Once upon a time, tourism was a once a year affair for those with the spare money and usually involved internal travel to beauty spots or cities within one’s own countries. In the last part of the nineteenth century and early part of the twentieth century, it was only the rich and intrepid who went overseas. There wasn’t a ‘tourism industry’ as such anywhere in the word that catered for large numbers of overseas tourists until well after the Second World War when growing affluence and easier travel allowed larger numbers of ordinary people to venture beyond their own boundaries.

Translation for the Tourism Industry Has Never Been More Important

Today, international tourism is growing exponentially. It’s not just the formerly wealthy countries of North America, Western Europe, Japan and Australasia whose citizens are jetting around the world. There are now a growing number of Chinese, Malaysians, Indians, Russians, South Americans and many more who now have the money and inclination to travel.

All of this international tourism depends on efficient translation. The translation is required at every step of a tourist’s journey and starts well before they leave home. Would-be tourists are attracted to travel by watching films and documentaries about places far from home. They read books about destinations they are interested in. They turn to the Internet in their millions to glean information about prices, accommodation options, tours and protocol.

They may have to book much of their trip in advance and have to cope with communicating with tour companies, hotels, AirBnb providers, transport companies and much more. Many of these needs are supplied in countries where the language may be different, possibly very different. All commercial businesses involved in dealing with international tourists are wise to the need for effective communication about their services and depend on professional translators who are specialised in tourism-related translation to help them.

What Needs to be Translated in the Tourism Industry

The tourism industry is very reliant on a huge diversity of means through which communication is made with potential and existing customers. Typically, successful businesses research the origins of their most common customers and arrange for translation into the languages of these visitors. In Europe, it is common to have basic tourist literature translated into the most commonly used European languages: English, French, Italian, Spanish, German and Dutch.

In Australia, apart from large numbers of European tourists, there is also a huge market in Japanese and Chinese tourists. It is common to see signs and tourist literature in and around the most popular destinations like Cairns, Sydney and the Gold Coast.

The Most Common Items for Tourism Translation are:

  • Leaflets
  • Flyers
  • Booklets
  • Maps
  • Menus in cafes and restaurants
  • Hotel signs
  • Catalogues
  • Airport information displays
  • Travel video subtitles
  • Warnings
  • Interpretive displays and signs
  • Websites of all types

Problems in Tourism Translation

The sheer scale of international tourism and its phenomenal growth is the main obstacle for businesses and government agencies involved in the tourism industry. In Central and South America, for example, there would have been only a need to translate material into English to cater for the market in North American tourism. But now, there are tourists from everywhere, going everywhere else! How does a Costa Rican or Peruvian travel destination cope with tourists who may speak more than a dozen different languages?

The problem is the same everywhere. Countries like Iceland and Croatia, once places, where only a few people would have gone to for a holiday, have become mass markets. More people visit Iceland every year than live there by a factor of five. The ready availability of the Internet in nearly every home around the world makes previously rarely visited places seem attractive.

There are now places where tourism has become so massive that the facilities are inadequate and the locals dissatisfied with being crowded out. This is not a problem of too ineffective tourism translation, but rather the reverse. Despite the obvious language barriers, they are not sufficient to stop people from wanting to travel and making those wishes become reality.

Machine Translation Versus Professional Translation

There are probably more badly translated signs and other literature on display in the tourism industry than anywhere else. Tourists are used to seeing poorly translated signs wherever they go even in places where tourists have been going for years, like the Mediterranean or India. Some signs that have been translated could definitely be improved if a professional translator was used, but perhaps it is understandable that a small family run business in the South of France, Venice or even Sri Lanka would not afford to use a translator and just have agues at writing their signs and information in the language of the tourists they expect.

The ready availability of free computer-aided translation tools allows these businesses to translate their information at a very low cost with the obvious drawback that the translations seem clumsy and sometimes downright wrong. It’s hard to understand why some government tourist agencies are avoiding using professional translators and resorting to using free translation tools themselves when they have the money to do a proper job.