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.