With less than two weeks left till 2021 says “Hello!”, historical cities and popular tourist destinations worldwide are busy taking stock of what happened to their visitor statistics this year, across the wide spectrum of tourism beneficiaries. There’s no denying that just about every type of cultural institution has suffered either big or devastating losses in 2020. However, what matters most now is what conclusions are drawn for both near- and long-term future and how bold the necessary actions that follow.

Back to 2000s

According to the data presented during this year’s online edition of the Tourism Forum in Kraków, 2020 has seen the city return to its travel statistics from the  beginning of the new millennium, i.e. two decades ago. Kraków Airport, for example, has seen a decline of 6 million passengers compared to 2019. The city’s key museums and favourite tourist spots report a similar pattern. The Wawel Royal Castle was visited by ca. 650,000 people (compared to 1,5 million, a year earlier), and the Kraków Museum reports a modest figure of 350,000 (instead of 1,33 million, last year). The scale of losses is unimaginable, says Robert Piaskowski, the Mayor’s Plenipotentiary for Culture.

Recently, the Małopolska Tourist Organization (MOT) has released a very detailed report “Tourist traffic in Kraków in 2020”. So fa, it’s only available in Polish but it contains a lot of valuable information, insightful data analysis and critical observations. Here’s the summary presentation!

“Tourist traffic in Kraków in 2020” (Special Report by the Małopolska Tourist Organization, MOT)

Glass half full

No doubt, this year’s Tourism Forum was a sobering wake-up call for many, but, more importantly, also a strategic discussion revolving around hidden potentials and the next big steps worth considering. Among the emerging patterns, one seems to stand out very clearly: planning the future for Kraków’s tourism should incorporate culture much more closely, at multiple levels and with the use of more sophisticated clustering tools and methodologies. In other words, it’s all about why and how the two should interact more closely for the benefit of the city, its inhabitants, who have sometimes felt underprioritised (esp. compared to the needs of tourists), and the power of its international brand.

From analogue to digital

Some things need to change, though. And they need to change fast. One of Kraków’s key strategic storytelling weaknesses historically has been the city’s excessive attachment to traditional media, especially print. Don’t get me wrong, I also enjoy a beautiful album or the unique experience of reading a paper book. However, to underestimate the power of digital content in today’s world is a city-marketing equivalent of suicide, however adjourned it may feel. To put things in perspective, if a city spends, say, two million euro a year on high-quality, well-researched historical/identity publications, such as historical or photography albums, someone had better make sure that at least part of this budget is allocated to content visibility, i.e. making sure that your paper album is also brought to life in a digital form, at least some of it. Why? First of all, it will instantly become a valuable contribution to your city’s SEO (Search Engine Optimization) benefits and secondly, you will strengthen the quality content “freely” available on the internet and promote its organic dissemination. It would be plain hypocrisy on the part of the city if it complained about the quality of historical/identity content published on thousands of commercial websites while at the same time doing little to ensure that access to quality content is limited or restricted (where it should be completely intuitive and tailored to institutional needs).

There’s really no need for hotels, hostels and restaurant owners to become historians and art experts when doing their best to fill up their brand new websites with city-identity content, not to mention any broader historical accounts. Nor should they be expected to commission “professional” history texts, tailored to their needs every time they put out a new product or service website.

Print-only no more

Here’s one example: last year, Kraków released a fantastic 3,3-kilo album (trust me, I weighed it myself) about the city’s “1,000 treasures”, compiled by the city’s renowned experts, historians and art connoisseurs. However, it doesn’t seem to have occurred to anyone at any point in this process to give this impressive, large-scale project any digital incarnation. Ironically enough, even when the English version was finally released, the announcement about its release was posted in Polish.

One of the city’s most brilliant cultural institutions, International Cultural Centre (MCK), is about to celebrate the publication of the 40th edition of the Herito Quarterly. However, given the Centre’s impact on quality research and publications dedicated to heritage and culture available in English, it’s a real pity (if not a blunt strategic defect) that an institution as important as MCK, with the word “international” in its name, hasn’t deemed it justified to develop social media channels in English, let alone post much more of its original content in English (online). This would not only greatly improve the Centre’s overall visibility but would have unleashed a whole lot of new (sharing/reposting) potentials for the city (if not the entire CE region!).

Kraków’s Main Market Square

No longer just a foreign language

If, as a city, you happen to pride yourself on your international-tourist-destination status, it’s really important that a few things should start happening on a (more) serious scale, especially under this (and next) year’s “special circumstances”:

  1. Create multiple, interconnected platforms publishing original content in English and strategize to aggregate the already-existing content, cluster reliable sources and create reference lists for everyone interested in a more in-depth approach to any given topic. In short, cities tend to archive some of their best cultural content far too soon. Cultural events should not be one-time experiences but new stars on an ever brighter night sky.
  2. Develop and support a network of ambassadors and cultural content curators. For example, if someone is a fan of film music, they should by incentivized by the city’s relevant agencies and institutions to become active commentators (ambassadors) across global film-music platforms. After all, as Hans Zimmer once put it at a concert in Kraków, this city has the best Film Music Festival in the world.
  3. By analogy, if you truly want your city to enjoy an international “host city” status for congresses, prestigious conferences and industry fairs, you should build a powerful network of “storytellers” around your conference centre. Their primary job should be looking for creative best-practice around the world and helping the city’s key event centres develop imaginative communication strategies.
  4. Continuously simplify and promote the chronology of your key cultural events. Rely on data visualization and simple infographics! And what’s the yardstick for success, you might ask? Well, if you approach a random Krakowian in the street and ask them the following question: What are the city’s top 5 festivals and when (aka in what month) do they take place? the great majority of your respondents should find this to be an easy question to answer.

New Year, New Initiatives

On the positive side, early next year Kraków is about to launch a new platform called Kraków Culture, as well as a project called Tourism Hub. Tourism Hub, another promising initiative, will focus on developing new categories of tourist attractions but also, re-think the existing ones from the ground up, with culture at the very heart of the design process. On a somewhat symbolic level, the city’s iconic Potocki Palace, situated in Kraków’s Main Market Square will become the creative headquarters for Kraków Culture and many of the city’s strategic cultural efforts. Sounds like a good start in a brand new world of challenges.

Kraków’s Main Market Square (Dec 2020)

Of all the recent initiatives, the one I’ve been waiting for and the one that is likely to create immediate positive impact is Kraków Seasons. Kraków Seasons is all about redesigning the chronology of Kraków’s festivals to better integrate them with the tourism industry and (re)distribute them in Kraków’s annual event calendar. The goal is to optimize and avoid overlaps. Similarly, another project, called Kraków Festivals, will work to integrate the city’s festivals more closely with Kraków’s MICE industry.

And one last thing

A city like Kraków relies on guests and visitors to survive and flourish. Some of the city’s visitors come and go, having posted dozens of beautiful photos and optimistic selfies on Instagram, others stay for much longer, to build companies, establish big corporate outposts or simply enjoy a good life in a city that feels both big (enough) and intimate at the same time. There are good reasons why Kraków is increasingly referred to as the “host city”. Last year, ca. 8,000 events were reputed to have taken place here, all the way from large international festivals and congresses, to smaller industry conferences and business gatherings. However, to ensure there is a sustainable future for much of what the city hopes to achieve in years to come, at least three words must become much closer friends in Kraków: technology, culture, strategy.