How can the digital revolution be used to better transform tourism?

How can the digital revolution be used to better transform tourism?

How can we better understand the growing economic, societal and environmental impacts of technology and innovation in tourism? That’s the question posed by the UNWTO on its website to promote the annual World Tourism Day, which occurs this week, on September 27. The theme for 2018 is “Tourism and the Digital Transformation”.

Tripadvisor has 455 million average monthly unique visitors, all looking to gain insights from its 661 million reviews and opinions. According to Tnooz, 42% of stories shared by Facebook users were about their travel experiences. Digital has already transformed our holiday experiences, but might this vast and ever growing mass of data be used for more than just booking and sharing post trip stories? Might it be used to make the world a better place?

The Nature Conservancy is building the Atlas of Ocean Wealth, an online resource combining information gathered through traditional data-driven academic research with crowd-sourced and social media-related data. The aim is to assess the economic contribution of coral reefs in different countries, and thus provide incentives for their protection. By mapping hotel locations alongside the number of photos taken in a location, and measuring and comparing photos of dive-sites and underwater photographs versus tourism activities that indirectly benefit from the presence of coral reefs, researchers have created far more precise assessments of value than previously possible. They’ve shown that coral reefs represent an economic value to the world of $36 billion per year, and support over 70 million trips annually, “making these fragile and beautiful organisms a powerful engine of coastal and marine tourism”. Such information can be used to encourage local governments to invest more in preserving reefs, for example.

In Australia, Griffith University is using a different approach to studying data for reef protection. Researchers for the university downloaded almost 300,000 tweets posted from the Great Barrier Reef between July 2016 and March 2017. They selected 13,344 potentially useful tweets by filtering for relevant keywords such as “fish”, “coral”, “turtle” or “bleach”. Of these tweets, 61% had geographic coordinates that enabled the researchers to plot their location and attribute their opinions to conditions on specific areas of reef. They were able to pick out patterns such as concern over the welfare of dugongs.

It’s not just wildlife that can benefit, either. Launched in 2016, TraffickCam is a free mobile app that enables anyone staying a hotel room to anonymously share a photograph of it to a central database. Because sex traffickers often post images of their victims posed in hotel rooms for online advertisements, TraffickCam is able to match patterns in the carpeting, furniture, room accessories and window views from such adverts against the database of traveler images and provide law enforcement with a list of potential hotels where the photo may have been taken.

I could go on with many more examples, telling stories about apps for sharing photos monitoring butterflies, African wild dogs, even tree diseases. I could have looked at how Instagram now posts warnings to its users when they share photos of them with animal species that might have come from situations resulting in animal abuse.

I could also have written a very different article. I could have discussed how the time spent on holiday – away from work, often away from good wifi connections, offers a chance to reassess and rebalance our increasing dependency on these devices. Indeed two of my most recent blogs for this site have looked at the challenges ubiquitous digital connectivity poses for those of us trying to transform tourism to help us reconnect with the world at a deeper level.

This remains my main focus. Above all else tourism should help people connect to one another and nature directly, not through their phones. But let’s not kid ourselves – we know that most tourists will take photos on their holidays and share them online. So just as the circular economy teaches us that nature knows no waste – so we need to use that approach to treating this ever growing volume of data too.

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Jeremy Smith is a writer, speaker and sustainable tourism consultant. He is co-founder of Tourism Declares a Climate Emergency, an initiative that supports tourism organisations in declaring a climate emergency and working together to reduce their carbon emissions in line with the Science Based Targets. He is the author of Transforming Travel - realising the potential of sustainable tourism (2018), and co-founder of, the travel industry sustainable tourism website news site. He consults widely on sustainable tourism strategy and communication, with recent clients including Bruges Ommeland, GSTC, English National Parks, Tripadvisor, the Travel Foundation, and the European Travel Commission. He is a member of Travalyst’s Independent Advisory Board and was a member of Rotterdam’s International Advisory Board in 2019, helping develop a new vision for the city’s tourism.

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