‘Flagshipness’ and ‘iconicity’ as tools to bolster destination marketing

Research involving two IFTM scholars – and supported by the Institute – studies how perceptions of tourism attractions can help create destination marketing strategies

Research Corner | A partnership between Macau Business and the Macao Institute for Tourism Studies (IFTM)


A research paper co-authored by two scholars from the Macao Institute for Tourism Studies (IFTM) invites authorities in Macau to make use of visitor perceptions of attraction “flagshipness” and “iconicity” to formulate marketing strategies for the city. The researchers argue this approach could help position Macau as a choice destination for travellers, both regionally and globally.

“Perceived flagshipness and iconicity provide a new way of thinking about attraction segmentation and destination marketing,” the authors wrote.

IFTM scholars Dr Connie Loi Kim Ieng and Dr Frances Kong Weng Hang partnered with Dr Bill Xu Jing of The Hong Kong Polytechnic University’s College of Professional and Continuing Education, to produce the research. “The effects of perceptions of flagshipness and iconicity on word of mouth for attractions and destinations” was supported by a grant from IFTM and published earlier this year in the Journal of Vacation Marketing.

The study results were based on a survey answered by 800 tourists to Macau, focused on the city’s tourism attractions. The sample comprised mainly tourists from Mainland China (81.8 percent). Taiwan region was the next largest source of respondents.

(Xinhua/Cheong Kam Ka)

Novel approach

Flagshipness and iconicity are recent terms in the tourism context. A tourist attraction can be defined as being “flagship” when its appeal is attributed to distinct qualities – including uniqueness, location, international reputation and outstanding media attention – making it a “must-see” that is large both in relative scale and in its economic impact. An attraction is defined as being iconic if it serves as a universally-recognised symbol or representation of its location, culture or heritage, and evokes a powerfully positive image among both tourists and locals.

Some examples of flagship attractions include Disneyland Paris in France and Legoland in Denmark. Mount Fuji in Japan, the Eiffel Tower in France or the Great Wall of China, on the other hand, are iconic attractions for their respective destinations.

For their study, Drs Xu, Loi and Kong used word-of-mouth recommendations about a destination as a “meaningful surrogate” of tourist destination loyalty. The research found that visitor perception of tourism attractions, in terms of flagshipness and iconicity, impacted word-of-mouth recommendations for both the individual attractions and the destination itself. From a broader perspective, that meant that flagship and iconic attractions could help establish and reinforce a destination’s recognition and image.

An attraction’s flagshipness and iconicity were both found leading indirectly to word of mouth about the destination, through the mediating effect of word of mouth about the attractions themselves. “However, the perception of iconicity was also noted to result in word of mouth about the destination in a direct manner,” they added.

“Each attraction can be perceived to have distinct levels of flagshipness and iconicity, which can affect the destination’s word of mouth either directly or indirectly,” the team stated. “This finding suggests an innovative means of destination marketing.”

Marketing tools

The researchers said tourism destination marketers could make use of perceived flagshipness and iconicity to help promote a destination. Attractions with greater perceived flagshipness could be used in a way to generate additional word of mouth about such attractions that, in turn, could be translated into destination recommendations.

“Tourists’ visits to destinations can originate from their preference for these flagship attractions,” the researchers wrote. “The service quality of, and tourist satisfaction with, these flagship attractions are therefore important in driving attraction loyalty and the destination loyalty further.”

On the other hand, the study said attractions with a greater level of perceived iconicity could be promoted in close relationship with their respective destination for effective destination marketing. That is because the perception of iconicity was found to directly impact the word of mouth recommendations for a destination.

“The marketing efforts and identification process can take effect simultaneously for both the attraction brands and destination brands involved,” the research paper suggested. “The tourists may plausibly attach the attraction closely to the destination as they feel culturally authentic.”

The researchers stated that iconic attractions and the destination where these were located could “be interwoven more strategically to attract tourist attention and promote word-of-mouth recommendation about the destination”.

The study included recommendations for Macau as a tourism destination. “The Macau government can consider injecting more iconic components and storytelling about relevant attractions in destination marketing campaigns so as to diversify tourists’ travel motives,” the paper said. “The Ruins of St. Paul’s, Senado Square and Rua do Cunha can be highlighted for their symbolic representativeness of Macau. Their evolution, development and interesting histories can be shared as part of a destination marketing campaign.”


– The researchers

Dr Bill Xu Jing is a senior lecturer at the Division of Business and Hospitality Management – College of Professional and Continuing Education in The Hong Kong Polytechnic University. He holds a PhD from the same university. His teaching and scholarly interests include customer experience, quality service management in hospitality and tourism, research methods, and theme park and cruise line management.

Dr Connie Loi Kim Ieng was appointed earlier this year Vice-President of the Macao Institute for Tourism Studies (IFTM). She graduated from the Institute in 2001 with a bachelor’s degree in Tourism Business Management and a high diploma in Hotel Management. She subsequently earned a PhD in Tourism from James Cook University in Australia. Her research interests include tourist behaviour, destination marketing, tourism and hospitality service quality, and tourism product management.

IFTM assistant professor Dr. Frances Kong Weng Hang has a PhD from  Nottingham Trent University, in the United Kingdom. Her research interests include tourism planning and development, and disabled travellers. At IFTM, she teaches topics related to tourism.


– The paper

Jing (Bill) Xu, Kim Ieng Loi and Weng Hang Kong: “The effects of perceptions of flagshipness and iconicity on word of mouth for attractions and destinations”, Journal of Vacation Marketing, Volume 26, Issue 1, pages 96-107, 2020.

https://doi.org/10.1177/1356766719867387