A few years ago I celebrated New-Years in Amsterdam. Magnificent fireworks!
After a good few hours of sleep, I started the new year with sightseeing. Although drizzly and cold, Amsterdam still has a certain charm.
Walking around I noticed a group of tourists making photographs of a rather ordinary-looking house. I stepped up to a guy and asked:
“What are you shooting?”
The guy answered with an Italian accent: “This is the Anne Frank’s house, eee, you know…”
“Oh, ok! But who was Anne Frank? Or how is she important? Do you know something more?”
The Italian answered: “Oo.. I don’t know! I saw everybody making photo here, so I also make a photo!”
As it turns out, the house is a museum and the tickets were sold out, with a line around the block to get in. Anne Frank was a Jewish girl who hid from the Nazis in that house during the wartime and wrote a diary about her experience.
The problem with our destinations is that often we get a very superficial experience. We can make beautiful photos, relax and enjoy the views. But why do we really travel? Why should we travel?
There have been quite a few studies dealing with what motivates people to travel. Enjoyment, learning and experiencing something new are part of the top reasons why people want to leave the comforts of their homes. Jonah Lehrer mentions in an article in the Guardian, that breaking the routine of the daily life and traveling to a different surrounding really broadens peoples minds. The travelers get more willing to realize, that there are different, equally valid ways to interpret the world. They learn about the history, the customs and the state of mind of the locals. That is, if they get the chance to reach beyond the surface of the beautiful architecture and just the views.
You probably have noticed information plaques around town, mounted to places that have some sort of significance in shaping the history. Have you read through some of them? Imagine standing in a beautiful place and then stopping for several minutes reading through some of these texts.
Here is an example from the medieval capital of Tallinn, Estonia:
“Hill of the Harju Gates is a park situated on an embankment of former Inger Bastion. A street (Komandandi tee) was built through the bastion in 1860-61. In 1861-62 the bastion was turned into a green area under the supervision of burgomeister Carl August Mayer”.
This goes on for 8 paragraphs. What most the people do, is fly through the lines feeling — eehhh…
Another example comes from the Lochleven castle in Scotland and it goes like this:
“By the later middle ages in Scotland the most common form of residence for a land-holder was a tower-house. Within these there would be a vertically-arranged sequence of rooms which were inter-connected by one or more spiral stairs. Sometimes those towers had more complex plans, but the most usual plan – as at Lochleven – was a simple rectangle.”
A little better perhaps? The illustration of the house definitely helps!
But what could be done to make that information so engaging, that everyone passing the area will want to know it?
I believe we should not deliver just facts, as it is often done with these informative plaques… We should serve the information in compact, interesting stories. Stories that tell us why these places have a significance. This way we learn so much more and we will remember the stories also the next day and maybe even a year after visiting the place. Storytelling has always been part of humanity. It is something so ancient and in the very core of our minds. So why not use it more in tourism?
Of course there are exceptions. Some cities or other destinations do use storytelling and they do it rather well! But I feel we could do so much better in general! All the places we visit have a rich history in one way or the other. Filled with stories that are just waiting to be heard. So far, in tourism, storytelling is successfully used by very good tour guides. Also some museums manage to deliver their content in a form of engaging stories. Some of the written travel guides have compelling stories as well, but they are not really used while traveling due to their heavy weight. One could argue, that all the travel guides are digital now. That helps, but the act of reading doesn’t really go together with sightseeing.
I started this article with a story and I will end with one as well:
3 am and I can not sleep. That sometimes happens when I’m not able to shut off my brain.
I was working at a specialized travel-agency at the time and I knew my time there is soon to be over. The tiny company had financial difficulties.
I lay there, under the blanket, thinking: “What do I want to do with my life?” Big question, isn’t it!
So I asked myself: “If there is anything in tourism I want and could change, what would it be?”
And it dawned to me… That’s it! I want to know the cool stories that lay in the medieval city wall or within the peculiar markings on the pavement. They should be told to me when I am actually on the spot, because then it is relevant! And when I walk 20 meters southwards and see a majestic statue, I’d want to know why it was erected and for whom? If only there was a way to hear all these stories on demand!
And that is exactly what I want to do. To develop a solution, so anyone could access these stories on demand. Stories that are engaging and delivered almost like a theater play. And you can listen while walking around and admiring the view. This way, we really can broaden our minds and learn about the history, culture and the mindset of the locals.