Does tourism signage still have a role to play and is it important for economic development?

by David Duncanson

In these days of social media where the app rules destination marketing, is there still a place for the humble brown tourist sign pointing to an attraction?

All the research and statistics point to the increased use of mobile devices as the preferred method for travellers to make decisions on where to visit and where to stay and there is no reason to doubt that this trend will not continue.

The app essentially takes away a key element of tourism, which is discovery, which therefore limits total reliance on the app to plan the journey. So have all the decisions been made by the time thevisitor arrives at your destination or is there still potential to influence previously determined plans?

Self-drive tourists by their very nature are independent travellers who see themselves as flexible and open to stopping at unexpected sites along their route if they perceive that the site or activity will add to their overall experience, however they are unlikely to be persuaded to divert if the signage is in poor condition, which unfortunately is common throughout Australia.

Another problem is signage that directs to attractions that no longer exist or direct down a side road and then there is no further signage to the destination. This leads to frustration and a perception of wasted time by the visitor.

Signage clutter also has a significant impact on visitors’ perception of an area. There is a tendency for local governments to add signs without considering the potential conflict with other existing signs within the immediate vicinity and the clutter that can be created.

Drive tourism is changing as the demographic changes, with younger people and families making up a growing percentage of the market, and it is those younger people who rely more and more on mobile devices to steer them to their destination. However, the grey nomads, who criss-cross the continent and make up about a third of the drive tourism market, tend to stick with more traditional methods of planning their next destination. For example, when choosing a caravan park, 51% of grey nomads use discussions en route with other travellers as their number one source of information, and state motoring accommodation guides as their second choice1

In Australia, limited research has been undertaken on the impact of effective tourism signage, although Destination NSW undertook research in 2016 which indicated that 58% of visitors driving in NSW used a brown sign and over a third reported being prompted by signs to visit an attraction2. The Northern Territory Government is also proactive in relation to tourism signage and has started to audit and produce tourism signage strategies in its tourism regions.

While the increasing trend for destination planning to be undertaken using mobile devices will continue, traditional brown tourism signage will remain extremely important in future for the following reasons.

  1. Brown tourism signs are internationally recognised and therefore an effective way in which international tourists can be directed.
  2. Unlike apps or other online sources, signs will only direct to approved tourist destinations, giving the visitor confidence in the product.
  3. Signs reassure the visitor that the destination still exists (very important when the destination is some way from the main road).
  4. Many visitors don’t have set plans about where they will go and what they will see – so their plans change en route and sometimes this is because of signage.
  5. Visitors often base their decisions on the recommendations of locals or other travellers, which means that Visitor Information Centres and visitor information bays are still important.

Just like everything else, brown tourism signage needs to evolve not only in Australia but internationally and (I suspect that) the trends we shall see next will be the use of foreign languages, targeting specific growth markets (such as Mandarin). We will also see growth in the use of indigenous names on signage as has been the case in other countries such as Gaelic in Scotland and Welsh in Wales.

In Australia, this will present challenges. For example, a signage strategy was recently completed for the Pilbara region in Western Australia. Whilst acknowledging the importance and respect associated with the use of indigenous language, there are 23 indigenous languages in the Pilbara alone. Considerable consultation would be required to gain consensus on the preferred language at specific locations.

Despite the increased use of mobile devices as destination wayfinders, the humble brown tourist sign remains an important part of the tourism landscape. Visitors use signage in conjunction with modern media and there are strong indications that signs will evolve to reflect unique connections with the visitor experience or destination (for example, local language).

T his then raises the question as to whose responsibility it is. It is possible for signs in a particular area to come under the jurisdiction of many different organisations, depending on the purpose of the sign and the message. These might include:

  • The attraction operator
  • The local government
  • The local tourism organisation
  • The state government through its roads department
  • The state government through its tourism department

It is very rare for all these organisations to work together to raise the standard of tourism signage. Local economic development practitioners who usually work for local government, know their area very well and probably drive past tourism signage on their way to work every day. But most have never looked at the sign from a tourist’s
perspective and asked if it really will get the visitor to make a conscious decision to visit the attraction. I would certainly argue that this is an economic development issue in that good signage will encourage visitors to stay longer, spend more money and go away with positive experiences that they will pass on to others. Signage should
be viewed as part of the destination development strategy along with other infrastructure such as information bays, dump points and good quality rest areas.


  1. Tourism Research Australia/Tourism WA Key factors affecting accommodation supply in WA
  2. Destination NSW AMR consumer research 2016


David Duncanson was Manager of Economic Development and Marketing at the City of Fremantle for 10 years prior to establishing his own consultancy company, Kirkgate
Consulting, in 2010. He subsequently formed a joint venture called Wayfound, developing an online mapping tool and undertaking tourism signage projects.