Dennis D. McDonald ( consults from Alexandria Virginia. His services include writing & research, proposal development, and project management.

Can Social Media Help Driving-based Tourism When Gas Prices Rise?

By Dennis D. McDonald

What happens to driving-based tourism when gas prices rise?

The answer should be pretty obvious: driving based tourism suffers.

To combat such a decline, are there ways to use social media and social networking techniques to supplement traditional advertising?

Courtesy of Elsevier’s ScienceDirect, here’s a quotation from the abstract of a 2004 research study based on data for a 13-year period conducted by Kate Walsh, Cathy A. Enz, and Linda Canina of Cornell University. The study, published in the December 2004 International Journal of Hospitality Management, is titled The impact of gasoline price fluctuations on lodging demand for US brand hotels:

“…the results [of the study] reveal that lodging demand decreases as gasoline prices rise in all segments except upper-upscale and all locations except urban areas. Hotels in midscale without food and beverage and economy market segments, in resort, suburban and highway locations, exhibit the greatest association between gasoline price shifts and demand.”

I thought about this recently while watching a TV news report on work being done at the giant Crazy Horse memorial in South Dakota. I had the good fortune to have visited and toured South Dakota several times years ago with my wife and children. Ever since, I’ve recommended to friends (most recently via Twitter) that a vacation in South Dakota is one of the most interesting and exotic vacation experiences you’ll ever have. Where else, for example, can you experience something like Mt. Rushmore one day, Reptile Gardens another, and then on the third, get caught while driving in the middle of a herd of buffalo in Custer State Park? (Not to mention Spearfish, Sturgis, Deadwood, Wall Drug, and the opportunity to fish and hike in some of the most gorgeous country you’ll ever see.)


Flying to a destination such as South Dakota can be expensive. Most visitors drive through by car.  In times of rising gas prices, that’s the problem for tourism destinations dependent on auto traffic.

During my wife’s stint as the VP of a travel research strategy consultancy I learned some things about tourism and how dependent it is on auto travel. State employment and tax revenues are sensitive to travel and tourism in states like South Dakota. State- and industry-sponsored advertising and promotion are therefore important tools.

Can social media and social networking help promote tourism to a destination such as South Dakota where there are high-recognition destinations (e.g., Mt. Rushmore, the Badlands, etc.) surrounded by many other drivable destinations that can appeal to many different age groups and travel preferences?

Perhaps one place to focus would be on the process people follow in selecting a travel destination.  Prospective travelers seek out information from a wide range of sources, including both advertising and recommendations of friends and relatives.

State travel industry associations, large destinations and attractions, and state economic development agencies interested in tourism promotion have long realized the importance of key generating markets. Print and electronic media advertising are targeted in geographic areas that have a high likelihood of generating travel to the target destinations, either because the locations are known from past experience to generate travel or because the locations are being targeted as likely generating markets.

Usually such advertising is scheduled to coincide with the times when people are seeking information and making decisions about vacation travel destinations. This is usually coordinated with web site and mail based information (e.g., “call this number or go to this web site for a travel guide about X”).

Would social media and social networking based communications have a role in reaching not only travelers but also those who are in a position to recommend destinations? How realistic is it to develop online relationships based on travel interests associated with specific destinations? Would people participate? Would they be willing to spend the time interacting with others?

As mentioned above, Ihave personally recommended South Dakota as a travel destination many times, but currently I don’t belong to or regularly visit any of the various forums, web sites, or blogs sponsored by South Dakota agencies or destinations. I’m just not considering returning there anytime soon.

But in recent years I have sought out discussions of different travel destinations to supplement what I find in “official” guides and sources, especially when traveling outside the U.S. There is no shortage of such services online. One example is Travelers can post their own experiences about various travel destinations and it’s easy to research specific sites. With a few clicks on VirtualTourist I was able to locate warnings about the driving hazards posed by “mountain goats” near Mt. Rushmore. Easily accessible also were sponsored ads relating to South Dakota travel.

Online sources such as Flickr (search for South Dakota) and YouTube (search for Mt. Rushmore) can also be searched for information about individual states and state travel destinations. A search on Facebook for “South Dakota” returns 500+ people, 9 pages, 500+ groups, and 115 events; my guess is that the adventurous traveler will find something useful in there should he or she be willing to look.

The reality is that social media and social networking tools are potential sources of information for people who are planning a driving vacation in these price-conscious times.

The sources I cited in the above paragraphs are not directly controllable the way traditional advertising is. For example, if someone posts a complaint on someone’s private travel forum that a vacation was ruined because a stray “mountain goat” was hit by a car near Mt. Rushmore, there’s no taking that back. State travel agencies will need to learn how to deal with such situations, and that will require a comprehensive communications strategy that addresses both traditional as well as social applications.

  • Copyright (c) 2008 by Dennis D. McDonald
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