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What is smart tourism and why is it so BIG?

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Smart tourism is big business in the travel and tourism industry, but why is it so big and what does smart tourism actually do? Read on to learn more…

What is smart tourism?

Smart tourism is defined according to the technological capabilities of a particular destination, attraction or the tourist themselves. Many destinations are now modernising to include increased use of smart technology in their operations ranging from payment methods to interactive activities.

The ultimate aim of smart tourism is to improve the efficiency of resource management, maximise competitiveness and to enhance sustainability through the use of technological innovations and practices. It is often associated with e-tourism as this will involve the use of technology.

One destination that is leading the way with their smart tourism industry is China, whereby tourists can use their phones to do simple tasks such as pay for taxis, order meals, check queue times and read information on the destination or attraction that they are visiting through a supplied QR code.

virtual tourism

A definition of smart tourism

‘Smart’ has become somewhat of a buzzword in recent years.

In essence, for something to be ‘smart’ it needs to have complex technological capabilities in order to allow for the exploitation of a range of information that is then used to inform product development and operation. Whilst the average tourist may not be aware of what goes on behind the scenes, there is likely a lot of work that goes on to ensure maximum productivity and competitiveness.

Whilst the concept of ‘smart’ isn’t directly correlated with technology, in today’s world they are inevitably intertwined. In order to be ‘smart’, destinations, attractions and other tourism industry stakeholders will utilise a variety of technological innovations and practices (these are outlined shortly). As such, the use of technology is at the heart of the concept of smart tourism.

There hasn’t been a great deal of research into smart tourism to date. Most studies in the area focus instead on ‘smart cities’ or ‘smart destinations’.

Gretzel et al (2015) advocate that the notion of smart tourism is, in fact, a complex one, and that succinctly defining the term smart tourism is a difficult endeavour.

The The European Capital of Smart Tourism, define a smart destination as:

‘A destination facilitating access to tourism and hospitality products, services, spaces and experiences through ICT-based tools. It is a healthy social and cultural environment, which can be found through a focus on the city´s social and human capital. It also implements innovative, intelligent solutions and fosters the development of entrepreneurial businesses and their interconnectedness.’

To further elaborate, Buhalis and Amaranggana explain that:

‘Smart Tourism Destinations take advantage of: (1) Technology embedded environments; (2) Responsive processes at micro and macro levels (3) End-user devices in multiple touch-points; and (4) Engaged stakeholders that use the platform dynamically as a neural system.’

Taking into account the available literature at the time of writing, I have provided my own definition of smart tourism below.

‘Smart tourism is the act of tourism agents utilising innovative technologies and practices to enhance resource management and sustainability, whilst increasing the businesses overall competitiveness’.

resource management, maximise competitiveness and to enhance sustainability through the use of technological innovations and practices.

What is smart tourism?
This infographic was created by one of my travel and tourism work experience students.

Types of smart tourism

At the heart of smart tourism is technology, that much is clear. But the key is how this technology is used to make the tourism agent (destination management organisation, tourist attraction, hotel, restaurant etc) operate more effectively.

Below you will find five of the most common methods of implementing smart tourism.

Ways to implement smart tourism

Smart tourism can be implemented in any number of different ways, providing it achieves the outcomes of enhanced resource management, sustainability and competitiveness. There are five main ways to do this, although this list is, of course, not exhaustive. These five methods include; smart accessibility options, smart sustainability initiatives, smart information sharing, smart research and management tools and smart tourist experiences.

Herzberg theory

Smart tourism accessibility options

In order to a tourism agent to identify as smart tourism initiative, they must demonstrate that they are accessible to all, both in a physical and a digital sense. This means that everyone has access to the tourism provider, regardless of age, gender, religion, race, sexuality or disability.

A smart tourism attraction or destination should have a well development transport infrastructure that enables all types of people to travel (i.e. there is wheelchair access and lifts for parents with prams etc). This should also include reasonably priced transport options, which will usually be public transport.

At the attraction or destination itself, there should be opportunities for everybody to access all areas. This may include lifts and ramps for disabled people.

Smart tourism accessibility also includes language communications. This is something that I have personally grappled with a lot since moving to China. Many Chinese attractions do not provide information for non-Chinese speaking tourists. Others provide translation for only some selected information (this works both ways too- I have translated museum scripts to find that the English version provides comprehensive details, but the Chinese version omits certain facts or remarks).

There are some great examples of smart tourism accessibility implemented around the world. I personally like the wheelchair accessibility that is promoted in Malaga and the personal city helpers scheme in Helsinki.

Smart tourism sustainability initiatives

Sustainable tourism is at the forefront of many tourism agent’s plans and operations nowadays, and for good reason. As I explained in my post ‘Sustainable tourism explained‘, such practices not only help to provide a good image for the organisation, but also help to combat the negative social, environmental and economic impacts of tourism.

An important arm of smart tourism is the sustainability sector. Tourism agents which operate successful smart tourism initiatives should have a considerable focus on sustainability; reducing their carbon footprint, adopting environmentally friendly approaches and taking into account the host communities and their needs.

There are many ways that organisations can use mart technology to improve their sustainability practices.

Helsinki demonstrated their commitment to sustainable tourism during their Sustainable Flow Festival and Estonia have their Green Key initiative. At a more local level, there are many eco hotels and resorts around the world as well as socially beneficial tourism forms such as volunteer tourism.

Of course, having sustainable practices alone doesn’t qualify a tourism agent as a smart tourism provider. These practices need to be underpinned by technologies, such as the use of solar panel lighting for example, that enable said practices to be achieved.

Smart tourism information sharing

One of the key advancements enabling smart tourism to occur in recent years is the growth of information sharing platforms. The digitalisation of modern day society has opened up a wealth of opportunities for tourism providers to share information to a wide range of tourist types.

The growth of social media, QR codes and mini-programmes has provided tourism agents with opportunities that were not previously available.

Tourism organisations can now use these new opportunities to provide information prior, during and after the tourists’ visit. They can also utilise more efficient promotional methods and marketing on these online platforms.

Complex algorithms, cookies and other digital monitoring methods can help organisations to be more and more in tune with their consumers or potential consumers. This allows them to develop more suitable and targeted products.

Organisations have been capitalising on the new possibilities of smart tourism information sharing by adopting electronic means of sharing information, for example in a museum or exhibit, encouraging the use of particular social media hashtags and geotagging and developing custom made apps.

Whilst many organisations around the world have turned to smart tourism information sharing practices, China is leading the way in this domain. Chinese tourism attractions are abundant with QR codes and their social media sharing platform, WeChat, enables tourism providers to develop their own mini-programmes- kind of like apps, but less extensive and without the need to download anything.

Smart tourism research and management tools

Nowadays there are many methods of obtaining and monitoring information. Organisations now have a wealth of data at their fingertips.

Adopting smart tourism research and management tools, such as designing a custom-made tourism flow monitor or developing a tailor-made CRM programme, can dramatically improve business outcomes.

A good example of a destination that has implemented smart tourism research and management tools in this way is Malaga, where they have introduced a parking app to help travellers park more effectively and reduce congestion.

Smart tourist experiences

Perhaps the most obvious type of smart tourism (for the tourist at least), is the smart tourist experience.

Destinations, attractions and other tourism providers are now adopting innovative technological approaches to develop and enhance the tourism experience that they offer. This ranges from augmented reality applications to gaming and virtual reality. This article on the top 20 augmented reality travel apps show a few examples of how this works in practice.

In the UK, The Hub Hotel from Premier Inn has made augmented reality compatible with the wall maps in the hotel rooms. When these maps are viewed through a smart device the wall maps present additional information about some of the local places of interest.

On my recent trip to Qiandao Lake in China, I saw a virtual reality hot air ballon. Here tourists would wear a mask which would make them feel like they would be lifted to a height inside the hot air ballon, where they could appreciate the lake view around them. In reality, their feet would never leave the ground!

Smart tourism: Conclusion

Is smart tourism the future of tourism? I would say so, yes. There are some brilliant examples of smart tourism initiatives around the world and countries like China are leading the way. Despite the evident growth in smart tourism, however, there is a dearth of information on the subject, most notably in the academic field.

Personally, I am excited to see the developments in the tourism industry in this regard over the coming years! What do you think?

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