Destination Image Formation, Image and Image Formation, Semiotics and Tourism

Destination Image Formation

We understand that today with ever-improving technology, means of transportation, and communication, we live in a shrinking world where people have been brought closer. The increased disposable incomes and time have enhanced the chances of people to engage in touristic activities. We also understand that the tourists expect a pleasurable experience and want maximum entertainment for the money and time they spend. Thus, tourism can be called an ‘experiential product’, and the tourists purchase this product based on its qualities. This takes us to another part of the study on tourism and culture, i.e., ‘where to go?’ 

Here in this section, we focus on tourist destinations. The increase in tourist activities and a growing number of tourist destinations have resulted in a highly competitive global marketplace where destinations compete for potential tourists. The images and representations of a particular destination are so created so that it gets positioned clearly in the mind of the potential tourist and persuades him/ her to visit or revisit a particular place. Each destination today claims to have luxury accommodations and unique attractions and it becomes all the more difficult for marketers to promote their destinations. Here then two important elements are employed by advertising agents and marketers:

  • Use of images to increase the symbolic value of the destination (image formation)
  • Ways to effectively communicate these images (focussing on semiotics)

Image and Image Formation

Images are artificial imitations or representations of the external form of any object or a person (Boorstin 1961; 197). Image is a visual representation of something absent and something that has been recreated and reproduced. The major meaning of the image is the visibility or visual imaginability of objects which can be represented in the media through pictures, photos, and screens.

An image has several characteristics, i.e., it is vivid, concrete; has visual components; it is social and has an audience; it is a simplified and partial representation of the object; images are manipulated and often biased and are ambiguous and finally they are communicated via social media. All these characteristics of the image can apply to tourist destinations. The images of the destinations reflect the selective features of a place to lure potential tourists. Crompton (1978) defines a destination image as ‘the aggregate sum of beliefs, ideas, impressions and expectations that a tourist has about a destination area’ Gartner and Hunt (1987) define tourist images as impressions held about a destination. The study of the destination image came to the forefront in the 1970s when J.D.

Hunt in his article ‘Image as a factor in Tourism Development (1975) highlighted that destination image plays a central role in the tourist’s selection process. It is now agreed by the scholars that a positive destination image results in increased visitation and also has an impact on the selection of the destination by the tourist. Several researchers have studied destination image as an independent variable influencing other variables such as consumers’ choice of destination, decision making, and satisfaction.

Scholars have shown that several factors play a role in destination image formation. Image formation is defined as a construction of a mental representation of a destination based on information cues delivered by the image formation agents (Gunn 1972: Gartner 1993, and Bramwell and Rawding 1996). Information essential to the destination is a composite of individual inputs as well as market inputs. The marketers or advertising agents indulge in promotional efforts to establish/ create a positive image through advertising and publicity. The image that is thus formed is an imitation or representation of the destination, is a visual presentation, and is a simplified version of the actual place.

The advertisements in the tourism industry that tend to build a positive image of a place are communicated via brochures, billboards, newspapers, magazines, and television. All these mediums work through the principle of ‘visual inclusion and exclusion’ which means that certain visual components are highlighted while others are excluded.

Underlying this principle of inclusion and exclusion is the idea of profit-making and even destinations that are visually ordinary and may lack any unique attractions like landscapes or scenery can be symbolically transformed into extraordinary destinations via advertising. This symbolic transformation of reality turns an ordinary place into a potential destination. The potential destination then becomes a commodity and penetrates the market to lure tourists.


Semiotics and Tourism

Semiotics is the study of signs and how meanings are generated from signs. Assign is anything that refers to something other than itself and the meaning of a sign depends on the interpretation of the reader (Echtner1999: 47). Semiotics is the branch of study that deals with the meanings and interpretations of signs. This work was developed with the work of scholars like linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) and philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914). Later Roland Barthes (1915-1980) advanced the understanding of semiotics. According to the scholarship on semiotics, a sign consists of a signifier and a signified. The signifier is the physical appearance of the sign and the signified is the mental concept to which it refers.

Saussure was interested in the relationship between the signifier and the signified, Peirce went further in examining the structure of the meaning and did not see signs merely as words but also as non-verbal signs. The theories of Saussure and Peirce form the basis of modern semiotics. It was with the work of Roland Barthes that semiotics entered into a marketing context in analyzing advertisement images. In his article ‘Rhetoric of the Image’, he stressed that language and images used in the promotional material are not merely used in denotative sense (common sense that people of the same culture understand) but are also used in a symbolic connotative sense (additional meanings when emotions of the reader are also added).

Thus it can be said that the connotations are highly subjective meanings and are also dependent on the reader’s cultural conventions (Barthes in Innis 1986: 193) The study of semiotics has been applied to tourism marketing and it is acknowledged as a potent tool when communicating between the potential tourist and the destination (Echtner 1999: 52). Charles M. Echtner in his article ‘The Semiotic Paradigm: Implications for Tourism Research’ (1999) presented a relationship between destination, tourist and tourism advertisement.

As per the above diagram, we understand three main points:

a. The way how the tourism advertiser represents the destination;

b. How the potential tourist interprets the representation; and

c. The symbolic experience offered to the tourist by the destination

A powerful Indian advertisement with the tagline ‘Kuch din to guard Gujarat mein’ (spend some days in Gujarat) is an appropriate example of how marketing agents invite potential tourists to Gujarat. The advertisement lures the tourist to visit the Somnath Temple and other unique attractions of Gujarat. The verbal text (outlined by a famous Indian actor) and the visual text (highlighting the rich cultural heritage) together provide the imaginative benefits of a destination to the potential tourist. The psychological and symbolic values and benefits of a destination are enhanced by representing the destination as a must-visit place.

The potential tourist who reads the advertisement reconstructs an image in his/her mind about the place, taking cues from the symbolic as well as physical aspects of the images. Therefore, the abstraction takes place at two levels, one, at the level of preparation of the advertised images and secondly, in the mind of the tourist, who also absorbs the representations selectively and creates another image from his or her own subjectivity. Here another important aspect we need to understand is that the verbal and visual elements in the promotional material constitute a particular type of language.

Graham Dann in his famous book ‘The Language of Tourism’ (1996) says that the promotional acts in tourism, have their own language. For instance, the use of words like ‘authentic’, ‘raw’, and ‘indigenous’ in the travel brochures promises a real or unique/original lifestyle experience to the potential tourists. In a later work, Morgan and Pritchard (1998) argued that the images shown in the tourist brochures and billboards mainly draw upon stereotyped images.

For instance, brochures usually select pleasant scenes showing healthy, young, good-looking people and comfortable luxurious accommodations and omit ugly ones to build a beautiful image of the destination. Such idealized images represent a dream image (that matches the tourist’s expectations), turning the destination into a ‘tourist paradise. The image that is communicated not only informs but also persuades the potential tourist to visit the place and have an experience of the ‘other world’ which is distinct from his own mundane daily world. These images are thus symbolic worlds that are superimposed upon the daily world. 

Discuss Question

How does the Image formation of a potential destination help in tourism development?

Destination images influence tourists' travel decision-making and their behavior toward a destination, as well as, influences the satisfaction levels and recollection of the experience. They found that destination image had a significant influence on tourist satisfaction and subsequently on destination loyalty. The positive attitude toward the overall image of a destination was embraced by study participants, leading them to make an optimistic evaluation of their experience during the stay.

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