Is smart tourism better tourism?

Nowadays, Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) are omnipresent. The digital age and its innovations in ICTs have changed society as well as economic and environmental development profoundly. ICT innovations are perceived and identified as one of the crucial game-changers in reaching Sustainable Development Goals.1 In this context, “smart” has become a buzzword. Gretzel, Sigala, Xiang and Koo define the concept as technological, economic, and social developments supported by technologies that are based on big data, exchange of information and the interconnectivity between different technological innovations in the physical and digital world. For instance, economies benefit from innovation, competitiveness, and entrepreneurship by allowing value creation and new forms of collaboration through smart technologies.2

Given that tourism, as an information-intense industry, is highly dependent on ICTs, it is no surprise to see the concept of “smart” being applied to the field of tourism. 2 In recent years, smart has become a new industry standard, especially within public organizations, and is somewhat praised as the new solution for pressing problems and challenges such as sustainability, overtourism or the efficient use of resources. The European Commission, for example, implemented the “Smart Tourism initiative” in order “to promote smart tourism in the EU, network and strengthen destinations, and facilitate the exchange of best practices”3. The initiative awards cities for their innovative achievements regarding sustainability, accessibility, digitalization, and cultural heritage as tourism destinations.

 

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Smart tourism, the saviour?

To understand the challenges as well as opportunities of smart tourism, it is crucial to get familiar with the concept itself. As stated by Gretzel et al., smart tourism can first and foremost be identified as the logical progression from traditional tourism and e-tourism.2 While e-tourism refers to the broad adoption of ICTs or social media within the tourism value chain, smart tourism takes you even one step further in the transformation process of ICTs in the industry. Instead of only implementing new and innovative ICTs, the smart tourism concept follows a more holistic approach to bridging the digital and physical world. Through the application of advanced and intelligent ICTs, stakeholders at tourism destinations collect, exchange and process data from different sources (physical infrastructure, government, organizations, etc.) and transform it into on-site experiences and business value propositions. Hereby the focus lies on efficiency, sustainability, and experience enrichment.2

Moreover, smart tourism consists of smart destinations, smart experiences, and smart businesses. Finally, as noted by Pencarelli, the optimal outcome or vision of smart tourism are smart tourists that are supported by smart technology to behave more responsibly towards the environment as well as the local community.4 Taken one step further, they even go through a transformation process towards establishing sustainable daily habits for greater well-being and sustainability. The theoretical concept of smart tourism almost sounds too good to be true. Therefore, I asked myself the question if the smart tourism concept is feasible. Does smart automatically mean good solutions for everyone? And does smart tourism really make tourism better, and hence, more sustainable? Or does the smart tourism conversation produce tunnel vision?

The ecosystem challenge

In contrast to a tourism business-centric ecosystem supported by technology, a smart tourism ecosystem is much more complex. It includes a variety of stakeholders such as touristic and residential consumers, DMOs, different (non-touristic) suppliers and social media companies, that are not necessarily interacting with or are not dependent on each other in a linear value chain. Furthermore, a smart tourism ecosystem is not a closed system and allows new business models to enter at any time.5 For example, touristic and residential consumers are capable to act as producers, becoming destination marketers by sharing their experiences on social media or directly consuming data provided by others in the ecosystem. Moreover, data, as well as ICT, is used by businesses to create new services of value or enrich tourism experiences.

 

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From my point of view, this complexity of the smart tourism ecosystem makes it more difficult for destination managers or decision-makers in businesses and governmental organisations to identify and understand the relevant interaction points to form and prioritize their strategies, objectives, and tactics accordingly. DMOs are not yet agile enough to address the challenges arising from the ever-changing environment in which they are operating. This could involve risks of mismanagement and potential negative impacts for all tourism stakeholders that are difficult to even be considered in the first place.

In this context, it should also be noted, that smart tourism ecosystems cannot be created but rather evolve from the technological infrastructure and regulatory foundations provided by external (non-touristic) stakeholders5. Therefore, the outcome of smart tourism development and its formation of smart tourism ecosystems might not even lie within the managerial control of tourism decision-makers. This becomes clearer by looking at the impacts of sharing economy concepts in tourism: next to its benefits sharing platforms have had also disruptive effects on the competitiveness of e.g. hotels, leading to tensions in the housing markets and hence, have resulted in historic centres with little authentic local communities to be experienced by tourists.

The data challenge

The involvement of new, innovative technology and the use of big amounts of personal data brings its own challenges to smart tourism development. Here, the effects of technology-supported life should be explored in more detail. ICTs, such as the smartphone, are part of daily routines and their influence alters global economies, society, and individuals. In the past, consumers used technologies to mainly support their lives. Nowadays, they form digital identities with social networks and the dependency on ICTs is ever-growing. As a result, social interactions, identity formation, mental capabilities, opinion-making, and of course consumer choices are impacted profoundly by the ICT economy.6

 

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According to Gössling, ICT innovations are widely accepted as a positive input to the development and its many affordances, meaning its support with information and advice, services related to tourism, social networks, or orientation, are embraced by consumers – and businesses. However, this overlooks the many social costs and risks of ICT innovation.6 Today, consumers are willing to share their personal information and data concerning social interactions, health, views and opinions, personality, and economic situation mainly with corporations such as Facebook, Google, Airbnb etc. Those have almost limitless opportunities for private data collection and can easily gain consumer control for their own economic benefit.6

Yes, data can be helpful, but how it is used and managed lies still with humans. In the context of smart tourism, it is important for destination managers and decision-makers in the public sector to understand the affordances and concessions of ICTs, so the purpose of smart tourism development is not to just track and profile tourists for simple revenue growth. Especially social but also environmental issues need to be considered. Therefore, smart tourism development should aim to gain certain independence from big players in the ICT economy, implement supporting and ethical regulations and drive its own ICT innovations and investments. This comes with another challenge. DMOs, which often exist solely for marketing purposes, do not have the power within the ecosystem to influence or even implement certain guidelines or regulations needed to build a sustainable, smart infrastructure.

In addition, privacy concerns and cyber security can be identified as key factors for touristic and residential consumers to use smart tourism technologies. If governmental and public organisations, as well as businesses within the smart tourism ecosystem, fail to address tourists’ needs for privacy and security, it would present a definite exclusion criterion for visiting the destination. 7 Although the need for privacy and security can vary from one individual to another, it must be a conditioning variable for governmental and public organisations in smart tourism development.

The technology challenge

The trust in smart technology and enjoyment of technology-enriched experiences also plays a critical role in smart tourism development. To benefit from experience co-creation, smart tourism destinations must capture touristic and residential consumers’ level of acceptance and usage of smart technologies. However, this is rather complex. At destinations, consumers’ willingness and ability to use technology vary widely. Moreover, the potential negative impacts of intensive technology use on consumers and their experiences should be considered. Such effects could be information overload or loss of authenticity.8 Consequently, not every destination might be equally suitable for smart tourism development and implications for smart technology should be examined carefully according to their target groups. Furthermore, once smart technologies are implemented, it is important to evaluate and analyse their real impacts.

 

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Towards better tourism

Research shows that ICTs and specifically social media, support and can assist in sustainable development in tourism9. By using technological, human, and social resources smart tourism destinations seek sustainability to improve the life of local communities and enrich the tourist experience. However, it should not be the goal of destination managers and decision-makers in public organisations to just implement smart technologies to follow a megatrend. And although the theoretical concept of smart tourism is indeed promising better tourism, smart tourism ecosystems and the development of smart tourism destinations bring several challenges – especially related to the human factor, hence, the managers, decision-makers etc. Those call for further research to get a deeper understanding, develop comprehensive frameworks and identify managerial implications.

To fully benefit and create competitive and sustainable destinations, collaboration between the different stakeholders is key.10 Governmental and public organizations in cooperation with the local communities and the relevant tourism stakeholders need to become more agile and provide strategic and regulatory groundwork as well as the relevant technological infrastructure. Moreover, smart destinations and tourism businesses should concentrate on a human-centric experience design approach.11 By understanding how humans are impacted by smart technology, and how technology can assist in creating more meaningful experiences or even support transformations to greater well-being and sustainability, smart tourism can become better tourism.

 

References

1 Sachs, J. D., Schmidt-Traub, G., Mazzucato, M., Messner, D., Nakicenovic, N., & Rockström, J. (2019). Six transformations to achieve the sustainable development goals. Nature Sustainability, 2(9), 805-814.

2 Gretzel, U., Sigala, M., Xiang, Z., & Koo, C. (2015). Smart tourism: foundations and developments. Electronic markets, 25(3), 179-188.

3  European Commission. (2021). European Capitals of Smart Tourism. Retrieved 13th October 2021: https://smart-tourism-capital.ec.europa.eu/index_en

4 Pencarelli, T. (2020). The digital revolution in the travel and tourism industry. Information Technology & Tourism, 22(3), 455-476.

5 Gretzel, U., Werthner, H., Koo, C., & Lamsfus, C. (2015). Conceptual foundations for understanding smart tourism ecosystems. Computers in Human Behavior, 50, 558-563.

6 Gössling, S. (2021). Tourism, technology and ICT: a critical review of affordances and concessions. Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 29(5), 733-750.

7 Jeong, M., & Shin, H. H. (2020). Tourists’ experiences with smart tourism technology at smart destinations and their behavior intentions. Journal of Travel Research59(8), 1464-1477.

8 Femenia-Serra, F., Neuhofer, B., & Ivars-Baidal, J. A. (2019). Towards a conceptualisation of smart tourists and their role within the smart destination scenario. The Service Industries Journal, 39(2), 109-133.

9 Gössling, S. (2017). Tourism, information technologies and sustainability: an exploratory review. Journal of Sustainable Tourism25(7), 1024-1041.

10 Cavalheiro, M. B., Joia, L. A., & Cavalheiro, G. M. D. C. (2020). Towards a smart tourism destination development model: Promoting environmental, economic, socio-cultural and political values. Tourism Planning & Development, 17(3), 237-259.

11 Stankov, U., & Gretzel, U. (2020). Tourism 4.0 technologies and tourist experiences: a human-centered design perspective. Information Technology & Tourism22(3), 477-488.

Digital Tourism Think Tank 2019 – Day 1

#DTTT 2019 What did I learn?

 

I had a great possibility to participate in Digital Tourism Think Tank Global 2019 on 4rd and 5th of December, which this year took place in Espoo. DTTT Global is, in my opinion, one of the most interesting conferences as it gathers a bunch of tourism DMO’s and other professionals to hear the latest innovations and good practices made around the globe. As it was my first time in participating anything this big of an event, it was a great chance for me to test what I have learned during my year in UEF Master’s Degree studies and put that knowledge in practice.

The overall impression from the two days was, well, impressive! Both days were all about technology and digitalization, but the theme was viewed from different angles; the first day was all about how technology can be used in sustainable destination design and the second-day topic was all about AI and digitalization. We saw great examples from around the globe on how to do things a bit different view. The repetition, which still rings in my ears, was: DMO’s role is shifting, DMO’s role is changing. I will try to cover a few examples of how this topic emerged during those two days. You can see the whole program and key take-aways here

DMO’s shifting role – What’s this about?

Traditionally DMO, a Destination marketing organization, focuses on MARKETING. Building a brand, getting the stakeholders together, promoting the place and focusing on tourism flows. However, in most presentations, you could hear how DMO role was merged as DMMO (destination marketing management organization) or DxO where x stands for anything that the future holds for us and tourism organizations must be ready to modify their actions on how the digitalization and travel behavior change. As written in the article at Atta.travel

“A DxO is better-equipped to manage disruptive business methodologies, to pivot when it comes to times of change and to be agile in the face of challenges. For example, A DMO in a time of water shortages cannot simply sit back and continue to market a destination as if oblivious to the challenge faced by locals and, ultimately, visitors. A DXO tackles the challenge head-on, collaborating with relevant bodies in the private and public sector to drive tangible change, having a positive impact on the very environment in which tourism takes place.”

As the growth of tourism flows has not only had a positive effect, UNWTO, (United Nation’s World Tourism Organization) has instructed DMO’s not only to focus on marketing and sales but also to the elements of government and coordination towards collaboration. Therefore, DMO – or should I say – DxO’s role is constantly shifting towards more holistic governance of the area and tourism flows.

So, how this is seen in practice?

Case: East Iceland

I was impressed by the work done in East Iceland (Austurland) and in the Faroe Islands on how they have managed to do collaborative work together with the locals, aiming at the commitment and destination loyalty and most importantly – that the locals are proud of their destination. East Iceland current destination strategy and branding building process started in 2012 when they got familiar with Swedish Destination Designer Daniel Byström. Two years later East Iceland DMO together with Byström started to blueprint the touchpoints and putting the stakeholders in the center of the whole design process.

They did a lot of workshops and interviews with local residents and formed a brand tagline “Think outside of the circle” referring e.g. to the circle (1-road) going around Iceland and from which you have to deviate from to get in most of these cities in East Iceland. (I accidentally visited Seydisfjördur and Egilsstadir in 2017, as we were circling the ring road and thought on do a day-trip to this city, and especially first mentioned it is worth stopping by!). They build a strong brand around local people, around emotions and storytelling. The brand was build and communicated openly with stakeholders and local people. The brand mission is as follows:

Our mission

“We are communicating experiences and emotions with a personal the approach that inspires and surprises the audience, while working with every visitor, resident, and company as a part of the Austurland story”

I think they have done a splendid job in brand building and designing collaboratively with visitors and locals. They’ve managed to build up the communal spirit and “proudness” towards their homeplace. One great example from creating value together was one walking road to church, which became a “landmark” of Saydisfjördur after a bit of a fine-tuning. The story behind it was that there wasn’t enough money to repair the old brick road. Therefore, instead of repairing the road, they painted the road with rainbow colors together with residents and local artists.

(Source: María Hjálmarsdóttir & Daniel Byström’s presentation in DTTT 4.12.)

I think this is a great example of DMO’s shifting role: instead of just marketing, DMO’s role is also bringing local people together, coordinate and encouraging and committing them to build up a destination in where they are proud to live alongside tourists.

Case: Faroe Island

Another marvelous example from that what DMO could do with literally 0-budget – do it as they do in Faroe Island – Do it viral. It was ridiculous to see how many viral hits the Faroe Islands got just being creative. Google Sheep View and Faroe Islands Translate have got. However, it is not all. Collaboratively with locals, they built up a strategy and a brand “Preservolution” – aiming not to have over-tourism, but sustainable tourism.

Unique and authentic experiences are in the focus, instead of mass-events. As for one another example, they did a one-day event where the stage was in private homes. Over 20 concerts in local’s home sound like an experience you can’t get from anywhere else!

However, after successful viral hits and events, it became clear that not everyone wanted Faroe Island as a playground for tourists. Tourists were not always welcome and landowners mind their land to getting ruined by a tourist. Added to that, complicated legislation was ambiguous in topics liability and who takes care of the land if tourists “ruin” it. It created opposition within landowners creating their way of doing things and creating e.g. cash per visit -systems

(Source: Levi Hanssen’s & Jóhan Pauli Helgason’s presentation on DTTT 4.12.)

For that, they built up an idea: Closed for Maintenance – open for voluntourism. The whole country is closed from “ordinary” tourists but open for volunteers who construct and help locals to preserve nature. Collaboratively with locals landowners, local people and tourists they build more sustainable destination and have less annoyance from residents towards tourism. All these actions created by a DMMO of Faroe Island created proudness towards the home country, and willingness to move back and do things for it. More importantly, it connected people to do things together with tourists and destination stakeholders. Another great example of DMO’s shifting role.

Wrap up #DTTT Day 1

This was just a scratch from Day 1 of DTTT. After the first day, my head was filled with ideas and I got the same inspirational feel what I got after their presentations and immediately I started to compose ideas: Could we do something similar in Finland and around Saimaa Region? Maybe we can start a project around these issues to develop a strong place brand around Lake Saimaa and ECoC –process, to build a stronger feel towards the place – for example. Do open workshops and interviews and build a strong destination brand and strategy around Lakeland and Saimaa region. Well, even these cases could not be modeled in these contexts; the key thing for me was realizing how wide scope DMO has to control. I do not envy you guys, who are doing this as your daily job!

For me, these two above-mentioned presentations were the ones, which stood up from the ground from the first day, as there were many touchpoints where I could relate. Not to say that other presentations were bad – the opposite! For example, Lyon have done a great job as a sister “smart city” to Helsinki on the year 2019 in connecting technology to culture by creating a “visitor database” which is shared by the entire destination stakeholders to maintain loyalty and understanding visitors better and communicating with them, referring visitors nearby activities during city visit. That’s how you use technology to create collaboration with destination stakeholders!

(Source: Camille Lenoble & Blandine Thenet presentation in DTTT 4.12.)

Finally: Finland as a sustainable and smart destination – how are we doing?

I cannot end the post without mention our dear beloved Finland. I was proud to see how good work we’ve done in Finland. Comparing to strategies, sustainable travel goals and such things that were seen during the few days. The place, Dipoli in Espoo was a great spot for this kind of event. Espoo in many ways surprised me with all the tech innovations that the “happiest city in the happiest country” had come up to. Automatic transportation pilot Gacha, Uber-style boat on-demand –service Bout, Airbnb-style rent your boat – SkipperiAutomated helicopters which deliver food just to mention a few examples to which I immediately could see business models in Saimaa region as well.

We are ahead in building a sustainable tourism destination, where e.g. MyHelsinki has focused on by encouraging stakeholders to act more sustainable. However, to be frank, in Finland collaborative work still needs some work to do – but we are slowly getting there and seeing the benefits of what we could achieve by creating and innovating our tourism flows sustainably and responsibly. This is also a recognized problem by Visit Finland and noticed in for example in a report where they dive deep to examine the operating models of Finnish tourism agencies (in Finnish).

When we identify and speak out from our problems, it is much easier to solve and develop them together.

Read more about the event on my Day two recap.

Tourism Marketing and Management to start studying extraterrestrial tourists

Today is an excellent day to launch our new mission: we will focus now on how to make our world more hospitable for extraterrestrial tourists. There have been concrete sightings of UFOs for decades, clearly suggesting that we are constantly being visited by extraterrestrial aliens.

In 2017 we at Tourism Marketing and Management programme started educating postgraduate students at University of Eastern Finland with the mission of making tourism better. However, as a result of recent strategy meetings, we have identified an even more prominent research stream.

Research on extraterrestrial tourists

When we started looking into the topic it came as a bit of a surprise to us how little academic research could be found even remotely connected to intergalactic tourism. Sure, there are already academics studying space tourism, but this research is mostly focused on humans as tourists, like almost all other tourism topics before it. Based on the number of sightings Earth must be a popular tourist destination for aliens, but the academic literature on the topic is almost non-existent. This is what we now aim to change.

UFOs
Extraterrestrial tourists arriving

Various new research topics

There are several different topics that our research group and our students will start examining. First of all, we are interested in their travel motivations: why do the aliens undertake such long interstellar voyages to visit Earth? We are also interested in what makes them choose Earth among all the planets in the universe? What makes Earth so special? Understanding these topics helps us to better design our destination to meet traveller needs. Even though finding respondents for our survey might prove challenging we are close to signing a memorandum of understanding with NASA and hopefully will be able to interview our guests at Area 51. A new form of collaboration is needed to cater for the needs of these customers, as well as to rethink the traditional definitions of tourist destinations.

We will also study the sustainability of interstellar tourism by calculating the dark matter emissions of travelling to Earth from many of our major source markets. A global study will be conducted to calculate the economic impacts of extraterrestrial visits as well as what kind of effect the alien tourism has on our culture. The results should provide us with important knowledge to guide our marketing decisions to a more sustainable direction.

The search continues, now for tourism research purposes.

Unique postgraduate programme

This novel research stream will differentiate our programme and take it to the next level. This is evident with the success of our latest recruitment process. Professor April S.F. Ools (Ph.D.) will start developing cross-cultural marketing and management at our programme. We will be the only academic postgraduate programme to really see the big, intergalactic picture of tourism.

Understanding this seldom studied tourist group will contribute to our understanding of the world and offer novel insights into tourism as a research topic as well as an industry. The students graduating from our programme will be innovative out-of-box thinkers with unique intercultural communication capabilities and understanding.

Are you looking for an international tourism-focused master’s degree programme in business? Tourism Marketing and Management programme by University of Eastern Finland provides a unique learning experience for students who have finished their bachelor’s degree and are looking for new skills and knowledge in developing tourism industry in a sustainable way. Read more about the programme at www.uef.fi/tmm.