Tourism leaders turn to tech to enhance post-pandemic travel

By on 17/11/2020 | Updated on 21/04/2021

Technology has a crucial role to play as countries around the world strive to overcome the COVID-19 pandemic and restart travel and tourism.

That was the verdict of a five-strong panel speaking at a webinar entitled ‘Time to check in: protecting and rebuilding the tourism economy?’ organised by Global Government Forum and sister publication Global Government Fintech, and supported by knowledge partner Mastercard, on 19 November.

With one in ten people employed globally estimated to work in travel and tourism – with a skew towards women and young people – the industry is among the most vital to livelihoods and economies. But the first eight months of the year showed a 70 per cent plunge in international arrivals, according to UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) data.

The webinar explored the challenges faced by the tourism industry; the areas in which public and private sector collaboration can mitigate the impact of the pandemic; and the ways in which governments can harness technology to accelerate recovery. The webinar was chaired by Grant Johnstone, Mastercard’s Vice-President for Enterprise Development and Global Head of Digital Pountry Plans and Partnerships at Mastercard’s Government Centre of Excellence.

The growing importance of data dashboards and mobile-phone apps and, as well as core digital skills, were among the themes discussed by the high-level panel.

Digital skills and sustainability among global tourism’s priorities

Natalia Bayona, Director of Innovation, Digital Transformation and Investments at the UNWTO, emphasised the importance of digital education, which she described as “empowering”. She cited the UNWTO Academy as among the initiatives aiming to enhance the skills of those in the sector.

Bayona also referenced the UNWTO Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Global Startup Competition, which received more than 10,000 applications from more than 150 countries – a reflection of the interest and potential for innovation related to sustainable tourism, she said.

The pandemic has, she said, heightened interest in sustainable tourism. The UNWTO has recently launched guidelines on tourism investment and, she said, at least half of interested investors stated a preference for ‘green’ projects.

Related to technology specifically, she championed the possibilities of augmented and virtual reality, data science and analytics, as well as machine learning, saying these trends are creating “added-value jobs” in the tourism sector, as well as offering new tourism experiences. “There are virtual reality applications where people at home can see different expositions, and get closer to culture and education – opening museums’ doors,” she said.

Kenya aims to ‘re-model’ tourism approach

Perspectives from the national tourism markets of Kenya and Singapore, as well as the European capitals of Paris (France) and Vienna (Austria), were provided by the webinar’s four further speakers.

Hon. Najib Balala EGH, Cabinet Secretary for tourism and wildlife in Kenya, told the webinar audience that the African country would need to “re-think” its approach to tourism, including the “re-designing and re-modelling” of tourism-focused businesses.

Minister Balala further opined that the pandemic was an opportunity for African countries to focus on pan-African tourism corridors and build the necessary infrastructure to supplement the reliance on tourists from beyond Africa. “We have 1,400 cities in Africa that need to be connected… we [have] only connected 16 per cent, so there is an opportunity for the private and public sector coming in together”.

He echoed Bayona’s point about the pandemic’s potential to cement greater interest in more sustainable tourism. “SMEs have suffered and need support. But they need to be ‘green’ when they re-open,” he said.

Pointing out that Kenya ranks in the top five African countries in the annual Global Innovation Index, Balala urged for further tech to be incorporated into the tourism sector. But internet connectivity remains a significant potential obstacle to overcome first – in some parts of Kenya and also other parts of the world. “By the end of this year most of Kenya will be 4G,” said Balala.

Singapore well progressed on digital journey

Chi Chuan Poh, Acting Chief Technology Officer in the Singapore Tourism Board’s (STB) Technology Transformation Group, described how the South-east Asian city state had responded to the pandemic through digitalisation, for example by its ‘TraceTogether’ contact-tracing system.

Poh also shared that STB had already embarked on various digital and data-related initiatives pre-COVID, with the objective to improve and optimise business outcomes. From manual data collection on visitor arrivals through paper disembarkation cards, this has now been digitalised. STB also incorporated other datasets such as geolocation/roaming data to better understand tourists’ behavioural patterns, including their preferred visitation patterns and hotel check-in/check-out time.

Having launched recently STB’s data analytics platform, Singapore Tourism Analytics Network, Poh added that this has consolidated and visualised this “trove” of tourism data that can help derive actionable insights about Singapore’s visitors. Looking beyond the pandemic, Poh said that “technology can play a very big role in helping to shape the ‘new normal’.”

But, more urgently – and like all the webinar’s speakers – Poh described the importance of ensuring a consistent international standard to compare and recognise individual travellers’ COVID health status. “Safe transmission of health data is important – having a platform that all of us can trust,” he said. “Accreditation of medical tests is very important – we have to develop a health protocol to facilitate the safe resumption of travel. This is where public and private sector can work together – how do such partnerships help to work towards a safe, robust platform for health status data to be transferred?”.

Paris and Vienna provide European viewpoints

Contrasting perspectives from Europe were provided by Thomas Deschamps, who is head of the Paris Tourism Research Department – Sustainable and Accessible Tourism at the Paris Convention & Visitors’ Bureau, and Vienna Tourist Board Director Norbert Kettner.

Paris’s Deschamps described the pandemic as a “catalyst” for re-thinking the marketing of Paris, which is increasing its focus on domestic tourism and looking beyond its well-known tourist sites. “To be sustainable we have to [promote] local business and local tourism,” he said. “The city ‘is’ the people – the citizens of the city. We have so many assets we could use. There is an economy, dynamism and youth ‘behind’ the Eiffel Tower.”

Kettner agreed that the pandemic had created the opportunity to enhance local connections. But, he said, Austria’s domestic market offered fewer possibilities than in France.

Picking up on the webinar’s overarching theme that digital data is increasingly vital for tourism strategists, he discussed urban ‘crowd management’ applications – an unlikely scenario during the tourist-light present day, but hopefully useful when holidaymakers return. “With [payment] cards and mobile-phone data you know what people are really doing,” he said. “We [Vienna] have integrated a system into our destination app, for the time after the pandemic, concerning crowd management. So when we see that a place is really crowded, and people have downloaded our app, we can send them information on special offers [to encourage them to relocate to] other locations.”

‘Society is changing and so tourism changes’

Kettner also picked up on Poh’s point about the importance of a global, interoperable framework to facilitate international travel planning and management.

“There are billions of people [worldwide] craving [to travel] for a life event, for culture,” he said. “We have to give [the ability to travel safely] to these people: to say, if you obey this rule, you can go where you want.”

Bayona said the UNWTO was working with other agencies and organisations to “develop homogeneous protocols”, while referencing also the World Economic Forum-backed CommonPass. Her own organisation is, she said, working across “at least 10 new technologies”, including cloud infrastructure and blockchain, on this important project.

In closing, Minister Balala said that the new tourism would need to address health and digitisation among other issues while re-emphasising the importance of community participation and prioritisation of domestic tourism. “The domestic market has been ignored” he said.

Poh concluded by offering three imperatives, each beginning with the letter ‘C’, that in his view will maximise the chances of a strong recovery from the pandemic: ‘Collective leadership’, with the current situation requiring public-private partnerships to bring us out of the crisis; ‘Conversation’ – the importance of forums and platforms to share ideas so that we do not have to re-learn mistakes; and the necessity of ‘Capitalising on the situation’ by establishing new ways of working between different industries and between countries so that when something else hits us in the future we will fight it better.

All speakers were confident that travel and tourism will return when it’s safe to do so, and were optimistic despite the challenges.

“There are many opportunities – that’s what makes tourism fascinating. Tourism is embedded in society: society is changing and so tourism changes, constantly,” said Deschamps. “We try to understand those changes by analysing data but also we try to embrace the new aspects that are going to affect our lives. People want to travel – they will come back. But in a different way.”

This report covers Global Government Forum/Global Government Fintech’s 19 November 2020 webinar ‘Time to check in: protecting and rebuilding the tourism economy’. You can watch the whole session below

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