The Deal Mommy

The Tourism Life Cycle: Why it Matters (and Finding Your Sweet Spot)

tourism life cycle

I just saw a conversation on Twitter that reminded me of an important concept I haven’t seen discussed lately: the Tourism Life Cycle. Knowing the tourism life cycle and understanding where I thrive has helped me countless times in planning where to go and how to get there.

Put briefly: The Tourism Life Cycle is a handy tool in understanding how developed a destination is in relation to its neighbors. It defines 4 stages:

  1. Exploration: Few tourists, rudimentary infrastructure, pristine environment. Think straw huts, local transport, very low cost.
  2. Involvement and (basic) Development: Independent hotels and B&B’s start to thrive and backpackers may begin to discover the destination. As the destination evolves from stage 2 an airport/train station may be built with tourists in mind. The destination may develop chatter as “the next big thing”.
  3. Development into Consolidation: The chain hotels arrive. Regular media coverage. Beginning to see issues such as crime, pollution, zoning and development become more discussed as the area grows in popularity.
  4. Stagnation and Decline: Pollution, crime, and rampant development have taken their toll. Package tours are the main source of tourism as the independent travelers have mostly moved on.

If a destination in late stage 3 or 4 works to rehab, you can hope they come out the other side to rejuvenate, but to be honest few do.  I was fortunate enough to take a class on Tourism online while living in Bangkok and did my final project visiting 4 levels of Thai beach resorts. This was in 2000, but at the time I saw:

  1. Level 1: Ko Samet. Stayed in a hut for $6/night. Electricity was through a generator and only operated the fridges during the day and the lights at night. Now I hear from friends Samet is more a solid 2.
  2. Level 2: Ko Samui: Independent hotels besides one luxury chain way up on the hill. Small town atmosphere, occasional traffic lights. Now Samui seems a solid 3.
  3. Level 3: Phuket: Chain hotels everywhere. Some package tourists. McDonalds. Still lovely beaches, though, just more crowded. (I think Phuket is still a 3, partly because much of it was destroyed in the Tsunami of 2004.)
  4. Level 4: Pattaya: Known for sex tourism. Polluted beaches. Generally “skeevy” feel if you leave the major hotels. (I think Pattaya is still a 4).

Finding your sweet spot:

Figuring out where you best enjoy traveling will help you when picking a destination.  Most miles and points enthusiasts self select out of Level 1 and much of Level 2, and that’s too bad. While living without aircon in Thailand isn’t an experience I’d repeat, I’ve never seen a beach like Samet and my week there is still a highlight.

My personal sweet spot is around 2.5: enough infrastructure for medical facilities and decent roads, but not so much that I forget I’ve left the states.  Antigua, Guatemala is a good example of what I’d consider a 2.5.  No real chain hotels, but it’s a study abroad destination so there’s top notch medical and it’s well protected by the local authorities. There’s also a McDonalds, but the entire town is a UNESCO world heritage site so development is severely limited.

However with the kids I notice myself booking more and more “3” trips, just because it’s easier! (Not many are going to admit they want stage 4, but some self select there without realizing by sticking to package deals and not doing their research).

What’s your sweet spot? Can you give a sample destination? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

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2 thoughts on “The Tourism Life Cycle: Why it Matters (and Finding Your Sweet Spot)

  1. icicle

    I’ve never been there, but in my head: Venice, Italy is #4.
    I hope I’m wrong. Someone please tell me I’m wrong- and mean it, because some day before it disappears into water….I want to see the art and architecture in person.

    I like a combination of #2/#3. (That is weird as I write it: feel like I’m ordering food off a menu.)

    Except certain #3s: Paris, NYC, Prague, D.C, Montreal. There’s something classical about those cities that just doesn’t disappear easily. Which is a great thing.

    A sweet spot to share? Well there’s protected land against developpment so…

    It’s not a secret. There’s not enough chain hotels to make it a super destination, but during one week of every year (The Pony Swim) it is definitely a tourist destination: Chinoteague.

    Go during a different time of the year, and you’ll get both a modern yet somewhat isolated place. Plus, the beach is really that awesome.

    It’s actually not an easy U.S. destination to get too, either- I think most people just stay in D.C. never make it past Norfolk, or get so involved in Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay (sp?), that they just never make it to Chinoteague.

    It’s a place one has to commit too (not an easy lunch stopover) but it is worth it (at least I think so).

    1. thedealmommy Post author

      Great list! I’ve been to the Maryland side, but never to the actual pony migration.

      And I agree, both about Venice (tho I haven’t been either). Rome to me was 3.5…worth it but definitely challenging in high season. Matera was more my speed, as was Naples.

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