Saturday, April 6, 2013

Arrival of ‘Staycations’ and some ensuing thoughts - Out of the Box 37

Renton de Alwis

In any economic crunch tourism is usually one of the early victims in terms of contracting demand. In 2008, we saw how the concept of ‘staycations’ developed in the UK at the height of the global economic crisis.  This is a column I wrote in August 2011 for the ’Daily Financial Times, Sri Lanka’ attempted to explore how a destination like Sri Lanka could prepare to meet such challenge.

In 2008 the Sunday Times of the UK ran a story titled “Hard-up Britain: holidays turn into ‘staycations’ ” stating a Times survey report that “a third of the public said that they were switching their plans from a holiday abroad to a holiday in Britain”.  

It added “as economic gloom deepens, guest-house owners, hoteliers and restaurateurs in resorts from Scarborough to the Sicily Isles had been hoping that a perfect storm of the high euro, record oil prices and uncertain job prospects would persuade people to play safe and holiday at home this year”.

‘Staycations’ as against vacations that we were all familiar with before, entered the vocabulary of the world of travel and tourism and is now taking further shape with the likes of ‘Tips for Staycations’, ‘Staycation Ideas’ coming into the information sharing networks. In May this year a US blog site from New Jersey declared a ‘Year of the Staycation with cheap and low cost Staycation Ideas’ for that city’s folk. Englishman Michael Moran wrote the book ‘Sod Abroad: Why You'd be Mad to Leave the Comfort of Your Own Home’ adding a funny flavour to the idea of not taking vacations.   

Not so rosy

Fortunately, these have yet not become mainstream ideas among the majority but remain as potent burning coals that can fire when the going gets tougher. We all know that things have not been so rosy for the US and UK or for that matter most of the rest of the world, that form long-haul markets for tourism to Asia.

The economic down-turn that began with the deflation of the real estate market bubble, is far from being over. It is a stark reality that is hurting the world today. Most of the ‘developed world’ has lived beyond their means and attempts are made to hold the markets and economies together with some patch work solutions taking us all towards short-term comfort zones. In a recent article I wrote elsewhere, I pointed to the problems we face on the global front to be the outcome of the drop in the confidence levels we have always had on the US and other allied dominant economies.

We saw for first time in the history of the modern world, how the US dollar was de-graded of its confidence rating by the prime rating agency Standard & Poor, from its perennial top AAA to AA+. It must be said that Fitch and Moody, the other twosome in the rating business have done no such thing. It could also be assumed that they have not had ‘reason’ to yet do it. The situation in most of Europe is no better and most analysts are of the view that the situation in Europe will come to haunt the US, in the next phase of the crisis.

Who owes whom

The facts are that the US as a nation owes a huge US $ 14, 300,000,000,000 (14.3 trillion dollars), both within the country, to institutions elsewhere and to other nations in the form of debt. As is pointed out by many, this is a crisis created for US and the rest of the world for they/we have been living beyond their/our means for far too long. Greece and Ireland owe US$ 367 billion and 865 billion respectively to other European nations, while Spain and Italy owe one trillion each to France, Briton and Germany. Portugal, whose countrymen brought us our ‘Baila culture’, is another example. That country has defaulted on its national debt five times since the year 1800.

According to the US treasury figures the nation is said to have a shortfall of US $ 5.6 trillion to support the Bills and Bonds issued by the Federal Reserve to banks, a $ 1.4 trillion to meet the obligations of the savings bonds issued to its citizens through the banks, $ 1.2 trillion to China as a buyer of Treasury debt, $ 882.3 billion to Japan, $ 801.7 billion in Pension Fund investments, $ 636.4 billion in Mutual Funds, $ 519.8 billion to States and cities within the US, $ 315.7 billion to depository Institutions, $ 271.6 billion to the United Kingdom, $ 253 billion to insurance companies, $ 211.9 billion to oil exporters, $ 186.1 billion to Brazil, $ 155.1 billion to Taiwan, $ 168.1 billion to Caribbean banking centers and $ 151 billion to Russia.

Play mode

Today, we live in a world with a dominant culture dictating to us that greed is good. Consumerism based on unlimited availability of choice form a corner stone of this economic system’s architecture. There is scant regard for thriftiness, austerity or real saving. The system encourages spending on ‘useless’ goods and services and making payments for them with funds that are non-existent. Speculative spending is encouraged and is portrayed as a sign of smart maneuvering. Undue risk taking is encouraged and bubbles of schemes are created to facilitate the availability of ‘funds’ for these. ‘Playing’ the stock market is made to look like a gaming pursuit, where easy gains are sought with little or no productive effort put into it.

Choice has replaced need and the young are wooed to take on activities that are far from creating beneficial or useful wealth like production of food and/or such essentials. We have seen how follies made on the energy sphere have come to haunt nations like the recent nuclear energy crisis. We now witness wars fought for supremacy of fossil fuel ownership and access disguising them as battles for protecting human rights. We see how most technological breakthroughs made to save on natural resource use minimizing CO2 emissions, being diverted to meet production needs of luxury goods that do not serve the greater needs of human kind.   

Widening Gaps

The poor are often marginalized without access to even the basic resources. World’s Population is ageing and the need for welfare and healthcare is increasing. There are less and less opportunities for young people to be productive in useful work for ‘convenient’ and ‘smart’ work has replaced ethical hard work. Today we communicate, entertain and indulge in luxurious pursuits than contributing solid hard work to make what we need in sustainable ways. Our planning horizons have shrunk to be very short-term and most of us live without realizing the finiteness of the natural resource base on this only planet we have for ourselves and other living species. Climate change, desertification and sea level rise have become real issues and scarcity of water is posing huge problems with famine and disease still impacting on some areas.

Staycations replacing some of the vacations may not hurt us bad as Asian prosperity is making the outbound visitor markets grow, offering a base that keeps the makers of statistics on regional tourism happy and content. Yet we must not let such fool us for such visitation, given its current composition and profile may come to us at very high environmental costs placing pressure on our social-cultural and natural resources. If destinations like Sri Lanka were to look at the cream of quality travel from the hurting long-haul markets, we need to focus on a different strategy.  

Offer ‘Supercations’

Since we have got what it takes to sooth their nerves with our green or haritha backdrop and the mind-body wellness equation, we need to position ourselves to provide them a value proposition that sits uniquely distinct from the usual packaged ‘beach-based, bit of heritage and culture thrown in’ vacation. Any campaign we undertake needs to be well thought out and not be another ‘run of the mill’ effort.

We need to meet the potential threat of ‘staycations’ not with mere ‘vacations’ but with an offer of ‘supercations’ where it must be an almost therapeutic uplifting of a mind-body-spirit offer in a unique natural and cultural environment.  Unreserved protecting of our most valuable natural and heritage assets without compromising them for short-term gain will need to be firmly in place before we can reach out to the world with such offer.     
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