What’s in a destination?

The recent family trip to Australia triggered another thought which has taken me this long to pen down due to mounting work commitment.

Many of the places we visited were recommended by Lonely Planet. Apart from the obvious destinations like Brisbane, Gold Coast, Blue Mountain and Sydney, most others were chosen simply based on faith in the authors of the guide books.

Even though Australia is naturally one of the oldest places in the world, it is comparatively bare of historical landmarks which usually would have been the main deciding factor for me in planning my itinerary. Much as I am a nature lover, it is difficult to fully appreciate what it has to offer with young children in toll.

Turned out that many of the towns we stopped by were so unassuming that it didn’t feel like a tourist destination at all and most of the operators don’t really try hard to market their services too.

This led me to think about what makes a good destination, and more personally, how it is possible to make my home in Singapore seem like a worthy and interesting destination for visitors.

I think it can be summed up in three Ps – Place, People and Publicity

There is no destination without a place. There must be a designated area to begin with. Be it a natural feature, a historical landmark, a cultural exhibition or a man-made attraction – something to anchor the place.

Natural features would naturally (pun intended) refer to mountains, valleys, beaches, oceans, deserts, rainforests, rivers and whatever else God so creatively made.

Historical landmarks would usually be marked by some structure, a public square, fountain, church, castle, temple, building, monument, bridge all backed with historical evidence of course.

Cultural exhibition could be in the form of a museum, art, song or dance performance or simply an ethnic way of life that is unique to the destination.

Lastly when nothing of the above exists, man-made attractions never fail – theme parks, shopping malls, casinos, zoos and spas to soothe the tired body and soul.

However having a place alone is not sufficient if it has no amenities to welcome visitors. For a place to become a destination there must be available amenities to entice people to come stay, eat, shop and experience for at least one day.

However lest I begin to sound like a commercial advocate, while it is important to focus on the customer, one must also balance it with sustainability of the environment. For if there is no place to begin with, there will be no people.

Of course the extent of the availability and level of comfort would differ from place to place, probably as a subset of demand. The more popular a destination, the more the money mongers will flock to it.

Much as I hate to admit it, although I like to traverse on roads less travelled, I have become used to certain standards of living. It seems that the lure of man-made attraction seems to bring comfort for a person home away from home and when it is lacking, it does impact the experience.

When I was in Australia, I had certain expectations of what a developed country should look, smell and feel like and surprisingly it lacked all those in large doses. Maybe that is what makes the country so attractive – the laid back, slower pace of life.

Lastly, you need publicity, word of mouth to spread the news about a destination and why it is worth visiting. I give credit to the authors of guidebooks who are able to somehow provide such a delectable description of a place which ends up short of it when I finally get there.

You cannot imagine how often I have asked Theo to make detours on all our travels to visit a particular location on the sole basis of such guides only to be disappointed by what is offered. Hence my increasing disbelief in everything you read in the books.

I seriously wonder how the authors decide on whether a place is worthy to write about and should be given due attention in the guide. And of course, since you bother to print it on your book, might as well pepper it with flowery language.

A more adventurous alternative would be to check out the local tourist information center upon arrival in any place and bravely ask the person in charge, ‘what’s good around here?’ Any true blue and proud local would be happy to share all the inside secrets of where to find what.

I did that when I was in Forster. I stopped by to ask for directions in Myall Lake National Park and the man in charge ended up whipping out a map of the area and all the hidden enclaves I could explore. The best recommendation was The Green Cathedral, which he told me had been voted as top ten places to get married in the world!

Theo and I checked out the totally untouristy place and was really stunned by the beauty of the naturally set cathedral overlooking the lake at sunset. It was one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen and it really made my day to find a hidden gem like this.

Granted Lonely Planet made a by the way mention of the place but I bet the author did not actually visit the cathedral or there would have been more explicit comments.

A third source of information would be traveller forums and blogs like mine where people who have actually gone places give the real description of a destination and whether it is worth visiting. Some unintended publicity for me.

So there you have it. The three ingredients to a perfect destination.

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