Interview with Don Dioko on Macau, Tourism Marketing and Destination Branding in China

Leonardo “Don” Dioko, Professor and Director of the International Tourism Research Centre of Macau at the Institute for Tourism Studies in Macau, China, in this interview reflects on tourism marketing and destination branding research. He also addresses the pitfalls of region branding, referring to China’s Greater Bay Area development, and gives us a sneak preview of the upcoming Place Branding conference hosted by his institute in Macau this December.

Learn about:

  • How researchers are shifting focus from traditional tourism marketing to strategic destination branding;
  • The difference between tourism marketing and destination branding;
  • The changing role of DMOs [Destination Marketing Organizations];
  • Why the 3rd IPBA Conference will have a strong focus on connecting scholars from different disciplines;
  • What a destination branding strategy for China’s Greater Bay Area would ideally look like;
  • The diplomatic and economic potential of China’s Belt and Road initiative.

Don, as Director of the Tourism Research Centre at the Institute for Tourism Studies in Macao, what role does the branding or reputation of destinations play in your research, and in tourism studies more generally?

Most of the studies we do at ITRC focus on tourism policies and monitoring their effects—both intended and unintended—on the community. Similar types of studies are done by research centres all over the world, where they are referred to as tourism impact studies, visitor image studies, resident perception studies, or environmental monitoring studies. They all share the same purpose: Capture the change which tourism hastens in a community.

What many scholars and practitioners don’t realize is those studies are often backward looking, retrospective. They usually conclude with clichéd recommendations which, in essence, are actually grounded on identifying and managing the destination brand or reputation.

In Macao’s case, we realized this critical distinction early on: That branding a destination and managing its reputation is distinct from tourism marketing and promotion, though both are closely interwoven.

Branding a destination and managing its reputation is distinct from tourism marketing and promotion, though both are closely interwoven.

As I write this, the latest 2018 Smiling Report (by Better Business Worldwide) just came out, ranking Macao 27th out of a field of 29 countries, continuing its dismal performance in recent years.

Regardless of the study’s validity, do metrics like these enlighten Macao’s intended tourism marketing, image, and promotional efforts? I doubt it. Tourism marketing campaigns tend to march on independent of these metrics and others like it, such as Tripadvisor comments, to wit.

So, one can mount a tourism marketing campaign without incorporating the underlying needs, trends, and developments rooted in the community. This shows the stark and growing divergence between tourism marketing and destination branding practice (and research, might I add).

Why has branding and destination reputation played a central role in our Centre’s research activities? Because for years Macao has tried—and continues tirelessly to this day—to shift away from its unshakeable brand association as a mere casino and gambling destination.

When Macao’s gaming industry was liberalized in 2002 and when its historic centre earned the coveted status of a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005, Macao’s policy- and decision-makers recognized the tremendous and sometimes contradictory changes taking place. They realized that there was more afoot than just developments surrounding tourism.

It is not coincidental that the first Destination Branding and Marketing conference (DBM-I) was launched and hosted by IFT in 2005, in the midst of all these developments. The simple but overwhelming epiphany then was that Macao should be attuned to destination branding more than tourism promotion.

On a larger scale, it appears tourism studies are shifting away from ‘marketing’ to ‘branding’. In recent years there has been a meteoric rise in studies with the keyword ‘branding’ being published, with a decline in ‘marketing’ studies (though these are still dominant).

What these developments suggest is that we, especially the work we do in Macao, continue to be at the throes of significant changes taking place in tourism, regionally and globally speaking.

At the Institute for Tourism Studies here in Macau, our attention is shifting away from the broad function of tourism marketing and promotion to the more complex and intricate concept of destination or place branding.

One of the key messages which previous interviewees have shared in connection with tourism is that the practice of destination marketing is currently undergoing a paradigm shift, with DMOs under pressure to “reinvent” themselves as brand stewards and destination managers. Is this something you also observe in Macao or Hong Kong?

This observation is half-correct, in my view. DMOs reinventing themselves to become brand stewards is indeed realistic; but striving to be destination managers is almost impossible because that is a contradiction in terms.

From what I’ve learned over the years and working on the ground in Macao and close to Hong Kong, no destination can be managed fully or successfully. Destination management is essentially, at its core, societal-cultural management, which cannot be achieved by one man or agency, however resource-laden and politically empowered.

The divergence of tourism marketing and policies from societal and cultural needs has become so evident in recent events, in such diverse communities as Barcelona, several Thai islands, Bali, Venice, Berlin, and yes, even in Hong Kong.

I would say that DMOs are stuck in the old school of branding, which assumes that destinations can be strategically branded like goods with decisions emanating from a room full of analysts, researchers, creatives, advertising agencies, and executives engaged in planning and meeting for hours.

DMOs should by now realize that a destination’s brand already exists and is out there, evolving and adapting very much out of their grasp and comprehension.

It is encouraging, though, that DMOs recognize a need to reinvent themselves, but it would take more than just acknowledging it. They need to rethink how they think.

This December you are hosting the Intl. Place Branding Association’s 2018 conference at your institute. In a nutshell, what is the conference about? What kind of participants are you looking for?

This year’s 3rd IPBA Conference is being hosted by the Destination Branding and Marketing (DBM) special interest group. We anticipate great synergy and stimulating cross-pollination of ideas between tourism marketers and place branding practitioners and scholars.

There is also a doctoral colloquium scheduled for budding scholars to share their work. This year’s conference will strive to continue the great tradition which began 12 years ago right here in Macao: To emphasize the broader and interdisciplinary nature of destination marketing and place branding.

One of the important take aways from last year’s Art Gallery session is that place branding can occur from creative products and crafts of a community, for example, its native jewellery, food, and even music. We aim to continue this session and thus welcome stakeholders who—whether they know it or not—actually contribute to the branding of their community.

I had the honour last year to deliver a keynote at the IPBA conference and one of the slides I showed encapsulated the commonalities and discords of the different ‘tribes’ or communities of place branding:

Place branding research tracks, Don Dioko paper

By analysing the most frequently used words used in papers published in the different ‘tracks’ that made up the inaugural IPBA conference in 2016, I found that we were all united in some key concepts but at the same time hopelessly insulated in other concepts.

Destination branding and marketing papers, for example, tend to focus only on tourism, whereas city, nation, and regional brand papers diverged in terms of culture and diversity issues. Place management thinkers were more fixated on what makes a place favourable or attractive.

What this analysis underscored to me was that there has to be more synergy and dynamics that bring us all together in one forum—whatever the format—in order for us to converge more meaningfully and emerge from our self-defined intellectual and practitioner silos.

With consultations and planning for China’s Greater Bay Area well under way – how will this ambitious plan to connect Hong Kong, Macao and Guangdong province as one “business region” affect the identities of Hong Kong and Macao as cities with a long history and rich heritage?

That is the question of the hour indeed. At the moment, we at IFT are joining forces with Hong Kong Polytechnic University’s School of Hotel and Tourism Management, and with the School of Tourism and Management of Sun Yat Sen University in a trilateral research collaboration to address this and many other related issues brought forth by this unprecedented urban agglomeration.

The first of these studies will tackle the joint destination branding of this new Greater Bay Area concept and is already gathering pace. (So, it is only timely and fitting that the IPBA-3 and DBM-VI conferences are taking place precisely in the midst of this phenomenon in December!)

As to how the Greater Bay Area will affect the identities of Hong Kong and Macao, this will depend on how much protection and respect the unique cultural strengths and characteristics of either communities will be accorded under the context of greater integration.

The risk of losing the character of a place does not come, I reckon, from greater temporal proximity or more convenient accessibility. It often comes from the more insidious effects of one-sided development or misguided priorities.

For example, in the San Francisco Bay Area, the dominant success of the tech sector has made rents and housing affordability out of reach for many, forcing residents—and along with them many small businesses—out of the picture, indelibly changing the character and identity of the place.

With the benefit of hindsight of this particular case and many others like it, Hong Kong, Macao, and other communities in the Greater Bay Area can learn how to prevent the same from happening.

Where do you see the potential pitfalls in this economic development and regional branding initiative?

One of the most common pitfalls is the homogenization of the entire region’s economy and culture. Homogenization is often detrimental to the underlying freedom and creative processes that generates so much of the arts, creative products, and cultural uniqueness that give value to place brands.

Fortunately, the three big cities of the Bay Area, Guangzhou, Hong Kong, and Macao, as well as the surrounding communities, all possess already strong economic bases (Macao in gaming and entertainment, Hong Kong in financial services, Shenzhen in high-value manufacturing, Zhuhai in resorts and leisure, to name a few). The challenge now lies in making sure that integration is catalytic, rather than inhibitive.

Another potential pitfall is whether the free flow of creative and professional talent and openness to visitors and migrant workers remains strongly in place. Diversity, openness, and tolerance are what made these areas huge economic and cultural successes, each in its own right.

Regional branding efforts should reflect the values of the diverse communities making up the region and should be a bottom-up process, rather than top-down.

If charged with developing the destination branding strategy for the Greater Bay Area, what would you propose? For instance, how would you get tourism boards and service providers to embrace the new brand in their strategies and communications, and ensure that there is a willingness for collaboration across the region, rather than inter-city competition?

Your question hits the nail right on its head. Tourism service providers and tourism boards should recognize that the destination brand already exists and is evolving, even without their intervention. They should abandon their usual “know-it-all” stance and yes, as you put it earlier, they should be brand stewards more than brand managers.

The willingness to collaborate is counter-intuitive to managers who have their own budgets and army of marketers. What they should first do is re-examine and change their roles from being predominantly active-directive (dictating what should be done) to being passive-supportive (analytical and evaluative in determining trends and to the needs of their local stakeholders and visitors).

Sharing data and knowledge is the first step. Hence, at IFT, we are already engaging our tourism education partners in Hong Kong and Zhuhai. We are already working on sharing our knowledge and data, as well as integrating our visitor profile studies and research.

China’s Belt and Road initiative no doubt is going to have strong implications for trade and diplomacy across the 60 countries involved in this infrastructure mega-development. What are the implications for tourism?

We actually just had a Forum in April on this very topic. One of the takeaways is that trade and diplomacy cannot occur without a commensurate increase in people-to-people exchanges via greater tourism flows between the Belt and Road countries.

One exciting and major implication of this momentous development is that Belt and Road countries will need to re-think their visa policies and find ways of making their borders more open, working toward easing the mobility of visitors.

This initiative does pose numerous and seemingly insurmountable problems and EU-like integration and open borders will not occur overnight. But there is one historic fact that naysayers ignore: It’s been done hundreds of years before in what was historically called the Silk Road.

So, if this historic era is resurrected in our modern day and age, the potential benefits it would bring to people in so many countries would be immense, as it did in the past.

Which trends do you observe in Asia with regards to how cities or regions develop, manage or communicate their brand?

One of the most palpable trends appears to be greater awareness and efforts in preserving both tangible and intangible cultural heritage (though some are promoted rather inappropriately), led mostly by community stakeholders, rather than the tourism promoters.

In some countries, such as Thailand and the Philippines, islands are being closed off to tourists (hopefully only temporarily) in order to revitalize their natural ecosystems and reverse environmental degradation.

In small communities such as Macao, almost-extinct languages and hitherto unknown festivals are being revived and rejuvenated (with funding support from government!) by civic groups and, more encouragingly, are now front and center in many tourism promotion campaigns.

All these might not appear as inherently related to place branding, but they are. No destination can be branded if there is nothing of unique value to speak of in the first place.

Many Chinese cities are now adopting destination branding practices and research to undergird their tourism marketing. I am buoyed by these and other developments as they hasten a wonderful renaissance of branded Asian destinations. Not just for tourism purposes, but also for celebrating the diverse and unique communities that make Asia and China such lovely places to live in or visit.

Anything else you’d like to mention?

Thank you for this opportunity to share my views. I am very appreciative of media such as The Place Brand Observer for being a go-to place when it comes to place branding and destination marketing knowledge and news. There is so much going on in the art and science of place branding that it is often hard to keep up. Because of this, I am thankful of what you guys do. Keep it up!

Thank you, Don.

Connect with Don Dioko on LinkedIn or learn more about the Macau Institute for Tourism Studies here.


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