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Behavior Change
A Sustainable Future for Tourism Requires Kicking the Bucket (List)

Bucket lists are powerful sales and marketing tools — and applying the concept to “must-see” destinations or activities is a natural fit. But that model is changing; and with the industry’s shift in focus from quantity to quality, it’s time to rethink the travel-focused bucket list.

They come in all shapes in sizes: Lists of “must-see” sites or “must-do” experiences. Passport stamps or scratch-off maps that denote countries visited.

Regardless of what they may look like, collections like these are variations on the travel-focused bucket list — whether they’re pre-trip dreams or a post-trip proof of achievement. The “bucket” list is a wish list of things to do before one dies — a term that originated in this context from the 2007 film of the same name, starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman. Though a bucket list can consist of any number of activities, the terminology has been particularly pervasive in the tourism industry. It ricochets around the travel lexicon, spurring the creation of bucket lists featuring destinations, activities and Instagram backdrops.

“The bucket list began as a mechanism to identify what one shouldn’t miss in one’s life, yet has quickly evolved to a stand-in for things one must have. Travel becomes something to consume, acquire and accomplish,” said Audrey Scott, a tourism development strategist at Uncornered Market.

Must-see/-read/-listen lists spur people to “binge” movies, books or music in a rush to ensure they’re up to date on the latest pop culture. Applied to tourism, the sense of urgency and FOMO (fear of missing out) tied to bucket lists encourage people to treat travel as a “checklist” of things to do, rather than meaningful experiences to have. They indicate that dropping into a capital city for a couple days, taking that “must-have” photo, and acquiring a passport stamp is the same as “doing” a country. However, this kind of mindset has a real and disproportionate impact on the natural environment, urban destinations, and the people living in the places that travelers visit.

Applying the bucket list concept to tourism is a natural fit: Bucket lists are powerful sales and marketing tools — shallow in context, quick to create, and simple to share. They fit well in the mass tourism business model. But that model is changing; and with the industry’s shift in perspective and priorities from quantity to quality, it’s time to rethink the travel-focused bucket list.

Coming into 2019, the tourism industry was growing at an unsustainable rate. Approximately 1.5 billion international tourist arrivals were recorded globally in 2019 — a 4 percent increase over the previous year. This was expected to be the case in 2020, as well. Of course, COVID-19 brought tourism to a screeching halt, with international arrivals down 70 percent in the first eight months of 2020, according to the UN World Tourism Organization.

“Traveling as it was before the pandemic was seeing far too many places being overcrowded, fueled by digital influencers teasing us from our armchairs to tick off must-see places of interest and destinations,” said Karen Simmonds, founder of Travel Matters and the Make Travel Matter campaign. “Some communities lived in frustration at their homes being overrun with visitors. The resources and infrastructure could not sustain so many visitor numbers.”

The bucket list wasn’t only bad for destinations and locals, though. It didn’t serve travelers, either.

“(The bucket list) has replaced the depth of qualitative connection in travel with the breadth of doing as many things as possible and the pursuit of the ‘epic,’ in the form of an Instagrammable shot,” said Daniel Noll, also a tourism development specialist with Uncornered Market. He added:

“The bucket list travel mentality has become a bit of a display, not unlike what the experience industry used to criticize consumers for doing with material things. All of this is a bit unfortunate for our mental health; because it places on us a pressure to do more and to evaluate our ‘success’ by the number of items crossed off the bucket list, which distorts our expectations and our happiness baseline.”

As the world takes a pandemic pause, many travel professionals are advocating for and encouraging the tourism industry to think about what a more equitable and sustainable travel ecosystem can — and should — look like in the years ahead. It’s a message that is already taking hold: Intrepid Travel normally releases a list of hot destinations for the upcoming year, but this year the company published a “how to go” list for 2021. And, instead of its traditional "52 Places to Go" feature, the New York Times collected reader submissions for the upcoming "52 Places We Love" series.

Coincidentally, the tourism industry’s reckoning during this unprecedented time is bumping up against society’s shifting values and priorities: People more interested in connecting with others and spending quality time with those they love. They’re taking note of how brands are responding throughout the pandemic, showing more interest in supporting those that take a stand or have a positive impact on the world. Younger consumers, in particular, have their eye on how brands are responding to the climate emergency.

“Especially coming out of the pandemic, our hope is that people will look to travel as a way to reconnect with the world, loved ones, nature, different cultures and themselves,” Scott said.

The mere fact that the act of traveling will be more expensive and complicated in the coming months and possibly years means people will likely, by default, travel less often to fewer destinations, potentially for longer periods of time. Scott asserts: “These forces may just coalesce to accelerate the adoption of mindful, responsible travel that goes beyond and deeper than the bucket list mentality.”