.
T

he COVID-19 pandemic has severely affected the global tourism industry. While the short-term effects are frequently covered in the news, the full extent of the long-term consequences on the hotel, restaurant, and travel sectors are yet to be seen. Using approaches grounded in digital anthropology, we examined how two towns—one in the UK and the other in France, which will be covered in part two of the article—are taking measures to promote tourism resilience, and how they are communicating these measures to reassure cautious travelers.

Whilst resiliency is a ubiquitous theme in discussions about tourism and the COVID-19 pandemic, in this article we focus on the political meaning of resiliency: the ability of states and societies to recover from internal and external crises.

We conducted localized research into the ways in which government policies around health, safety, and future resiliency have been received in tourist hotspots in the UK and France during the COVID-19 pandemic so far. Our research relied primarily on publicly available digital communication data, including social media, websites, blogs, digital video, and audio sources, which provided us with a rich source of information and insights into how tourism-dependent communities can act now to build resilience for the future. 

Why St Ives?

St Ives is a popular seaside town in Cornwall, UK, renowned for its idyllic coastal landscapes, sub-tropical climate, and quaint fishermen’s cottages. St Ives is an interesting microcosm for investigating tourism resiliency because of the high number of tourists who normally visit this location—220,000 staying visitors and 540,000 day-trippers per year according to the St Ives Tourism Association (SITA). The town also has the second highest visitor-related spend in the UK, topping £85 million per annum. Aside from this, the town’s physical idiosyncrasies, and in particular its winding cobbled streets and alleyways, create new challenges for local government and businesses trying to ensure a safe return for visitors. 

APCO Worldwide’s digital strategy team consequently decided to research this more formally and look at how the ways in which people express themselves on digital platforms like social media can reveal insights into ordinary life, cultural norms, and social practices. Below are three key findings.

Local government is spearheading local policies, but over-relies on traditional channels for communicating new rules. 

St Ives’ tourism strategy notably demonstrates the power of local governments to create localized policies and regulations for tourists. In June, the St Ives Town Council launched an Emergency Summer Safety Plan, with detailed new rules to safeguard visitors and residents. The plan included guidelines on how businesses and individuals can stay safe, as well as measures like traffic restrictions and a “keep left” pedestrian route system to help facilitate social distancing. 

From a strategic communications perspective, however, the way in which these new measures have been relayed to tourists felt somewhat lacking, with the local counsel relying on traditional channels and content formats, such as the St Ives Town 2020 Summer COVID-19 Safety Plan Facebook group and lengthy PDF website brochures to communicate their new COVID-19 measures.

Given the increasing evidence that young people may be primary spreaders of the novel coronavirus, it is surprising that the local government hasn’t utilized channels and platforms used by younger demographics, such as Instagram and TikTok, or in more tourist-friendly formats, such as short videos and digital ads. Facemasks are also notably absent in both the creative designs and safety advice provided by St Ives Town Council. 

Businesses are on the front line of safety communication.

Businesses, like hotels and restaurants, have been on the front line of communicating and enforcing COVID-19-related measures through their digital communications. Consider, for example, this Instagram post from the St Ives branch of the fashion clothing retailer, OSKA, showing a customer modelling one of its fashion masks on the beach with the hashtag #iprotectyouyouprotectme [sic]. 

These, and similar communications, have become commonplace among responsible businesses as part of their COVID-19 continuity measures. 

The adapted communication methods of local businesses stand out because they normalize COVID-19 rules for visitors, with some businesses sharing posts outlining the ways in which they are adapting to new safety rules. 

Public discourse paints a contradictory picture.  

The public discourse on tourism in St Ives paints a different picture. On platforms like Instagram, content which has been geo-tagged to St Ives is overwhelmingly focused on holidaymakers enjoying St Ives’ beaches and coastal walks. It is a stretch to find any photos of tourists wearing masks tagged at this location. Looking at this content, one could be forgiven for thinking there is no pandemic. Yet, on a more politicized platform like Twitter, much of the most engaged public discourse is focused on the ways in which social distancing rules are being ignored

However, as Daniel Millar notes in Social Media in an English Village, “platforms are merely the vehicles by which social media travels. To understand social media, we need to focus instead upon content, which often migrates and switches easily between entirely different platforms almost regardless of their properties.” Under Millar’s logic, the content we see across different platforms about St Ives are equally valid as sources for ethnographic insights into the behaviors taking place in this town. 

Then, why are we seeing such different types of content across different channels? Could these conflicting types of content point to a case of cognitive dissonance around pandemic tourism? On one hand, our research into St Ives shows tourists are sharing their holiday photos as if everything is normal; on the other hand, we see the exact opposite behavior playing out, particularly on Twitter and Facebook, where members of the public are engaged in debates about viral transmission and public health. 

It will be critical for tourism stakeholders to understand these complex and in some cases conflicting behaviors, as they seek to promote safe travel and tourism in the long term.  

The tourism industry is facing greater challenges ahead. By analyzing and responding to digital behaviors, tourism locales and authorities will be better able to understand how their rules and communications are being understood and interpreted at a cultural and societal level. With no end to the pandemic in sight, this understanding will be critical for them to build resilience for the future. 

Based on our research, we have identified two key opportunities for tourist localities to become more resilient for the future: 

Normalize safety rules like mask-wearing and social distancing as social and cultural practices. While it will be tempting for tourist-reliant towns and businesses to promote escapism from the pandemic, to be resilient for the future, communication should be grounded in social realities. Communicating visuals showing people safely complying with COVID-19 rules—for example presenting mask-wearing as a social and cultural practice—will help make this safety measure more normative, thus protecting tourist hotspots. 

Create more engaging and creative communication. Tourism stakeholders have an opportunity to push the limits of how they normally communicate, particularly given that the safety of their communities is at stake. In particular, there is an opportunity for tourism agencies to embrace new social media channels and content types, which reach more diverse demographics and audiences. 


About
Daniella Lebor
:
Daniella Lebor is a director and co-lead of APCO’s Digital Strategy team in Europe. An award-winning communication specialist, Ms. Lebor is one of APCO’s Key Client Initiative (KCI) Leaders, responsible for leading integrated reputation and advocacy campaigns for complex international clients.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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Digital Ethnographies: Online Discourse and Tourism Resilience in St Ives

November 16, 2020

Analysis of online discourse around COVID-19 safety measures in the popular tourist destination of St Ives, UK offers lessons in safety messaging and industry resilience.

T

he COVID-19 pandemic has severely affected the global tourism industry. While the short-term effects are frequently covered in the news, the full extent of the long-term consequences on the hotel, restaurant, and travel sectors are yet to be seen. Using approaches grounded in digital anthropology, we examined how two towns—one in the UK and the other in France, which will be covered in part two of the article—are taking measures to promote tourism resilience, and how they are communicating these measures to reassure cautious travelers.

Whilst resiliency is a ubiquitous theme in discussions about tourism and the COVID-19 pandemic, in this article we focus on the political meaning of resiliency: the ability of states and societies to recover from internal and external crises.

We conducted localized research into the ways in which government policies around health, safety, and future resiliency have been received in tourist hotspots in the UK and France during the COVID-19 pandemic so far. Our research relied primarily on publicly available digital communication data, including social media, websites, blogs, digital video, and audio sources, which provided us with a rich source of information and insights into how tourism-dependent communities can act now to build resilience for the future. 

Why St Ives?

St Ives is a popular seaside town in Cornwall, UK, renowned for its idyllic coastal landscapes, sub-tropical climate, and quaint fishermen’s cottages. St Ives is an interesting microcosm for investigating tourism resiliency because of the high number of tourists who normally visit this location—220,000 staying visitors and 540,000 day-trippers per year according to the St Ives Tourism Association (SITA). The town also has the second highest visitor-related spend in the UK, topping £85 million per annum. Aside from this, the town’s physical idiosyncrasies, and in particular its winding cobbled streets and alleyways, create new challenges for local government and businesses trying to ensure a safe return for visitors. 

APCO Worldwide’s digital strategy team consequently decided to research this more formally and look at how the ways in which people express themselves on digital platforms like social media can reveal insights into ordinary life, cultural norms, and social practices. Below are three key findings.

Local government is spearheading local policies, but over-relies on traditional channels for communicating new rules. 

St Ives’ tourism strategy notably demonstrates the power of local governments to create localized policies and regulations for tourists. In June, the St Ives Town Council launched an Emergency Summer Safety Plan, with detailed new rules to safeguard visitors and residents. The plan included guidelines on how businesses and individuals can stay safe, as well as measures like traffic restrictions and a “keep left” pedestrian route system to help facilitate social distancing. 

From a strategic communications perspective, however, the way in which these new measures have been relayed to tourists felt somewhat lacking, with the local counsel relying on traditional channels and content formats, such as the St Ives Town 2020 Summer COVID-19 Safety Plan Facebook group and lengthy PDF website brochures to communicate their new COVID-19 measures.

Given the increasing evidence that young people may be primary spreaders of the novel coronavirus, it is surprising that the local government hasn’t utilized channels and platforms used by younger demographics, such as Instagram and TikTok, or in more tourist-friendly formats, such as short videos and digital ads. Facemasks are also notably absent in both the creative designs and safety advice provided by St Ives Town Council. 

Businesses are on the front line of safety communication.

Businesses, like hotels and restaurants, have been on the front line of communicating and enforcing COVID-19-related measures through their digital communications. Consider, for example, this Instagram post from the St Ives branch of the fashion clothing retailer, OSKA, showing a customer modelling one of its fashion masks on the beach with the hashtag #iprotectyouyouprotectme [sic]. 

These, and similar communications, have become commonplace among responsible businesses as part of their COVID-19 continuity measures. 

The adapted communication methods of local businesses stand out because they normalize COVID-19 rules for visitors, with some businesses sharing posts outlining the ways in which they are adapting to new safety rules. 

Public discourse paints a contradictory picture.  

The public discourse on tourism in St Ives paints a different picture. On platforms like Instagram, content which has been geo-tagged to St Ives is overwhelmingly focused on holidaymakers enjoying St Ives’ beaches and coastal walks. It is a stretch to find any photos of tourists wearing masks tagged at this location. Looking at this content, one could be forgiven for thinking there is no pandemic. Yet, on a more politicized platform like Twitter, much of the most engaged public discourse is focused on the ways in which social distancing rules are being ignored

However, as Daniel Millar notes in Social Media in an English Village, “platforms are merely the vehicles by which social media travels. To understand social media, we need to focus instead upon content, which often migrates and switches easily between entirely different platforms almost regardless of their properties.” Under Millar’s logic, the content we see across different platforms about St Ives are equally valid as sources for ethnographic insights into the behaviors taking place in this town. 

Then, why are we seeing such different types of content across different channels? Could these conflicting types of content point to a case of cognitive dissonance around pandemic tourism? On one hand, our research into St Ives shows tourists are sharing their holiday photos as if everything is normal; on the other hand, we see the exact opposite behavior playing out, particularly on Twitter and Facebook, where members of the public are engaged in debates about viral transmission and public health. 

It will be critical for tourism stakeholders to understand these complex and in some cases conflicting behaviors, as they seek to promote safe travel and tourism in the long term.  

The tourism industry is facing greater challenges ahead. By analyzing and responding to digital behaviors, tourism locales and authorities will be better able to understand how their rules and communications are being understood and interpreted at a cultural and societal level. With no end to the pandemic in sight, this understanding will be critical for them to build resilience for the future. 

Based on our research, we have identified two key opportunities for tourist localities to become more resilient for the future: 

Normalize safety rules like mask-wearing and social distancing as social and cultural practices. While it will be tempting for tourist-reliant towns and businesses to promote escapism from the pandemic, to be resilient for the future, communication should be grounded in social realities. Communicating visuals showing people safely complying with COVID-19 rules—for example presenting mask-wearing as a social and cultural practice—will help make this safety measure more normative, thus protecting tourist hotspots. 

Create more engaging and creative communication. Tourism stakeholders have an opportunity to push the limits of how they normally communicate, particularly given that the safety of their communities is at stake. In particular, there is an opportunity for tourism agencies to embrace new social media channels and content types, which reach more diverse demographics and audiences. 


About
Daniella Lebor
:
Daniella Lebor is a director and co-lead of APCO’s Digital Strategy team in Europe. An award-winning communication specialist, Ms. Lebor is one of APCO’s Key Client Initiative (KCI) Leaders, responsible for leading integrated reputation and advocacy campaigns for complex international clients.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.