Local tourism is a major strategic angle for tourist development in regions as it offers a solution to the economic, social and environmental challenges that the tourist sector is facing. This trend allows inhabitants to get away from things and to see their own town or region in a new way, in a radius of no more than 100 km from their home. Staying at home, taking time to discover your immediate surroundings, enjoying experiences as a family or with friends, without sleeping away from home, has now become a real trend. This phenomenon, which emerged in the US through necessity, after the financial crisis in 2008, has become known as “staycations”. And what if COVID was above all a catalyst for local tourism?
Changing for the better: the growth of Zoom towns
COVID has obliged us to rethink how we work and made it possible to “relocate”: video conferences, Facebook after work drinks, Zoom and Teams, etc. the COVID epidemic has shaken up our relationship with work, each other and even with leisure time. But, even if we are getting back to normal, these new practices have changed our habits enormously. These new ways of working have allowed some people to reinvent their own lifestyles and many companies now intend to offer teleworking as a permanent, or at least regular, option for their employees. For several months this base trend is driving an increasing number of urban dwellers to leave their cities. Having decided to find a calmer and more pleasant environment, they are taking advantage of the increase in teleworking to move to smaller urban areas.
Small and medium sized towns are now good candidates to become what the Americans are calling “Zoom towns” due to the arrival of teleworking who organise their teleconferences using the namesake software. This name comes from an American phenomenon from 1890-1920, the Boom-towns. These Boom-towns are all the urban areas that grew like mushrooms around factories and the mining industries, like we see in westerns, most often built from wood.
Previously, the desire for the countryside amongst city dwellers was assimilated with an old farmhouse in an agricultural setting or a dwelling near Nice associated with a fantasy of sheep shearing and a huge allotment. But, in this post-COVID world, the new desire for the countryside is more related to small urban units, which are able to offer a better internet connection. Because therein lies the big novelty: city dwellers no longer want to live like “country folk” by working the land and living independently, but they want to work “in the greenery”. And for teleworking, you need bandwidth. The issue of the urban exodus now comes down to the difficult equation of “at the same time”: the town and the countryside at the same time, the internet and nature at the same time. This quest for land that many of our city dwellers are now undertaking is beginning to radically change our relations with small and mid-sized towns.
Medium sized towns and villages outside the immediate surroundings of big cities, which were traditionally only inhabited during the holiday period, are now becoming eligible places for the main house. These hybrid urban areas are becoming places where it is nice to live, where you can attend a teleconference in the morning and then go and pick mushrooms at lunchtime.
Although it is too early to measure the scale of the exodus that has been predicted since the first lockdown, and even if this model only applies to some office workers and freelancers, it is already possible to draw up a forecast for tourism and the regions.
The return of small towns
Cities have always been a choice destination But what if the new city-breakers were the future for medium-sized towns?
This “Zoom town” trend represents more than a return to the countryside, it favours an extension to the peri-urban area, and at the same time an extension to the local tourism offering. This will also favour the transformation of a number of small urban units, which would find it hard to compete with big agglomerations, into urban tourism destinations for city breaks for example.
The fact that these new populations take up permanent residency in these areas encourages the creation of a local offering, which players in tourism must grasp.
New workers, with greater flexibility can organise their holiday time with fewer restrictions
Even if all these new country folk will not stay in these areas, mainly due to job opportunities, the educational possibilities for their children, or access to health care, a large number will surely remain in the long term, even after the health crisis. We must therefore provide them with a diverse range of tourist offerings. Whether it is in terms of catering, cultural or leisure activities and even accommodation.
Indeed, one of the interests of teleworking is that it makes working hours more adaptable. These new workers can organise their time differently, by teleworking in the morning and freeing up time in the afternoon for example or working one out of two days, or even taking a break midweek or having long weekends. This possibility of changing the organisation of working hours provides large opportunities for consuming tourist offerings.
Developing a local offering
Initially, these new arrivals will want to discover their area, and will therefore visit the biggest sites near to them. By freeing up half a day, it will be fairly easy for them to travel within a radius of 50 km around their home. This is where there is potential for a targeted offering, with guided tours combined with a catering that lasts for around 3 hours for example. Afterwards, these populations will become consumers of local tourism, for leisure centres and sailing venues for example. We could therefore think about special prices, offering introductory sessions or sports activities, or activities to discover the potential of the area.
Finally, the French landscape has the particularity that urban units are spaced approximately 30 km apart and medium sized towns tend to be about 100 km from each other. This geographical phenomenon combined with new ways of working opens up a range of possibilities for city breaks, which have become a strong trend over the last twenty years. Indeed, as former residents of large cities, these people are likely to be more likely to take up these kind of offerings, which they are used to choosing.
A new opportunity is therefore beginning to emerge for these areas, which can now propose activities in small and medium sized towns close to people’s new residences. Less than an hour away by car, there will be a new urban centre to be discovered, enjoying two nights in a hotel or an urban gite type accommodation, and set out to discover the cultural and leisure offerings that can satisfy city-breakers.
This will therefore favour the creation and installation of new economic resources
To conclude, I would like to emphasise the potential economic appeal that this new type of tourism could bring about. Indeed, many researchers have stressed that tourism is often the first contact that a potential investor or candidate for a change in life style will have with an area. The title of an article in Forbes from September 2020, “Why Your Last Vacation Getaway May Be Your Next Home” is a perfect example of how this could be the case. The change in France from having a local Agence de Développement Touristique (ADT—Tourism development agencies) to Agence d’Attractivité (Appeal Agencies), as is the case in Nièvre for example, is an illustration of this capacity for appeal that is specific to tourism. In this post-COVID world, which offers new opportunities to urban units that were until now unable to compete with cities, we need to simultaneously rethink part of the tourist offering as a potential factor for economic appeal and develop a local offering for people who are new to rural life and who are used to having access to a large range of experiences, and cultural and leisure activities.
This offers a huge potential for rural areas, and small and medium sized towns.
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Forbes Article: Zoom Towns: Why Your Last Vacation Getaway May Be Your Next Home - Irene S. Levine - September 2020
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