Seasonality: why traveling in the off season is desirable and responsible

Tourism is one of the biggest and fastest growing industries in the world

and especially in Italy - the 5th most visited country in the world (and likely to increase). Given the reach of tourism, providing opportunities for responsible travel can affect change on a large scale, and mitigate the negative impacts of tourism on host communities. And part of traveling responsibly is to travel in periods that are less crowded. When you think about going to a popular destination, it’s often desirable to visit when there are less people; the lines are shorter, the products and experiences are cheaper, and the aesthetic appeal of the destination isn’t swamped by vacationers taking pictures with their selfie sticks. All of the above are symptoms of seasonality, but they’re often discussed of how they affect visitors’ experiences. We believe it is important to understand how our demand for services, as visitors, affects the host community as well. Here we will explore the symptoms and causes of seasonality, as they affect both visitors and hosts, and some ways we can reduce its negative impacts.

What is Seasonality?

Seasonality is one of the largest challenges seen by those who work in the tourism industry; it is the temporal fluctuation in the number of visitors, expenditure of visitors, traffic, employment, and admissions to attractions in a specific destination (1). In other words, when you travel to Rome during June or July, you are more likely to see large crowds of tourists who, with money belts bursting, are changing the economy of Rome one gelato at a time. This influx of capital can be great for employment, and especially for a region that relies heavily on tourism for its income. But this goes the other way, too. In the autumn, winter and spring months, tourism in Rome greatly decreases, and it is this temporal imbalance that can disadvantage the economy. Thankfully, this imbalance is relatively predictable from year to year, which makes it possible for businesses and lenders to anticipate its impact, and begin to plan how we might reduce seasonality.

Why is it so important for a social business to talk about seasonality?

As a business, we are concerned with the economic constraints of the Southern Italian market. But as a social business, we aim to have a positive effect on the social and environmental issues present in our host communities. Browse the images below to learn about how seasonality impacts those issues briefed above.

What Causes Seasonality?

There are two types of causes of seasonality: institutional and natural.

1. Natural causes - Natural seasonality relates to the natural phenomena that exist in the destination (like weather) based on its climate and geographical location (whether it’s a beach, a city, a forest, etc.).

2. Institutional causes are a little more complicated. Institutional seasonality is caused by human behavior and consumer decision making, often influenced by social, cultural, ethnic, religious and organizational factors and policies (1).

Why is seasonality heavy in Italy?

One of the biggest causes of institutional seasonality in Italy is ferragosto; officially it is a national holiday on August 15th, however unofficially it is an extended holiday from work (especially office jobs), often lasting the entire month of August. For example, in Rome many shops and restaurants shut down for the entire month of August! (Read more about ferragosto here and here).

This greatly affects when Italians decide to travel, which is important to the overall tourism flow because domestic tourism plays a majority role. According to the 2011 ISTAT, 57% of total tourism demand in Italy that year was domestic (Italians traveling around Italy). What’s more, the 2014 OECD Tourism Report stated that domestic travel spending generated 71.4% of direct Travel & Tourism GDP in 2014 compared with 28.6% for visitor exports (ie foreign visitor spending or international tourism receipts) (4). This means that Italian tourists in Italy have the largest economic impact! Thus any Italian institutional or natural motivation for traveling at specific times (like the month of August) contribute to employment rates and other impacts of seasonality (see images about impact above).

Southern Italy?

We notice that seasonality is magnified in Southern Italy since most of the tourists traveling to the south are Italian, and they are going to soak up some sun.

Italian economists Tiziana Cuccia and Ilde Rizzo conducted a case study in Sicily to better understand the causes of seasonality in Southern Italy. They found that domestic visitors to the south vacationed much more seasonally than foreign visitors. Why do Italians travel during peak seasons? As mentioned above, Ferragosto plays a large role - but Italians tend to have specific climate preferences as well. When taking time off, they often prefer to spend their holiday in coastal areas during the blistering hot weather, and Southern Italy is full of beautiful coastlines to enjoy. Cuccia and Rizzo call these “sun-and-sea” destinations.

As for foreign tourists, they are more likely to visit sun-and-sea destinations in the off season and enjoy the destination for other reasons, like for its culture and history. In our visit to Vieste, Elizabeth and I spoke with Lorenzo Franco, a windsurf instructor with Free Surf Vieste, who confirmed this with his own observations. He says that, “Foreign visitors, of which the majority are German, fill in a bit the initial and final periods of the season, however they tend to be older, 60-80 years old, and so they don’t enjoy as much the athletically demanding services that we at the windsurf and kitesurf school can provide.” Instead, these foreign tourists prefer to enjoy the cultural and historical elements of Vieste, with some occasional beach time in between.

Cultural heritage and the cultural events (such as international festivals of cinema and performing arts) could be a way to encourage tourists, domestic and foreign alike, to visit Southern Italy outside of the peak season. Yet in general, Mediterranean “sun-and-sea” destinations that have their peak season in summer continue to suffer in the rest of the year, even if their climate is favorable, and EVEN IF they have a cultural component to be enjoyed (3, 269).

Why is this?

Cuccia et al. found that tour operators promote “superstars”, or tourist locations that are already successful, and avoid taking the economic risk of promoting themselves during the off season. If the destination becomes too crowded, tourist operators prefer to add location, instead of changing or adding seasons (2, 593). And this is understandable. When so much of your economic success relies on the tourism sector, you’re not likely to take big risks with your business.

Another reason? Lack of policy and rules.

Despite being endowed with the most UNESCO World Heritage sites in the world, Italy ranks only 28th out of 130 in the Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Index (TTCI) (2, 594). According to the Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Report (World Economic Forum, 2008) one of the 14 “pillars” of Travel & Tourism competitiveness is “Cultural Resources”...but so is  “Policy rules and regulations”, which is one of the challenges in the Italian tourism industry. It is without a doubt that Italy has so much to offer, for its environment, people, and culture, but government support and intervention is required to support research, development, restoration, preservation, promotion, etc. of these destinations.

The south is particularly impacted. Organized crime in Southern Italy greatly impedes the distribution of funds that support development of tourist sites. Remember that many tourist operators prefer to add location instead of extending the season as to avoid taking an economic risk. And when this is paired with lack of funding, it makes sense that Southern Italy suffers in developing its tourism sector to the off season.

 

How do we help? How do we mitigate the impacts of seasonality?

By being responsible consumers, we can influence what tourism businesses provide and when.

“By considering that seasons can be seen as socially significant periods of time rather than natural events, the reduction of seasonality in tourism flow, particularly of the domestic component, cannot be achieved without structural reforms that modify the social and the economic behavior of people.” (3, 277)

We can make the informed choice to travel in the low-season. This not only decreases negative impacts of tourism during the summer months, but also extends the flow of capital for small businesses to sustain them better through the winter.

However, it can be difficult to know how long places will stay open. It would be a shame to plan a visit to a town that shuts down in the off season. For example, when speaking with our windsurfing instructor, Lorenzo, we learned that Vieste has a very short tourist season, “that goes only from May to the end of August. In reality, it could be much longer, because the weather is good already during Easter all the way until November.”  When we took lessons in October of 2016, we had great wind, a crowd-free beach, and basically private lessons since no one else signed up for the class. But we were lucky because Free Surf Vieste does not stay open much past September due to the low number of customers.

Our experience in Vieste was not unique… just take a look at the videos on our website. Notice something? Maybe before reading this blog the films looked serene, but now you might understand why there is a notable lack of crowds. Yes, we napped in our bathing suits on the warm sand! Yes, we took one-on-one windsurfing and paragliding lessons! Yes, we needed to cool down a hot day with an icy granita over lunch! Forget the busy beaches, the long lines, the traffic, and the crowded restaurants! Oh and forget those high prices!

Although we are happy to work with you to organize your trip during any period, we highly recommend that you do so outside of the high season. Keep in mind that the information of when places open and close in the year, or how many people they require in order to stay open, is not always readily available. At PYMWYMI, we seek to organize with other stakeholders to provide this information to potential visitors. By establishing a relationship with Southern Italian businesses, we can schedule visits in the off season that make economic sense to them. We can find and speak directly with places that will stay open for a large enough group. We can work to fill in the seasonal gap while pleasing host and guest alike. Sounds like a win-win, right?


REFERENCES

  1. Corluka, D. "Seasonality in Tourism." University Department of Professional Studies. Croatia, University Split. Academia.edu. Web. 8 Nov. 2016. <http://www.academia.edu/8670280/SEASONALITY_IN_TOURISM_causes_implications_and_strategies>.
  2. Cuccia, Tiziana, and Ilde Rizzo. "Tourism Seasonality in Cultural Destinations: Empirical Evidence from Sicily." Tourism Management 32.3 (2011): 589-95. ScienceDirect. Web. 8 Nov. 2016. <http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0261517710000920>.
  3. Matias, Álvaro, Peter Nijkamp, and Manuela Sarmento. "Impact of Tourism." Tourism Economics (2011): p. 261 - 280. Web.
  4. Turner, Rochelle, comp. Economic Impact 2015 Italy. Rep. London: World Travel and Tourism Council, 2015. Print. Travel and Tourism.
  5. Yang, SooCheong. "Mitigating Tourism Seasonality: A Quantitative Approach." Mitigating Tourism Seasonality: A Quantitative Approach. Kansas State University, 25 Nov. 2004. Web. 8 Nov. 2016. <http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0160738304000672>.