What if your vacation could truly transport you – not just to a new place, but rather to a past moment in time? In recent years, leaders in the hospitality industry have started to promote “nostalgia tourism” – trips that take travelers back to the “good old days” by allowing them to re-experience places and activities that they loved once before.

In psychological terms, nostalgia can be defined as “a yearning to return home to the past,” more specifically to a “sanitized past,” which has been scrubbed of all negative memories, leaving only positive, vivid impressions. Travel brands can capitalize on this psychological impulse by promoting their establishments as beloved retro escapes. Research proves that this marketing tactic works. A recent study published in The Harvard Business Review, for example, noted that people experiencing nostalgia felt a greater sense of connectedness to others and were more willing to spend their money.

Walt Disney World is the quintessential example of nostalgia tourism. More than 40 years after the park’s opening in 1971, many of its vintage rides remain largely untouched. Visitors who came to the park as children in the 70s can return with their own kids, finding attractions like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride and It’s a Small World virtually the same as they remember. Disney World and similar destinations thus promote a specific kind of getaway – a return to the comforting touchstones of childhood.

Travel Industry Nostalgia Marketing

Cultural Globalization and the Nostalgic Impulse

Why is nostalgia driving travel trends at this particular moment? One possible reason for tourists’ intensified longing for the familiar is the spread of cultural globalization. Scholars have researched this phenomenon, arguing that “nostalgia is an important component of how people establish a sense of place and continue to value distinctive place experiences.”

Moreover, recent political unrest and a growing sense of cultural divisiveness seem to have contributed to the public’s yearning for a simpler, happier era. As Don Usner, author of New Mexico Route 66 on Tour: Legendary Architecture from Glenrio to Gallup, explains “People are longing for a simpler past, for a time when the world wasn’t so complicated and we didn’t have so much doubt and insecurity and maybe had more unity as a country”.

Nostalgia tourism resonates with tourists’ emotions on both of these levels – enticing travelers with the allure of authentic, genuine experiences, while also promoting the values of a romanticized past.

Selling Nostalgia: Memories and Marketing

Generally, nostalgia marketing has effectively reached a wide range of consumers spanning generations, from millennials to baby boomers. Nostalgia tourism, however, specifically targets older generations seeking to recreate their childhoods. As The Boston Globe observed, there has been a recent uptick in travel to tourist destinations that were popular in the 1950s and 1960s – Route 66, Hawaii, Disneyland, and Cuba. Hotels, theme parks, and restaurants have taken note, aiming to do whatever it takes to fulfill their customers’ nostalgic fantasies.

For instance, SmarTours, a travel company that provides tours to Cuba, a fashionable tourist destination for the jet-set of the 50s and 60s, fully embraces the country’s storied history. SmarTours promises its guests “the best of Cuba,” including excursions to drive vintage cars in Havana and sip daiquiris at Ernest Hemingway’s home. For Baby Boomers who came of age during Cuba’s heyday as the “Latin Las Vegas,” such experiences entice with the allure of old-school glamour. For the less adventurous, retro attractions may be found just around the corner. Drive-ins, roller rinks, and boardwalk rides throughout America promote wholesome recreation that harkens to a departed era.

Nostalgia Marketing in the Hospitality Industry

Using Nostalgia in Travel Marketing

Travel brands interested in using nostalgia marketing to connect with their consumers should consider the following:

1. Embrace kitsch. Travelers interested in retro-escapes are looking for destinations outside of the modern and the mundane. And they’re willing to welcome a bit of kitsch along the way. Trying hula dancing in Hawaii, riding the Ferris wheel on the Santa Cruz boardwalk, roasting marshmallows at a bungalow in the Catskills. While cliché, these sorts of activities immerse tourists in the fantasy of Americana that they’re seeking.

2. Provide a sense of history. Marketers can also charm consumers by capitalizing on their establishments’ connections to the past. For instance, the recently reopened Crystal Bay Casino on Lake Tahoe celebrates its famed history as a favorite haunt of the Rat Pack, attracting visitors interested in vacationing like Sinatra.

3. Feature retro visual content. Travel brands seeking to capitalize upon nostalgia need to be sure that their marketing visuals align with this strategy. Vintage inspired content should appear authentic – but not dated or tired. Strategic choices of visual content and an understanding of current marketing trends are crucial to striking this balance.

In sum, nostalgia tourism harnesses the consumer’s potent emotional connections to a locale, promising the comfort of the familiar. Distinct from other kinds of recent travel trends that highlight the new and the exotic, nostalgia tourism means embarking on an inward journey of sorts, a sojourn into one’s own most cherished memories of a bygone time and place.

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