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Being Smart About Tourism

by Su Aziz

Tourism has long ago jumped onto the technological bandwagon. Thus, smart tourism is born. It’s when your smart phone replaces a printed map, a tour guide and visitor’s centre, greatly augmenting your experience of a destination.

The next time you get off a plane in a land far, far away, know that your smart phone will be an indispensable tool and one that will determine whether you’ll have a good time during your travels or otherwise. In the advent of sophisticated technological advancement, it wouldn’t be right if the tourism industry – considered to be one of the fastest growing industries – isn’t positively affected by the waves of amazing digital innovations.

Within the tourism context, studies have shown that smart phones, or devices, not only keep you connected, help you get vital information on the destination you’re visiting, can save you money and time, plus make it possible for you to personalise your travel itinerary on the spot, but also keep you safe and raises the quality of your travels.

Welcome to the era of smart tourism. It’s more than a buzzword that describes the dependence of the tourism industry and tourists on technology – more specifically, information and communications technology (ICT). If just a few years ago, ICT elevated the convenience of travel reservations such as flight booking to online with secure credit card payment systems, today, it allows huge amounts of data to be transformed into a service or innovation that attract customers to a product or business.

Where, Exactly?
According to a 2015 research paper Smart Tourism: Foundations and Developments by Gretzel, Sigala, Zheng and Koo, ‘In Europe, many of the smart tourism initiatives were born out of smart city projects and, as a consequence, smart tourism destinations are increasingly making an appearance in the European tourism landscape.’ However, the paper reports that Europe focuses more on innovation, competitiveness and ‘developing smart end user applications that support enriched tourism experiences using already existing data combined and processed in new ways.’

European Capital of Smart Tourism reports that 2017 sees Helsinki tourist arrivals reached record numbers in excess of 4.5 million people enjoying a destination that mixes high-tech and sustainable design such as the city’s smart transport system. Currently, an ‘Uber boat’ system is under consideration and driverless buses are being trialled on open streets. Furthermore, the website reports that their open approach to public data which is available free for all since 2009 has guaranteed the major successes is the website featuring recommendations from the locals.

Other examples of tech usage for tourism in Europe include Ljubljana’s Nexto app that leads visitors through the city with a smart audio guide that engages users through features such as puzzles and riddles, as well as the closest water fountains in case tourists are thirsty. Also, Italian city Ravenna’s own Spotify channel that tells its story through songs and lyrics rather than images and text, as well as featuring local bands.

In Australia, according to the Smart Tourism paper, ‘the emphasis is on smart governance and specifically open data. What governments universally recognise is the transformative power of smart technologies not only in terms of the economic potential but also the social and experiential dimensions. Especially in Asia, there have been concerted efforts to drive the smart tourism agenda forward. Governments in China and South Korea are heavily funding initiatives mostly focused on building the technological infrastructure that supports smart tourism’.

A year and a half ago, Malaysian Tourism Ministry announced the country’s smart tourism initiative to take its tourism industry to the next level. It’s an effort to especially attract the China market and raise Chinese tourist arrivals into Malaysia to around eight million in the year 2020, as well as to meet the forecasted tourist arrivals of 1.8 billion in 2030. Following up on the announcement this year, in August 2019, the Malaysian Prime Minister said in the country’s English newspaper The Star, that Malaysia ‘is embarking on a comprehensive digitalisation journey’ to reshape its tourism industry into the direction of smart tourism initiatives.

Being Smart About Destinations
A paper that was started in 2018, Tourism 4.0: Challenges in Marketing a Paradigm Shift by Peceny, Urbančič, Mokorel, Kuralt and Ilijaš, states that a small change in the tourism industry results in a huge impact that affects a whole society. The authors of the paper propose ‘a new paradigm, Tourism 4.0, appearing with the quest to unlock the innovation potential in the whole tourism sector. This will be done with the help of key enabling technologies from the Industry 4.0, such as Internet of Things, big data, blockchain, AI, VR and AR.’ Mix in a collaborative ecosystem that involves locals, local authority, tourists, service providers and government, ‘an enriched tourism experience in both the physical and the digital world’ will happen.

Advantages of smart tourism is, of course, many – new business opportunities, increase tourist arrivals and better services, to name a few. Beneficiaries of smart tourism is, of course, plenty – accommodations, eateries, tourist attractions, retail businesses and tourists themselves, to name a few. New innovative tools and approaches to improve as well as evolve the tourism industry are constantly happening. Besides ICT, AI, VR and IoT, are said to support smart tourism as well.

According to The Smart City Journal, it isn’t countries nor cities that are competing against each other, instead it’s destinations. What’s more, the concept of smart tourism destination gives cities the chance to be appealing to both domestic and foreign tourists. Travel Massive states that smart tourism destinations should be physically and digitally accessible by all travellers or visitors of all ages, cultural backgrounds or physical disability. It also states ‘a destination [should] be easily reachable through different modes of transport’ and has ‘a strong public transport system that’s comfortable for all users’ including those with physical disabilities. Also, it’s important that information is not only accessible digitally but also adapted to appeal to target groups such as Malaysia targeting the Chinese market.

Final Words
Technology may have made it easier and more efficient in terms of crowd control, online ticket sales and disseminating information about attractions, and this in turn will further attract more tourists. But sustainability has been questioned when it comes to increasing the number of tourists: can a destination sustain growing amounts of tourists?

The article, How Smart Cities are Leading the Way to Smart Tourism by Scott Wayne, reports ‘Much of the technology used throughout a smart city, such as for energy, waste [as well as] water monitoring and increased efficiency, are also useful for tourism, both in terms of the resulting quality of the place and costs savings. The tourism industry, especially many hotels and hotel chains are well along in adopting sustainability technology—better for the bottom line, better for the customer experience and better for the planet’. Despite this, Wayne writes, ‘there is still a long way to go’.

Wayne adds, ‘Not every destination, hotel, tour operator or other tourism operator has adopted sustainability measures and technology yet. For emerging market destinations, the costs of adopting and implementing the technologies can initially be a deterrent, especially if their inbound tourism flows are super sensitive to natural or manmade disasters.’ But, adds Wayne, ‘as the smart city movement grows, it will get easier for the industry to adopt the technologies and become more sustainable. Many smart cities are offering incentives for businesses to get onboard’.

WIEF Foundation’s Young Fellows 2019 will be happening in George Town, Penang, Malaysia on 11-14 November. Its theme this year is Embracing the Future of Smart Tourism. To register as a participant, visit this link.

Read an interview with a Young Fellows 2019 trainer, Ooi Geok Ling on tourism in Penang, here.

18 Sep 2019
Last modified: 30 Sep 2019
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