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Is smart tourism something tourist destinations only talk about, or also really implement?

By Dejan Križaj, Miha Bratec, Peter Kopić and Tadej Rogelja, University of Primorska

The focus of the research is on the adoption and implementation of technological innovations to analyse the Smart Tourism projects implemented in Europe according to the stringent technological criteria of contemporary Smart Tourism definitions.

Smart Tourism followed in the footsteps of the earlier concept of sustainable tourism and quickly established itself as the reference adjective when discussing tourism in politics, economics, and academia. In the latter, the debate has been lively, and although there are many different conceptualizations, academics seem to agree that Smart Tourism is based on the use of novel technologies that improve the quality of visitor and local experiences, while enabling destinations to take steps towards achieving their sustainability goals. However, as it happened in the past with the term “sustainable”, the adjective “smart” seems to be heavily misused when describing the various transformations that tourist destinations and cities are currently facing. Mostly, it dominates the marketing discourse, with many destinations trying to use this “smart” concept because it gives them a competitive advantage over other tourist destinations based on uniqueness and differentiation.

Based on our study, the reality of developing smart solutions within these destinations is mostly still in its infancy. More specifically, we, in detail, analyse:

  1. What is the real content of the Smart Tourism projects currently implemented within Europe and supported by substantial EU (European Union) funding?
  2. What are the characteristics of the Smart Projects and what kind of technology solutions are used in them?
  3. Can we really see the rapid technological progress in tourism services that the marketers of Smart Destinations promise?
  4. What do the currently implemented projects tell us about the future of Smart Tourism and Smart Destinations?

Summary of key findings:

Our work differed from most methods used in other studies that rely on the construction of conceptual models, frameworks, or indicator systems based on the evaluation of Smart City or

Smart Tourism goals, statements, strategies, and initiatives. The presented study goes a step further and tries to understand which technological innovations exactly were adopted and how they contribute to projects’ smartness. In order to better distinguish between conventional and advanced, interconnected technology, we have placed a special focus on Smart Actionable attributes of the projects analyzed. From what we could perceive in the selected projects, four smart technology trends can be identified: 1) Connectivity and Big Data, 2) Connectivity and Intelligent Algorithms, 3) Big Data and 4) “smart” projects with mainly well-represented technology that does not exploit the Smart Actionable possibilities.

In our initial online resource search, we encountered the vast majority of projects that were touted as “smart” but did not address any of the newer aspects of ICT infrastructure, such as interconnectivity and interoperability of integrated technologies. They were therefore excluded from our study, leaving only 35 projects, which we analysed in detail and assigned to the four groups mentioned above. This confirms our preliminary findings that there is a lot of hype and little substance (e.g., smart washing) regarding Smart Tourism projects. This problem stems in part from the fact that there are different, everchanging definitions and meanings of the term Smart Tourism. Subsequently, different stakeholders and entities adopt different meanings and set different priorities based on their viewpoints and schools of thought.

See full paper: https://doi.org/10.3390/su131810279

digitalization for tourism

The challenge of digitalisation for a more sustainable, competitive and inclusive tourism in Europe under the smart destination approach

By Josep Ivars Baidal from Universidad Alicante

The challenge of digitalisation has been accelerated by the Covid-19 crisis, a process that tends to be integrated into the broader concept of smart tourism as a way to progress towards a more sustainable, competitive and inclusive tourism in Europe.

Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) have been a major factor of disruption in the tourism sector even before the Covid-19 crisis. Digitalisation is perceived as a key challenge to improve competitiveness of tourism firms. Nevertheless, the tourism industry is a highly diverse and complex sector that integrates different subsectors (Accommodation, Travel Agencies and Tour Operators, Food & Beverage, Transport Services, Entertainment and Recreation Attractions, etc) which comprise mostly small and medium size enterprises (SMEs). This complexity together with the lack of accurate data hinders the identification of the exact degree of technology adoption in tourism, but some facts are quite relevant:

  • The higher technology adoption by large companies and the risk of widening the gap between large and small companies.
  • The existence of geographical differences, taking the level of digitalisation of each European country as an approximate indicator of the degree of digitalisation of its tourism industry. According to the Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI) (https://ec.europa.eu/digital-single-market/en/digital-economy-and-society-index-desi), the most advanced countries are Finland, Sweden, the Netherlands and Denmark, while Bulgaria, Romania, Greece and Poland have the lowest scores on the index.
  • The need to revise the perception of tourism as a sector with low digital intensity, as recent studies highlight that the Accommodation and Travel Agency & Tour Operator subsectors are above other industrial activities in digital intensity. On the other hand, subsectors like Food & Beverage are at the bottom of the digital intensity indexes.
  • Technology adoption in tourism is mostly related to marketing and distribution and is less oriented towards productivity improvement, while more advanced technologies (big data, customer relationship marketing, etc.) are underrepresented compared to other economic activities.

However, digitalisation goes beyond the mere adoption of ICT and new sources of data. Dredge et al. (2018) (https://clustercollaboration.eu/news/digitalisation-tourism-depth-analysis-challenges-and-opportunities) describe the journey towards digitalisation of SMEs from an initial stage of weak digitalisation, characterized by an individual mindset, to a strong stage representing smart tourism, as a connected mindset that promotes a high level of innovation and ICT systems interoperability. Thus, the emergent smart paradigm becomes a core element for tourism destination management.

Digitalisation is among the four categories of the European Capital of Smart Tourism initiative (https://smarttourismcapital.eu/), together with sustainability, accessibility and cultural heritage and creativity. Best practices in digitalisation from a city perspective include facilitating information for specific target groups, collecting information for smarter management, and improving physical and psychological accessibility through innovation. This sectoral objectives should be complemented, within a framework of urban governance, by the potential of using technology to analyze and prevent the processes of social exclusion caused by tourism-related mobilities, a goal that inspires the SMARTDEST research project.

The European Union reaction to the Covid-19 crisis and the strategies for recovery, summarized in the European Commission Communication, “Tourism and transport in 2020 and beyond” (COM(2020) 550 final) (https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/PDF/?uri=CELEX:52020DC0550&from=EN), have reinforced the need to work towards the smart management of tourism flows and the digitalisation of local companies to become more resilient and competitive. The revival of tourism must involve new management approaches in order to truly evolve towards more sustainable and inclusive models of development.