Smart tourism: where digitalization meets sustainability
Yes, traveling is a wonderful thing. But so is protecting the environment! Our our Master’s student writes about his world trip and what sustainable choices are possible. His goal on his trip was clear: How can we combine the two? How can we travel more sustainably? Can we use smart technologies for our adventures around the world? A trip around the world was the experience of a lifetime. His 2019 journey around the globe started in beautiful Bern and took him on an adventure across six continents. For him, traveling and interacting with other cultures has always been a great passion and at the same time an eye-opener in terms of sustainability.
Today, more people than ever could afford to travel. But how can you travel smart? How can you help preserve the environment and sights and not inconvenience locals? Before the COVID-19 pandemic, tourism was booming like never before. According to the United Nations UNCTAD early indicators show that traveling and tourism is one of the most affected sectors by the pandemic. Their studies show that even with the introduction of vaccination, it will take a longer time for travel to return to pre-pandemic levels. So, it’s time to take advantage of this social pause in travel and look back at where smart technologies within travel have led to more sustainability. The World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) calculated that 1.4 billion people traveled internationally in 2018, half of them in Europe.
But tourism doesn’t just bring good profits to a region or city. Places like Dubrovnik, Amsterdam, or Venice struggle to cope with the massive influx of tourists. Some say apps like Airbnb or Booking.com are displacing local residents and turning entire cities into giant hotels. In addition, social media providers like Instagram are adding to our desire to visit remote and culturally rich sites and take home the best photos of them.
Fig. 1: Overtourism in Venice, Italy.
When there are more tourists than a particular place or landscape can handle, we talk about overtourism, which has negatively impacted the sustainability and environmental protection of travel again in recent years.
Are smart technologies the solution?
Can cutting-edge technology help make travel friendlier for visitors and locals? Lisa Kinne, smart travel expert from the German digital association Bitkom, says: Yes!
When it comes to tourism, digitalization has great potential to improve sustainability according the Bitkom studies. If it’s first about making information easily accessible, such as real-time data on tourist numbers, tourist flows in popular localities can be regulated more sustainably. Which would mean less overtourism. Another option is to link smart travel options together. This allows us to get from A to B more efficiently. With more and simpler travel information, tourists can consciously choose more sustainable travel solutions.
This is what makes tourism smarter these days. To me, this means taking advantage of the opportunities that digitalization offers us to minimize risks as much as possible and support sustainability.
Practical examples and hacks of smart traveling
For example, how to get to a destination. Services like www.ecopassenger.org help travelers compare different itineraries in terms of CO2 emissions. We also often used the train for our travels, and we were helped by the famous “man from seat 61” who runs an online blog about sustainable train travel on www.seat61.com.
Fig. 2: Ecopassenger.org supports the reduction of CO2 emissions.
Websites like www.myclimate.org calculate the environmental carbon footprint of our trip and convert it into the required CO2 offset of a flight. For instance, when we flew from São Paulo to Johannesburg, we were able to donate to a climate protection project in developing and emerging countries by compensating about 70 additional swiss francs.
The latter mentioned case of our trip shows that sustainability is not only an issue about emissions, but also about social sustainability – such as reforestation or education – which should be considered while traveling. For social sustainability, to give an instance, we traveled to Arequipa in Peru, to help within a social education project. The digital platform www.socialbnb.org, a useful example from the sharing economy, made this possible. Similarly exciting here is the provider www.fairbnb.coop, which uses commission money to support local projects.
The power of data, AI, and machine learning for more sustainable travels
It would be great if we could expand existing data networks and share more data regarding more sustainable travel with society. As travelers, we have the technologies at our fingertips to collect data and make it available to the travel community. As an illustration, let’s say we didn’t feel a travel deal was very sustainable. So, we can suggest a different offer to the community online and end up doing good by collecting data on more sustainable offers on an ongoing basis.
Through smart tourism, we can contribute further to science by providing data. Vacation snapshots taken can become part of a smart tourism data pool. Travelers can upload their photos online through a project of the Citizen Science Center at the University of Zurich and collect valuable data for research on coasts and animals. You wonder how it works?
Are you traveling to a coast or a beach and taking some snapshots of it? Travelers can nowadays upload their coastal photos on Coastwards or via coastwards app without login and provide the exact location of it. These images go into a global database and help scientists to better understand the risks of rising sea levels through artificial intelligence and machine learning models.
During our South Africa safaris, we got to observe one of the rarest and most endangered species in the wild: the wild dog. While there, we learned about the digital solution Wild Me. WildMe develops open software and artificial intelligence to support wildlife conservation. They use machine learning in the fight against the extinction of endangered species. This smart technology documents wildlife migration routes and trails.
Fig. 3: How Wild Me works through Microsoft Azure.
An animal with unique patterns like the South African wild dog is photographed by a traveler. The images are then posted to the cloud by users or through social media scans. Computer vision models use pattern recognition to identify the species and individual animals. Users can then track their favorite animals in a wildbook (gamification possible through a collaboration with Microsoft). The data collected helps scientists monitor endangered populations, animal interactions, and individual movements for the benefit of wildlife conservation.
Fig. 4: Wild Me AI technology combined with machine learning to protect South African wildlife.
Scientists aren’t the only ones who can benefit from this Big Data generation. Travelers like us do too. Tourists in the city of Hangzhou (China), for instance, are tracked via geo-tracking so that the city can inform visitors how crowded a place or attraction is, and this is possible about 2 hours in advance using predictive analysis.
Our trip around the world showed us impressively through these examples and digital hacks that digitalization is revolutionizing tourism and travel and that automated innovations can contribute to more sustainability.
Smart traveling – in a European role model
The UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) claims that smart cities are the best prepared for reconciling sustainability and travel. In recent years, two cities have been named European smart tourism capitals for the first time. Lyon and Helsinki. The example of Helsinki (Finland) shows what smart traveling and, consequently, a Smart City can look like. You can start your trip to Helsinki completely digitally! In fact, anyone can visit and explore Helsinki virtually through VR technology and a VR headset.
In the future, it might even be possible to attend concerts and exhibitions virtually or go shopping in Helsinki virtually. Not everyone can afford to travel, or the pandemic situation currently prevents it. Through Helsinki’s VR technology, these hurdles can be overcome, and it offers the possibility to explore the city and various sights without flying or physically traveling. VR saves travel time and the associated CO2 emissions.
Those who still travel to Helsinki in person can filter the most sustainable food and exploration options via Myhelsinki. And then there’s the question of how to get from A to B sustainably in Helsinki? By metro or light rail, or by bike, or by taking the nearest ride-share? The app Whim (also available in Switzerland) allows you to search, book and pay for the different means of transport available in Helsinki. Within the app, the most sustainable route can be determined directly using the appropriate mode of transport. This makes the city much cleaner, more convenient and increases the quality of life for residents.
Fig. 5: Virtual Helsinki: a completely digital visit to Finland through VR.
Many of these initiatives are supported by the municipality to implement a better and more sustainable future, making Helsinki an example of a smart city for smart travelers.
This blog ends with the same statement it started: Yes, traveling is a wonderful thing. But so is protecting the environment! It will remain a big challenge for travelers, for cities or countries, and for society to make travel more sustainable. However, the digital solutions of our time and the associated power of data can help us promote sustainability during our travels. The associated community on more sustainable travel will grow, and at the same time more cities will be digitized into smart cities. The potential to travel more sustainably is great, and the next time we travel, digitalization will surely already be providing new opportunities.
So, let’s all take advantage of the technological developments of our time in travel, so that future generations can also explore and travel our planet in a sustainable state and its full beauty.
- COVID-19 and Tourism – An Update. United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, 2021. https://unctad.org/system/files/official-document/ditcinf2021d3_en_0.pdf
- International Tourist Arrivals Reach 1.4 Billion Two Years Ahead Of Forecasts. World Tourism Organization UNWTO, 2019. https://www.unwto.org/global/press-release/2019-01-21/international-tourist-arrivals-reach-14-billion-two-years-ahead-forecasts
- “Tourists Go Home!” – Tourism Overcrowding And “Tourismophobia” In European Cities (Can Tourists And Residents Still Co-Habitate In The City?), Egresi, I., 2018. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/327883652_Tourists_go_home_-_Tourism_overcrowding_and_tourismophobia_in_European_cities_Can_tourists_and_residents_still_co-habitate_in_the_city
- Nationale Tourismusstrategie digital denken – Bitkom-Handlungsempfehlungen für den Tourismusstandort Deutschland. Kinne, L., 2020. https://www.bitkom.org/sites/default/files/2020-05/20200504_bitkom_positionspapier_nationale-tourismusstrategie-digital-denken.pdf
- Digitaler Tourismus 2020: So smart reisen die Deutschen. Paulsen, N., 2020. https://www.bitkom.org/Presse/Presseinformation/Digitaler-Tourismus-2020-So-smart-reisen-die-Deutschen
- The Amazing Ways Wild Me Uses Artificial Intelligence And Citizen Scientists To Help With Conservation. Marr, B., 2021. https://www.forbes.com/sites/bernardmarr/2021/01/29/the-amazing-ways-wild-me-uses-artificial-intelligence-and-citizen-scientists-to-help-with-conservation/?sh=449b4152dcdc
- Stadtentwicklung: Mit der App “Smart Cities» in die Zukunft. Euronews, 2019. https://de.euronews.com/next/2019/10/17/stadtentwicklung-mit-der-app-smart-cities-in-die-zukunft
- Helsinki’s huge VR gig hints at the potential of virtual tourism. Baxter, S., 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/travel/2020/may/05/helsinki-huge-vr-virtual-reality-gig-potential-virtual-tourism
About the Master Digital Administration
This article was written as part of the Master’s programme in Digital Business Administration at BFH Wirtschaft. The programme provides the relevant skills to help shape the digital future of business and society. Thanks to current live cases from companies in the digital transformation, the study programme is strongly practice-oriented and provides hands-on experience in the use of current and emerging digital technologies.