Penang, Malaysia: While traditional tourism has been the mainstay of many economies, smart tourism is the way forward post-COVID.
COVID-19 is an opportunity to rethink tourism for the future: a shift from traditional tourism to embracing futuristic trends in the industry to ensure it is resilient in future crises.
The pandemic saw a 60 percent decline in international tourism in 2020, affecting millions of jobs, primarily those held by women and those in the informal economy. World GDP also took a significant hit. The way forward may be through the adoption of smart tourism and smart destination strategies. Smart tourism is the evolution of traditional tourism and e-tourism, involving technology-driven innovation and the widespread adoption of information and communication technologies (ICTs) and the Internet of Things (IoT). For example, smart ticketing, smart security services, virtual reality tours, and robotic city guides. Nine European cities (Gothenburg, Malaga, Breda, Ljubljana, Karlsruhe, Helsinki, Lyon, Copenhagen and Linz) have been designated “smart tourist destinations”. Its smart tourism initiatives have improved these cities in ways that include access to infrastructure, transportation, facilities, and information. They have also focused on sustainability, such as sustainable mobility, responsible use of water and energy, urban planning, better data management for residents and visitors, and innovative local tourism development. If large-scale travel and mobility were to be restricted again, augmented or virtual reality can offer tourists a memorable and unique alternative tourism experience. Further investment in such digital technologies could have knock-on effects on the economic development of these destinations. Augmented reality (AR) allows information to be superimposed through an interface on the real world, integrating physical and virtual objects to create enhanced experiences. AR has been used in visitor attractions such as museums, art galleries, theme parks, and UNESCO sites. One example is Archeoguide in Olympia, Greece, which has embraced AR to digitally reconstruct ruins of Greek heritage.
Digital technologies also enable human capital development, upgrading the mostly low-skilled jobs that dominate the traditional tourism industry to high-end jobs. Technological development improves the innovation and competitiveness of tourist destinations for a more resilient and sustainable future. Importantly, designing and aligning tourism for digitization ensures that the tourism destination is sustainable and resilient. Smart solutions and technologies such as IoT, artificial intelligence, big data, AR, and blockchain technology enable cities to be more responsive in managing disasters and risks and also mitigate those risks for the tourism sector.
For example, with free Wi-Fi and big data, social media platforms can provide up-to-date information on areas affected by disasters, diseases, and risks, can point authorities where to direct their resources, and point tourists where to avoid.
Tourism is a driving force for local economic development and poverty reduction in both developed and developing economies. In 2019, the travel and tourism sector grew by 3.5%, outpacing the 2.5% growth of the global economy. For every job created in tourism, almost 1.5 additional jobs are created elsewhere to support and sustain the industry. The industry cannot afford any disruption. Despite this, the tourism industry has long been recognized as one of the sectors most vulnerable to crises. The economic impacts, the environmental effects of climate change, political unrest, acts of terrorism and epidemics are detrimental to the industry.
For example, the 2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak severely affected tourism in Asia. Approximately three million people in the tourism industries in China, Hong Kong, Vietnam and Singapore lost their jobs, resulting in GDP losses of more than US$20 billion.
The full recovery of the industry after COVID is expected to be a long process, with trends possibly returning to pre-pandemic levels only after 2024.