Innovate off the beaten track, says Europe's tourism sector
A view of mountains near the village of Bonneval-sur-Arc in the French Alps valley of Maurienne on July 4, 2013
According to the World Tourism Organization, Europe still earned the lion's share of global tourism revenues in 2012 -- a full 43 percent, or $457 billion (356 billion euros).
But success should leave no room for complacency, professionals from the sector said last week during a congress in the picturesque Swiss city of Lucerne, the Alpine country's top tourist destination.
While the tourist business argues that it is also up to the authorities to make it easier for would-be visitors to get visas -- a lack of bureaucratic headaches can be a selling point for a market -- it is also planning a rethink.
Marketing campaigns devised from Europe have fallen short when it came to taking into account the real expectations of tourists before they leave home.
"It should be done the other way around," said Eduardo Santander, head of the European Tourism Commission.
The ETC, tasked with promoting the continent's charms, has opted to poll potential tourists in their home countries. In particular it is focussing on China, the world's top emerging market where the ranks of the middle class are swelling.
"When the Chinese tourists come to Europe, they don't just want to visit the Eiffel Tower or the Colosseum. They also want to see a beautiful blue sky" Santander explained.
ETC research in China underlined that residents of its megacities face a constant battle with pollution -- a simple fact that enables Europe's tourism industry to add pure-aired Alpine stops to group travel itineraries.
The study also said that Chinese travellers place great store in feeling at ease and safe, with language barriers a leading concern.
"The Chinese are looking for very safe destinations because many of them don't speak a European language. They want to see more adaptation. It means that hotels or restaurants should provide them more brochures or menus translated into Chinese," Santander said.
Increasing use of social media in emerging markets makes it crucial to understand what tourists want, because they are increasingly likely to write reviews of their experience online.
Industry officials underline that it is also important to understand the needs of Chinese tourists and counterparts from emerging powers India and Brazil, given that competition is getting tougher with destinations such as Florida, Las Vegas or Dubai.
"In Dubai, tourism is not just an extra, it's not just a nice thing to have. It is fundamental to how the whole state will develop," said James Philipps, vice-president for Europe, Middle East and Africa at Fit Hotel Sourcing, which is part of the GTA Travel group.
When it comes to increasing its competitive advantage, the Gulf emirate has no space constraints for the construction of breathtaking hotels and other infrastructure that will pull in tourists, Phillips added.
In contrast, travel agents in Europe often have to battle to find places for their customers to stay in major tourist draws such as Venice and Rome in Italy, and Paris in France.
The problem affects travellers from both emerging markets and more traditional tourist source countries.
"We have some concerns over inventories in some of the major cities. Paris is really tough. It's really hard to find a good fit in places like Paris," said Jennifer Tombaugh, head of US company Tauck, told congress participants.
Given the clogged market in many classic tourist hubs, family firm Tauck has opted to develop off the beaten track, and focusses on the niche market of river cruises.
It offers US tourists a different take on France, as their vessel winds down the River Rhone, stopping at what it pitches as hidden treasures such as the small medieval town of Viviers in the Ardeche region.
There, they can take a class in petanque, the typically-French bowling game. Other stops include the Chateau-Neuf-du-Pape vineyards.
"We need to be rethinking tourist trails, beyond the big cities," Tim Fairhurst, head of strategy at the European Tour Operators Association, told AFP.
"An American who comes to Europe for a few days doesn't necessarily want to spend three hours queueing a the foot of Eiffel Tower. So you need to find something else, go take a few pictures of the Trocadero, then head off to visit the chateau at Vaux-le-Vicomte, near Paris," he said.