Travel TrendsVisiting friends and relatives (VFR) proves to be pandemic-proof, holding huge potential for the tourism industry.

Why VFR is the sleeping giant of tourism

Often overlooked, VFR travel accounted for a significant portion of global tourism.
Often overlooked, VFR travel accounted for a significant portion of global tourism. Photo Credit: Adobe Stock/lubero

Amidst the diverse motivations that drive travellers, the significance of visiting friends and relatives (VFR) often goes unnoticed. While the Covid-19 pandemic severely impacted travel, VFR travel displayed remarkable resilience as expats and immigrants sought solace with loved ones.

However, the experiences of VFR tourists during pandemic-associated travel constraints remain underexplored. Pearl Lin from The Hong Kong Polytechnic University's School of Hotel and Tourism Management collaborated with researchers from Macao to create a comprehensive framework unveiling the specific travel constraints faced by VFR travellers during the pandemic. This framework has the potential to guide tourism practitioners in alleviating these constraints, rejuvenating the industry.

The resilience of VFR tourism

VFR tourism, often referred to as the "sleeping giant" of the tourism industry, accounts for up to 48% of global tourists. However, many of these travellers do not specifically identify themselves as VFR tourists, masking its significance.

VFR travel takes different forms, including "pure" VFR tourists who stay with friends or relatives, "commercial" VFR tourists who opt for hotels, and "exploitative" VFR tourists whose trips have different stated purposes.

Personal relationships are at the core of VFR travel, driven primarily by family and friend bonds rather than destination attractions. VFR tourism benefits local communities and enhances residents' quality of life. This connection often prompts VFR travellers to return to their places of origin during crises.

Resilience and emotional force of VFR travel

VFR travel demonstrated resilience during crises, potentially due to its emotional foundation. The pandemic's travel restrictions led to cancellations for leisure and business travellers, yet VFR travel continued as expats sought refuge with loved ones. This form of travel, contributing to the local economy and community, sustained the tourism industry.

The Covid-19 pandemic imposed unparalleled constraints on international travel, but VFR travel persisted. Researchers examined these constraints to comprehend the unique needs of VFR travellers. Expats from Taiwan living abroad were studied to understand their lived experiences, leading to the identification of travel constraints within a novel framework.

Overcoming VFR travel constraints

The framework classified travel constraints by their root cause, resulting in an individual-family-community continuum and a tourist-generating country-tourist-receiving country continuum. The intersections along these continuums revealed 14 distinct travel constraints experienced by VFR travellers. For instance, expats' concerns about disturbing house occupants in Taiwan served as a family-level constraint.

Understanding these constraints empowers destination management organisations to ease VFR travel barriers. Recommendations include inviting VFR hosts to share pandemic-related updates and showcasing willingness to welcome VFR tourists. As tourism recovers from the pandemic's impact, reducing VFR travel constraints becomes essential to the industry's revival.

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