Developing Tourism Routes
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 who visit the route as part of a special interest holiday, or day visitors who 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).
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 as shown in Figure 5.1 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 market place 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 conceptualisation phase to ensure the desired longterm 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 into 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, manmade products and human assets.
Assessments of 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 market place. 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 subcommittees 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. Special events can also be used to produce the same effect. About the author: Marlien Lourens wrote the content of this article as part of a dissertation document submitted to the University of the Witwatersrand, School of Geography, Archaeology and Environmental Studies in fulfilment of the requirements for a Masters Degree in Tourism in July 2007.