The original idea was to provide visitors with helpful information so they could find something they'd like to do and perhaps even stay a little longer. The concept started as a brochure rack and grew to an enclosed, weatherproof shack, sometimes with an attached bathroom. In the last two decades, we've witnessed the birth of multi-million-dollar architectural masterpieces. They’re nice to look at and certainly welcoming for visitors, but let’s be honest: they are essentially glorified brochure racks with toilets, plus a touch of local museum and gift shop.
Sky Disc Visitors' Center. Photo: Mike Young - Public Domain
Baltimore Visitor Center. Wayne Camlin via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
If we want to be honest about it: Visitor centers are essentially glorified brochure racks with toilets, plus a touch of local museum and gift shop. And in most cases, they contain only a fraction of the information found online.
Norway Visitor Center by Zairon via Flickr (CC BY-SA 3.0)
In that same span, we've also witnessed the birth of the internet, Wi-Fi and smartphones. Which puts more information at the visitors' fingertips than ever: digital guidebooks, newspaper travel sections, online travel magazines with the latest "what to do" lists, dozens (or hundreds) of travel blogs and apps for each city and, if that weren't enough, the destination typically has their own website filled with everything from their tourist office. All a visitor has to do is ask their phone’s voice-activated digital assistant. It works well for most things, especially the hard facts. Try asking Siri when Barcelona’s Picasso Museum opens or what the entry fee is for the Guggenheim Museum. If you want curated lists of “the best stuff,” try online magazines, blogs and apps… there you can even get celebrity recommendations and hip local recommendations – probably more interesting than the places the tourist information staff sends everyone.
WHY ARE PEOPLE USING TOURIST OFFICES?
In the same way that destinations may be building tourist offices and visitor centers out of habit, many visitors (particularly older visitors) may be entering them and browsing brochures out of habit. The tourist offices are often strategically placed where most tourists go. And many like the idea of picking up some free maps and brochures or maybe getting some air conditioning or getting out of the rain or taking a break from the cold or using a toilet. What other pressing things do the tourists have on their agenda that they can't spare 10 minutes to browse?
But if the tourist office weren't there, that doesn't mean they couldn't get those same services. In fact, removing a tourist office may encourage them to interact with locals. And spend more. If there were an attractive cafe with free Wi-Fi, air conditioning and toilets (for customers) where the tourist office currently stands, people would likely browse online while sipping a cappuccino.
Sure there are some people who don't carry smartphones, but those are becoming a very slim minority. And those “analog” visitors are likely to come prepared with a guidebook, newspaper clippings, or the ability to ask their hotel desk for some tips. Certainly, it can't be worth building and maintaining tourist offices at the cost of millions just for them.
Some might argue that visitors like tourist offices. But how much do they like them? Was the tourist office the reason they decided to visit the destination? No. Will visiting the tourist office make it into their top-10 list of things they did during their trip? No.
If the tourist office is not a destination driver, nor a top experience, nor necessary for information ... how important is it? In fact, if we hadn’t invented the tourist office concept before, would we be able to justify creating one today? Try to imagine someone pitching the idea of a tourist office for the first time today. Isn’t it likely someone would say: “So let me get this straight… you want to spend $4 million to build an entire building on prime real estate to give out free dead-tree information when they can find all that stuff online?”
And let's not forget, the visitors are already in your destination. They're already walking around spending money. When they walk into a tourist office, it typically pulls them out of the consumer loop. And if it doesn't -- if the tourist office is busy selling stuff – then maybe it should support itself as a free-market enterprise and not use city/state funds to build and maintain it.
Besides, in an age when we say visitors value more authenticity, there are few things a destination can create that make it feel less like a thriving, soulful city and more like a made-for-tourists destination than a tourist office.
WHAT'S THE SOLUTION?
Maybe it's time to convert the tourists offices and visitors centers into visitor lounges. If you've been out walking in a city for hours, wouldn't you prefer something that more resembles an airport business-class lounge? A place to put your feet up, access a clean toilet and get some decent Wi-Fi? What you don't want is for wealthy seniors to feel they need to return to their hotel room for a rest. Better to provide some comfortable chairs so they can made a pit stop, rest their aching feet, and recharge their shopping and sightseeing batteries.
Transition Idea: Maybe it's time to change the goal to encourage visitors recharge so they can continue walking the city, visiting attractions and shopping. A Visitor Lounge would include things like WiFi, recliners, and clean toilets.
There are other solutions as well. In Guam, they've been putting retired police on Segways and sending them out into tourist areas as information ambassadors. Some places are developing an app that allows visitors to hit a button and be connected to live tourist information via their phone.
We say that the landscape of tourism is shifting. That’s another way of saying that we’ll be embracing some new things and jettisoning others. Tourist offices and visitor centers are part of the analog infrastructure of tourism and their value in the digital age is certainly worth a discussion.
Doug Lansky has been living abroad and travelling for the last nearly 20 years in over 120 countries. He has written books for Lonely Planet and Rough Guides, had a weekly syndicated travel column in over 40 newspapers for five years, hosted a Travel Channel show, served as an editor for Skift and Scandinavian Airlines inflight magazine, and contributed to publications such as National Geographic Traveler, Reader’s Digest, Esquire, Men’s Journal, The Guardian and Huffington Post. On the speaking circuit, Doug has given lectures at dozens of tourism conferences, spoken to a sold-out audience at National Geographic Headquarters, in Bali on behalf of the UNWTO, and he had the honor of delivering a TED Talk just last month in Stockholm, where he lives with his family.