Gamification in tourism through geocaching

Skinner, H., Sarpong, D., and White, G.R.T. (2018), ‘Meeting the needs of the Millennials and Generation Z: gamification in tourism through geocaching’, Journal of Tourism Futures, 4(1), pp.93-104.

By Dr Heather Skinner

Have you heard of the location-based sport of ‘geocaching’? No, I hadn’t either until a chance conversation with a colleague at the University of Glamorgan back when I was working full-time in the UK. This led to a really interesting (if long) research journey that resulted in the publication of this paper in the Journal of Tourism Futures. But, like all good stories it must have a beginning, so if you’re sitting comfortably, I will begin.

I was preparing a presentation for the 2012 annual conference of the Academy of Marketing that was taking place at the University of Southampton. The theme for this conference was Catching the Technology Wave. By then my research in place management and marketing was growing and was including various aspects of tourism development. Thinking about the way small towns and SMEs could use technology to this end, I found lots of interesting examples from around the local area, including the launch of MonmouthpediA, a project that uses QR codes to enable visitors to the town’s Shire Hall to access a guided tour and information about the venue, and to use the venue as the starting point for a number of other trails around the town and its areas of interest. This project prompted news headlines to refer to Monmouth as ‘the world’s first Wikipedia town’ (Monmouthshire County Council). However this initiative is project-driven and commands the use of specific format QR codes. Codes associated with the project ‘may not use standard black and white QR codes, in order to differentiate between MonmouthpediA codes and other schemes and individual’s codes’. While such ‘rules’ retain the integrity of the project it does not encourage wider engagement in a community of practice outside of the project itself, and does not encourage local businesses to adopt and adapt the technology for their own purposes. While talking about this with my university colleagues I was introduced to the concept of Geocaching because he thought it could offer some useful insights into how I could develop my own research. As a result we worked with another colleague on our paper, that was not only presented at the Academy of Marketing Conference, but which also won the prize for the Best Paper in the Experiential Marketing Track. As explained in that conference paper[1], geocaching is a:

“location based leisure sport … where participants create a cache (or hidden ‘treasure’), hide it at an interesting place so others may employ Global Positioning System (GPS) technology to locate it. That people involved in geocaching are constantly searching for these hidden treasures has resulted in geocaching being frequently described as a hi-tech version of treasure hunting and its participants as ‘Human search engines’. In this recreational sport a box containing small gifts, toys, key rings or coins is hidden at a public location that might be of interest to other people e.g. as a result of its history, beauty or landscape. The box will also often contain a small log book in which finders of the cache will log their visits along with a short message. The cache hider then publishes the co-ordinates of the location (the ‘waypoint’) on the community’s web page, sometimes with clues and other relevant geographic information about the location. A puzzle may also have to be solved to get the exact location co-ordinates of a given cache. Armed with this information and a personal GPS, cache hunters set off to find the hidden treasure. On entering the waypoint the GPS shows the approximate location of the cache. After locating the cache, the ‘hunter’ then returns to the geocaching web page to log their find and write their experiences and comments about the treasure to be read by community members. Another interesting artefact employed in geocaching is the ‘travel bug’ – special metal ‘bugs’ created specifically to go on a travel expedition around the globe.”

Our conclusion then, as it remains now, was that “by engaging with existing practice and thereby shaping it, such organisations will no longer remain at the mercy of technology, but can determine (at least to some degree) how the technology can serve the sector … there is a role to be played by DMOs in creating and developing geocaching trails, to engage not only existing communities of geocachers, but also to engage other visitors with this practice as an enhancement to the destination experience”.


Now we reach the middle of the story about our research journey. For various reasons beyond our control both myself and my co-authors were unable to do much with this paper following the conference, there were health issues, job relocations, and emigration to name but three. So, when I heard about a planned forthcoming special issue of the Journal of Tourism Futures that may fit with what we had been working on I contacted my co-authors again and went back to look at our original ideas and work them up with more recent literature and examples of how we thought SMEs could benefit from our insights. By then the Pokémon Go phenomenom, launched in 2016, had engaged 65million users within the first week of its launch. We believed that this phenomenon showed the popularity of such technology enhanced ‘treasure hunts’ as we had proposed back in 2012. We also saw how many small businesses were capitalising on their businesses being in PokeStop locations, generating massive increases in footfall. Businesses that realised the potential of this were then spending very small amounts to send out ‘Lures’ to users to help them locate Pokémon. Surely, we thought, if mobile technology has now become so widely adopted, and so easy to use, then local businesses could collaborate in small towns or even in high streets to create geocaching trails, using the principles of the treasure hunt, taking examples of information and education as identified in the example from MonmouthpediA, and instilling the fun element inherent in Pokémon Go. As we explain in our published paper:

“Millennials and Generation Z … seek adventure, and gamified experiences involving riddle solving and overcoming physical challenges, we propose that geocaching as a pastime which appeals to many different generations, could help provide a whole-family destination experience, as well as an experiential destination enhancement specifically to these younger tourists. The aim of this paper is, therefore, through an analysis of the practice of geocaching drawn from a range of global examples but contextualised to European destinations, to present a conceptual framework that can help a wide range of organisations, including smaller entrepreneurial businesses in non-urban destinations that fall outside of the remit of smart city developments, and in tourism destinations on the less technologically enabled or resource-rich side of the digital divide, to reap the benefits associated with employing the principles and practices associated with smart tourism to meet the needs of this new generation of tourism consumers who seek richer digital and often gamified tourism experiences”.

We also found evidence of a small tourism destination that was doing just this. Corfu is a relatively small island in the Ionian Sea, with one large main Town, a number of small villages set in its mountainous central and inland regions, with most of the island’s tourism taking place along its’ coastal resorts.

“The Pentati Pirate Trail geocaching treasure hunt was specifically created as part of the village project to attract more tourists to this small fishing village on Corfu. The Pentati Pirate Trail is similar to the MonmouthpediA project in that it is accessible in a relatively low-tech way, through “a narrated audio version with local actors […] available for those with smart phones and devices with QRC readers” ( However, the Pentati Pirate Trail also employs the principles and practices of geocaching, gamifying the tourist experience, and attracting people who may never have engaged previously with geocaching. This project also positions the geocaching experience as one that is cohesive, is specific to the village of Pentati, involves collaboration between local independent entrepreneurial businesses, and offers not only the treasure hunting experience, but an entire narrative around a fictional raid by pirates on the village”.

Our final conclusion is that:

“Through an understanding of the practice of geocaching, local businesses in Europe can engage tourists with activities such as cache creation and cache search, even hosting regular cache events throughout the tourist season. The activities and micro-activities that so appeal to Millennials and Generation Z, such as solving cache puzzles; using maps and clues; finding location co-ordinates; and reading and interpreting GPS device involved in cache search can be promoted through local tourism business premises. This can be coupled with the use of either simply created QR codes … that enable the transmission of richer digital content, which would then be scanned using a mobile device, to point to other caches or content that could be of interest to tourists. It is therefore the extent of local businesses’ engagement with the practice and not necessarily the sophistication of the technological infrastructure of the destination that is fundamental to ensuring the effectiveness and sustainability of geocaching as a practice for the purpose of tourism”.

However, there is also potential scope for these principles to be applied to any high street or small town to increase footfall, and better engage residents and visitors alike, offering fun and entertainment, education and information, and also to provide information on special offers, and events.

More information on the special issue edited by Fabio Corbisiero and Elisabetta Ruspini on Millennials and Generation Z: Challenges and Future Perspectives for International Tourism in the Journal of Tourism Futures (including a link to the open access to read all papers in this special issue) can be found here.


[1] Sarpong, D., White, G.R.T., and Skinner, H. (2012) ‘Harnessing the technology wave for tourism: drawing on the community of practice of Human Search Engines’, Academy of Marketing Conference, University of Southampton’s School of Management, 2nd – 5th July 2012