As we say goodbye, my Sumbanese guide, Jelin, has one request of me: “Please don’t write about how nice everyone here is,” she says, seriously. “Everyone always writes about how friendly the locals are. Then when tourists meet someone who might not be so nice to them, they get angry.”
Sumba is an Indonesian island about an hour’s flight from Bali, but with a fraction of the tourists. Recently, it has become more well-known as the location of the much-publicised luxury resort, Nihiwatu. People visit the island for its lack of tourists, beautiful beaches, surf breaks, ancient culture, spear-throwing festivals – and, yes, the smiling locals who appear in most descriptions and photographs of Sumba.
Whilst they might be based on some truth, Jelin tells me that the overly positive portrayals of local people can have negative repercussions. As a tourism teacher and guide, she has met many visitors who have come to Sumba in the hopes of finding an untouched paradise full of happy, welcoming people. As a result, she’s witnessed their disappointment if, for example, a villager seems sour when they don’t buy the offered wooden carvings or ikat textiles.
When we travel somewhere having been promised ever-smiling locals, are we then disproportionately frustrated when this isn’t the case? These are unrealistic, romanticised expectations for any place to fulfil. Whilst many cultures around the world might have a natural tendency to warmth and hospitality, the gushing way this is communicated means visitors arrive in a foreign country expecting – perhaps feeling entitled to – a certain type of treatment.
Generalising and pushing stereotypes is a problem in various strands of marketing and travel writing. The answer, I think, is a greater focus on individuals.
Not “all the same”
Dr Rebecca Ogden, in her paper entitled Lonely planet: affect and authenticity in guidebooks of Cuba, claims that English-language guidebooks suggest Cubans will always treat guests as friends, glossing over the fact that many people open their homes out of financial necessity.
Publicising Cuba as a welcoming tourist destination is, of course, economically beneficial for Cubans; but Dr Ogden’s point is that guidebooks offer “a guarantee of finding an emotionally involving, intimate experience at any Cuban guesthouse”. She cites a passage from one major guide which describes casa particulars as being “all the same”.
Avoiding overgeneralised descriptions that lump all locals together encourages travellers to explore and get to know communities for themselves. Crucially, in the absence of preconceived notions, they’re also likely to be more open-minded about the people they meet.
It’s important to distinguish between marketing and journalism, whilst also noting that both professions have a responsibility to portray people in an honest way that won’t have a negative backlash in reality. In this sense, there are some things marketers can learn from journalists.
Creating fantasy illusions that speak of local people as though they are a faceless community will never be a problem in genuinely good journalism, says travel journalist Sophy Roberts. “This is the difference between marketing and journalism,” she says, conceding that there is an increasingly blurred line between the two. Of how she writes about people and cultures as a reporter, Roberts tells me: “I try to find people with stories that tell a tale far larger than themselves.”
The best marketers adopt a similar approach, revealing glimpses of the real lives of people who make up a community. For example, in 2013 Visit Philadelphia ran an Instagram campaign to showcase the city’s neighbourhoods. For a few days at a time, they handed their account over to residents, who posted snippets of daily life in their neighbourhood. Followers were able to see these areas through individuals’ eyes, rather than from the point of view of the tourism board.
Campaigns about real people
As the success of Humans of New York, a photoblog and book of street portraits and interviews collected on the streets of New York City, has proven, society has a thirst for authentic, personal stories. The Swedish Tourist Association (STA) capitalised on this with their fun, people-focused 2016 campaign, ‘Phone a Random Swede’, which celebrated the 250-year anniversary of the abolishment of censorship. “Call today and get connected to a random Swede, anywhere in Sweden, and talk about anything you want,” said the website. The campaign resulted in 197,678 phone calls lasting an average of two minutes 40 seconds from 190 countries, including the USA, China and Australia – not bad exposure for Sweden as a desirable travel destination.
The Radisson Red hotel brand, which targets millennials, profiles individual artists, DJs and other creatives on its blog, showcasing various niche scenes in the cities where their hotels are based. Generally, though, hotels are not as adept at weaving local characters into their campaigns as tourism boards – a huge oversight, considering that interacting with and understanding local people is, increasingly, a big factor in inspiring people to travel.
Travel marketers who take a sensitive, considered and perhaps more journalistic approach to portraying their local community will stand out of the pack at a time when tourists are increasingly curious about getting under the skin of a destination. After all, humankind is made up of individuals with qualities and flaws, and this needs to be better reflected in the way we show, write and talk about communities. Honest and authentic communication will, in the end, result in a more agreeable travel experience for everyone involved.
[This article was published in Beyond: Human, LE Miami’s print magazine, in June 2018.]