Pokémon Go is taking the real and virtual worlds by storm.
Within days of the game’s release[G1], it was the top grossing app in the U.S. App Store[G2], had more average daily users than well-established apps like Instagram, Messenger, or Snapchat and outpaced mobile classics [G3] like Candy Crush or Clash Royale.
As of July 13 the game had allegedly acquired over 21 million users[G4] and had already raked in millions of dollars for its creators and part-owners, Niantic and Nintendo.
Because the game encourages players to: 1) travel the real world — hunting and capturing virtual Pokémon — and 2) gather at recognizable public landmarks such as museums, national parks, and local heritage sites — Pokéstops[G5] — along the way, the tourism industry has Pokémon Go in its crosshairs.
Some local communities are drooling over the increases in visitors to their communities and see Pokémon Go as a boon to their tourism economies[G6].
Others are pushing back in an effort to preserve the character of their tourism resources and the quality of the tourism experience.
In either case, Pokémon Go is transforming the tourism industry, for better AND for worse.
1. Like it or Not, Here they Come
The Poké-tourists may be coming your way whether you like it or not.
Instead of searching for authenticity like tourists of yore, these 21st century tourists are on the hunt for Pokémon.
New tourists are coming in droves and locals are bringing energy and fresh eyes to their home communities one Pokéstop at a time. Tourism agencies in the U.S. haven’t turned a blind eye to these trends and are trying to capitalize on the Poké -craze all across the country[G7].
The LEGOLAND Florida Resort[G8], for instance, is linking virtual game play with real world attractions in an effort to redirect attention to their products and services. In a recent LEGOLAND news release, the resort attempted to advertise its food and beverage services by telling players that if they found a creature near the Fun Town Pizza Plaza they ought to step inside and let a ‘Model Citizen’ know that they “prefer pepperoni over Poké Balls.”
In Moundsville West Virginia[G9], the Convention and Visitors Bureau is trying to attract people to their museums and other attractions by buying and setting ‘lures,’ an in-app purchase, at those sites. They see the game as advantageous because:
…it gets people “out of their homes and into the streets” where they may be exposed to some of the cities unknown ‘gems.’
The Branson Tourism [G10] Center is using their blog to market themselves as a Pokéstop and encourages visitors to 1) look for Pokémon at local attractions, and 2) linger and enjoy the fun of those attractions while they are there.
Like other communities, they are interested in increased tourism revenue, not just increased visitation.
West Palm Beach Zoo and other businesses in Palm Beach County [G11] have tried to use social media to endorse the game at their paid attractions, thereby increasing tourism spending. They see the game as a way to reach previously untapped markets. These businesses are also promoting discounts for the first players to catch a Pokémon at their establishments, in an effort to convert new visitation into actual tourism dollars. Similarly, Tuscaloosa[G12] tourism is offering swag to game players who stop in at their visitor’s center and local businesses, in hopes that when the game play is over, the tourism fun (and spending) won’t stop.
‘Rare’ Pokémon are also being used to increase traffic to tourism websites and destinations [G13] with noticeable success. Sokcho South Korea[G14], for example, saw a four times increase in hotel room bookings after the game was released and as one of only sites in the country where game play is currently permitted, it is banking on repeat visitation.
Likewise, Central Park in New York[G15] saw its first “stampede” after a rare Pokémon sighting in the park brought an onslaught of visitors and halted area traffic.
Ascedia, a marketing company based out of Milwaukee[G16], recently drew attention to three ways the tourism industry could and should take advantage of Pokémon Go: 1) Gamification, 2) Memorializing and Sharing, and 3) Facilitating Discovery. In Syracuse, NY[G17] for example, the game is helping locals and visitors see the downtown area with new eyes (facilitating discovery). And, since Poké -tourists are also checking in on Facebook and other social media while they play, downtown Syracuse may be getting some free marketing in the process (Memorializing and sharing).
That said, the folks in Syracuse are skeptical as to whether or not the game will bring in new revenue for local business.
Given some of the glitches and complaints associated with the game, they have every right to be.
Because at the end of the day, tourists, and tourism can be fickle.
2. Pokéstops in all the Wrong Places
The location of Pokéstops, Pokéballs, and critters has created some ethical challenges and forced tourism agencies to rethink safety and risk management at their destinations.
The most common problem seems to surround gameplay that occurs in sensitive spaces. For example, Holocaust museums [G18] in the U.S. and Holocaust sites [G19] abroad are petitioning players and the game’s creators to avoid or discourage gameplay at their locations. Their pleas run parallel to calls from local tour operators and the Jewish community for increased respect for these sites/museums and what they represent.
Other tourism destinations have restricted gameplay or tried to communicate with their consumers about game etiquette.
LEGOLAND[G20] Florida Resort, for example, provides guidelines to Poké-tourists to keep players out of unsafe or restricted areas. They also remind players not to climb fences or exit rides early in order to ensure their safety.
National Parks[G21], which have traditionally struggled to attract new patrons, are seeing increases in visitation.
But, these increases are also potentially concerning.
The types of behaviors exhibited by Poke-tourists may be less than desirable [G22] in these natural spaces and turn into a management nightmare for park managers who are already plagued by existing user conflicts and concerns regarding the environmental impact of tourists.
3. Poké-players and Tourists Clash
There are other reasons the industry might not be thrilled about Pokémon Go and conflict between ‘traditional’ tourists and Poke-tourists is one of them.
In New York City, an already bustling tourism stop, the prospect of new Poké-tourism is somewhat unsettling. Businesses are concerned that the Poké-tourists may clog busy transportation channels, crowd out revenue-generating tourists, push tourists into unusual (and unwanted) spaces, and bring in products and services that could challenge the ambiance of the city.
In Ottawa[G23], a Canadian community located a few hours north of New York City, it has become obvious that the game can be a hazard and a distraction from local sites, rather than a tool to promote them. One parent’s concern is that her kids’ heads are always facing down at the screen rather than looking up at the sites, a concern shared by tourism providers hoping to see spending and engagement increase at their local establishments.
If tourism providers can’t translate gameplay into revenue or curtail player impacts they may actually see a decline in tourism revenues rather than growth.
4. 21st Century Tour Guides
Destination management organizations (DMOs), Convention and Visitors Bureaus (CVBs), and local tour operators are being upstaged by the modern guide: Pokémon Go.
In some ways, this so-called Cyber Tourism [G24] is unnerving because DMOs and CVBS have already been losing control of their destinations to tourists via digital platforms and tools.
Tourists, through new tech, are dictating the hot spots, changing the brand image, and shaping the marketing material of destinations — all roles that DMOs and CVBs have traditionally filled.
Brandon Walker, a writer in Philadelphia[G25], wrote that his first experience with the game was more like a walking tour of Philly than a hunt for Pokémon. He, like others, saw buildings, statues, and other local sites for the first time. Justin Sablich of the New York Times [G26] had a similar experience but acknowledged that while the app takes you to all the right places, it tells you nothing about them.
If DMOs and CVBs want to reassert their role as the gatekeepers of their communities, this interpretation gap could be their path to success.
Right now, the tourism industry is probably thinking something along the lines of “Why didn’t we think of that?”
But a better question to ask now that Pokémon Go has ‘arrived’, is:
“Where do we go from here?”
The Gamification of Tourism through apps like Pokémon Go could push tourism into a new realm of technology and innovation. While the industry needs to take on a role of responsibility as it moves forward, protecting sensitive and natural spaces, it could also create a profitable partnership with the tech industry to change the face of travel as we know it.
If the tourism industry doesn’t engage with Pokémon Go directly, it is likely to have a minor social and economic crisis on its hands. However, as always, if the industry over commits and the app fails, it risks similar economic and social consequences. While it isn’t entirely clear how the industry should engage with Poké-tourists, one thing is for certain: they’ve gotta catch ’em all.