Since the beginning of my PhD at the Faculty of Economics, University of Algarve (Portugal), over ten years ago, I have centred my research around the senses in tourism experience design and consumer behaviour. By the time the thesis proposal was prepared, a small number of studies had been conducted in tourism, focusing on a managerial perspective. The decision was to address the role of sensescapes in tourist experiences in rural areas. The first paper, which was part of this PhD, was a multidisciplinary approach to the senses, which helped to further the conceptualisation of the sensory dimension of tourist experiences, and proposed a theoretical framework based on external factors and internal factors that influence the tourists’ perception and outcomes (Agapito, Mendes & Valle, 2013). In 2021, this work had received more than 250 citations in Google Scholar, contributing to further developments in the topic (e.g., Brochado, Stoleriu & Lupu, 2021; Elvekrok & Gulbrandsøy, 2021; Kastenholz, Marques & Carneiro, 2020; Lv, Li & McCabe, 2020).
The key role of managing sensory aspects of tourism experiences is based on evidence of the effects of sensory stimuli in human perception, memory, attitudes and behaviour. This argument is supported by various fields with complementary approaches, such as environmental psychology, consumer psychology, cognitive psychology, human geography, marketing and consumer behaviour, neuroscience, sociology, and anthropology (Agapito et al., 2013; Agapito, 2020; Goldstein & Brockmole, 2017; Krishna, 2012; Kim & Fesenmaier, 2017a).
An empirical study concluded that rural areas encompass local resources rich in multi-sensory stimuli that could be utilised to facilitate enhanced tourist experiences by focusing on the sensory perception of different segments of tourists based on motivations and activities performed at the destination. This research found that sensory information (e.g., specific sounds, scents, colours, flavours and textures) could be used to theme tourism experiences and segment tourists, focusing on sustainable local development (Agapito, Pinto & Mendes, 2014).
A longitudinal study showed the relevance of sensory diversity (sensory stimuli) as a facilitator of memorable destination experiences by showing the link between long-term memory of sensory impressions and destination loyalty (Agapito et al., 2017). This research was then furthered by other studies, such as the one conducted by Lv and colleagues (2020), which expanded the theory of tourists’ destination loyalty by centring on the role of sensory impressions.
A recent systematic literature review included in the curated collection in tourism design of Annals of Tourism Research revealed that a multi-sensory approach to tourism experiences, instead of isolated sensory modalities (e.g., visual elements), has received increasing attention among scholars from 2013 onwards (Agapito, 2020). This review around the senses focused on tourism design highlights aspects such as sustainability, accessibility and technology as emergent topics of discussion. Indeed, distinctive sensory aspects of local resources can contribute to designing experiences that are sustainable and accessible for all (Agapito, 2022; Agapito, 2020; Agapito & Chan, 2019, 2020).
The significance of sensory/physical aspects in influencing perception, triggering positive emotions, and generating memorable experiences, satisfaction, subjective happiness, place attachment, intentions, behaviours and loyalty has also been highlighted in recent empirical studies in tourism (e.g., Buzova, Cervera‐Taulet & Sanz‐Blas, 2020; Kah, Shin & Lee, 2020; Kastenholz et al., 2020; Kumar & Kaushik, 2020; Lv & Wu, 2021; Mehraliyev, Kirilenko & Choi, 2020; Nghiêm-Phú, 2020; Song 2021; Wen & Leung, 2021). Notwithstanding, other external stimuli and individual profiles should be considered when researching and managing sensory-informed tourism experiences (Agapito, Pinto, Ascenção & Tuominen, 2021; Agapito et al., 2013).
The rationale of science design in tourism seeks to bring together contributions from different academic fields to plan the conditions where experiences in destinations aid in the process of improving the well-being of visitors, locals and the destinations themselves; atmospherics play an important part in this process (Fesenmaier & Xiang, 2017; Xiang, Stienmetz & Fesenmaier, 2021). Considering that sensations are initiators of experiences in tourism contexts, the process of understanding the impact of sensory elements on both hedonic and eudemonic dimensions of well-being is of utmost relevance in tourism studies (Lv & Wu, 2021). Indeed, the sentient body is a facilitator of learning, positive emotions and rewarding experiences (Matteucci, 2014; 2017). Therefore, despite the fact that the study of the senses in tourism has been mostly focused on hedonic aspects of consumption, sensory stimuli can also contribute to long-term eudaimonic well-being through the focus on distinctive local resources and co-creation activities that can be perceived as meaningful.
Advances in neuroscience, psychology, spatial analysis, epigenetics, physiological measurements, experimental research design and business analytics (e.g., Kim & Fesenmaier, 2017b; Lee, Lee, & Koh, 2019; Mehraliyev, Kirilenko, & Choi, 2020), among others, can contribute to a more accurate understanding of the effects of sensory environment on the sense of well-being. These approaches would allow further practical recommendations that can aid tourism experience design in destinations and tourism firms.
Recommendations for future research around the senses in tourism design
Some challenges arise when approaching multiple senses regarding experiences in tourism contexts, such as the phasic nature of the experience, the multidisciplinary nature of the senses, and the assessment of sensory-informed experiences (Agapito, 2020). In light of the literature indicated above, some suggestions for scholars for contributing to knowledge around the senses, tourism design and consumer behaviour are related to: a) exploring cultural differences in sensory experiences in tourism contexts and the effect on tourists’ outcomes; b) proposing and testing theory around sensory stimuli, consumer experiences in tourism and other constructs (antecedents or consequences), such as perceived authenticity and well-being, among other constructs pointed out in the literature (moderator variables should be considered, such as the case of cultural background, demographic variables and personality traits); c) varying the settings for analysis and including the perspectives of multiple stakeholders; d) collecting data at different times of the year and conduct longitudinal studies to address different phases of the tourist experience; e) using data collection complementarily, by considering focus groups, big data, and experiments apart from isolated questionnaires and interviews; f) using technology to assess sensory experiences and to design and test virtual multi-sensory scenarios for enhanced experiences. New technologies like bio-physiological sensors, wearable devices, and interactive platforms may enable better measuring methodologies for capturing multi-sensory information in a less biased way.
This research has been financed by National Funds provided by FCT – Foundation for Science and Technology (Portugal) through project UIDB/04020/2020.
Written by Dora Agapito, Research Centre for Tourism, Sustainability and Well-being, Universidade do Algarve, Portugal
Read Dora’s letter to future generations of tourism researchers
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Song, H. (2021). Linking Images to Information Sources: An Examination of Potential Chinese Tourists’ Multi-sensory Images of the United Kingdom. Journal of China Tourism Research, https://doi.org/10.1080/19388160.2021.1877860
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