Destinations, take heed: your locals have plenty to say about the place they live. As word-of-mouth recommendations move online and stories travel from the ground up, residents hold the greatest power to shape perceptions that affect tourism. This is especially true in times of crisis, when tourism businesses suffer due to global factors beyond a destination’s control.
An island destination responds to a crisis on two fronts
A recent article from The Guardian, “Life on Lesbos: residents tell us what it’s really like,” revealed stories from residents who face the dual challenges of a humanitarian crisis and an ailing economy.
The island of Lesvos (to use the Greek spelling) is the third-largest Greek island – about the size of Oahu. A charming destination in the Aegean Sea, it offers unique experiences to travellers as a paradise for bird watchers and a delight for history buffs and artists. However, Lesvos has recently been on the front lines of the current global crisis of displaced people, having even been dubbed “ground zero for Europe’s migrant crisis.” The island provided refuge for hundreds of thousands of people who came across the sea from Turkey in 2015 and local efforts at hospitality earned one resident a nomination for the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize.
Today, the residents of Lesvos are working to overcome problems facing their tourism businesses. Operators are concerned by the lack of bookings for the coming summer, typically the high season for the hotels and resorts in the town of Molyvos and elsewhere. Some locals attribute this to the consistent negative image Lesvos has received from the press over the past year and the lack of awareness about the current, much less chaotic conditions.
Locals tell authentic stories about the destinations they live in
Gabriela Vati, one of the locals profiled in The Guardian’s article, volunteers as Secretary of the board and a founding member of the Molyvos Tourism Association. In a follow-up interview, she described the effects of the crisis on one Molyvos hotel: “Now that everything is clean and nobody is coming – no boats, no nothing – they have a 90% decrease in tourism. So they are not hiring anybody.”
This is having an impact on surrounding communities, she says. “Villages that have residents that work in hotels here […] half of the residents are going to be jobless.” This indicates an urgent need to attract travellers back to the island.
Lacking meaningful, coordinated support from larger organizations, Vati and her fellow tourism operators are taking to social media to share positive messages about Lesvos. Using the hashtags #BeautifuLesvos and #truelesvos, they hope to overturn negative perceptions of the island by sharing facts and images that show the island is safe, beautiful and ready for visitors. This idea came from Anne Kennedy, a visiting volunteer who, while providing humanitarian assistance, also recognized the need to sustain tourism in support of the residents.
The campaign has also enabled previous visitors to share their experiences and express support for Lesvos through social media, as many Facebook shares and comments indicate. The results remain to be seen, but plans are underway to further coordinate island operators in the effort to show the value of a Lesvos vacation this season, including an expanded social media presence and installing live webcams that show current conditions.
One factor in Lesvos’ favor is that the locals are known for their long history of hospitality. Vati says, “We will always give a hand to people that need it. We’ve always done it from the first time that refugees came in front of our doors. We will always help each other and we will always try to be happy because this is what we are – we are very happy people and optimistic.”
The identity of generous hospitality promises to infuse the visitor experience on Lesvos. Through the #BeautifuLesvos campaign, Vati and other business owners hope that visitors will see the value of their hospitality and many of the island’s other unique attributes.
Engaging with the locals is a win-win for destinations
What can your destination marketing organization (DMO) learn from this? Residents and local operators are telling authentic stories with or without your involvement. Using modern technology, locals have the greatest power to shape both the destination’s visitor experience and the perceptions of the place they live. DMOs can seize the opportunity to listen to and support their residents’ stories to help promote an authentic tourism experience.