
Once the establishment and conceptualisation phase has been completed, the destinations enter a growth phase. This phase is characterised by increasing visitation levels that attract local investment in tourism and public investment in infrastructure. The destination and market share come into being with the efforts of advertising and marketing. The management focus should be to implement a good product development strategy which could lead to growth in visitor demand. The growth phase is usually extended over a long period of time. It starts in year five of a destination and could last until year twenty from the inception of the route.
From year twenty onwards, destinations usually reach maturity. This phase is characterised by the fact that the main income of the local economy comes from tourism and the visitation levels continue to increase albeit at a decreasing rate. As was demonstrated by the analysis of the Midlands Meander this phase exemplifies extensive efforts in advertising and marketing to overcome the seasonality and to develop new markets. During maturity, the importance of tourism is appreciated fully by the local population.
At this stage, a wide range of markets are attracted and the growth rate is slowing down. Management efforts during maturity should be focused on the maintenance of markets and quality of visitor experiences; especially during peak season when capacity limits are reached. When maturity is reached it may happen that markets start perceiving the route destination as “unfashionable”. At this point, it might be necessary for destination managers to re-evaluate the position of the area and revisit the steps in the establishment phase to prevent the route from falling into stagnation.
Although the focus of the planning guidelines is biased towards private sector-driven development, these guidelines can also be used by public sector planners. The private sector-driven approach has proven to be more practical and successful in the southern African environment. Ultimately the institutional structure for a successful destination demands an effective partnership between the public and private sector organisations responsible for tourism within a particular destination.
Certain functions, such as macro planning, are better suited to be fulfilled by the public sector. Design and implementation of funded programmes to complement macro planning initiatives is a function that should reside within the public sector and is extremely important for the success of destination development initiatives.
Seven steps for successful tourism route development
Step 1: The route must be grounded in solid market research that identifies key target markets and their needs – this must be done on an ongoing basis to be responsive to trends and shifts in markets.
An audit should be done on the tourism products in the area including all natural and cultural assets. It may be valuable to determine criteria to be included as part of the route to ensure consistency of quality in the travel experience.
Step 3: Scrutinise the assets to determine the unique selling features of the area and then develop a macro level strategic plan to consolidate tourism planning for the area.
Step 4: Determine the size of the membership base for suppliers on the route – the buy-in of these members is critical to the success of the route for they are the ultimate delivery agents of the experience. It is important to ensure the product mix is diverse and does not over-represent any of the sectors (i.e. accommodations) as visitors will expect that all aspects of their experience will be available.
Step 5: Members should establish a clear brand identity for the route and then market this according to the targets identified.
Step 6: Members should decide upon what sort of governance and operational structure they need to ensure that the route is maintained.
Step 7: Members should think long term about the finances required to make the route a success in the minds of visitors. The author suggests that many routes start small and can take 20-30 years to mature and deliver substantial economic benefits and therefore realistic goals should be set for return on investment.