Friday, March 16, 2012

Relative Scarcity in Exotic Travel

If you ever want an example of just how fickle people's preferences really are, look no further than their choice of holiday destinations.

The context I came across this in is the relative perception of Bali and Mexico.

To Americans, Bali is a land of exotic beaches, beautiful resorts and interesting locals. It's a good choice of honeymoon destination, and a holiday choice designed to make people thoroughly envious.

Mexico, on the other hand, is the crass and unoriginal place where low-rent rednecks go to drink cheap beer and stay in some generic resort.

To Australians, hilariously, the perceptions are exactly reversed. Bali is the place where football teams go for their boozy holidays, and you meet lots of other derelict Australians. But Mexico is enticing, with delicious food, amazing beaches, and Corona everywhere you look.

The reality is that both places are pretty similar - they provide fairly easy beach holidays with a range of accommodation options, and attract a lot of locals from their richer nearby neighbours - Americans go to Mexico more, and Australians go to Bali more.

But the relative scarcity of each place determines in part how it's perceived in each country.

As far as I can tell, there's two likely explanations.

The first is that this is about bragging rights - you need to go somewhere special so that you can boast to your friends, and even though Bali might be similar to Mexico, you choose the one that sounds better and makes you feel well travelled when you get home.

The second is that there's a self-fulfilling prophesy going on with accommodation spending. When you spend two grand on an airfare, you're more likely to stay in the expensive resort upon arrival. This makes the place seem super lush, and you go back and tell your friends how great it is. When you spend five hundred on the airfare, you stay in some cheap motel with the other budget travellers, and this reinforces the impression of a bargain kind of place.

While #2 might sound kind of rational, it's hard to reconcile with a proper search of the options - if you're American and want a nice holiday but don't care about what anyone else thinks, why don't you just stay in a nicer hotel in Mexico?

I'm led to believe that #1 must have something to do with it. But strangely, I don't think this is explicit - the Americans I know who went to Bali truly believed that it really was completely different from Mexico in lots of essential dimensions. As a result, they didn't seem especially thrilled when I pointed out that to Australians, Bali was basically like Mexico.

In other words, bragging doesn't work unless you've also convinced yourself that this was a better option. Cognitive dissonance, anyone?

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