Technologies are emerging, disrupting and affecting our lives in ways that indicate we are at the beginning of a Fourth Industrial Revolution, a new era in which digitalization builds and impacts societies in new and often unanticipated ways. It is worthwhile considering exactly what kind of shifts we are experiencing and how we can ensure, collectively and individually, that this revolution creates benefits for all.
Tourism was one of the first sectors to digitalize business processes on a global scale, bringing flight and hotel booking online to become a digital pioneer. As information and communications technology (ICT) became a global phenomenon, tourism was a consistent early adopter of new technologies and platforms.
A digitalized tourism sector must innovate and generate new business opportunities to ensure the continued competitiveness, growth and sustainable development of the sector. The ultimate goal is to make a solid contribution to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations and the global development community.
With the aim of realizing UNWTO Secretary-General Zurab Pololikashvili’s new Visions and Priorities, specifically the priorities of “Innovation & digital transformation” and “Investment & entrepreneurship”, the Strategy on Innovation, Investment and Digital Transformation has been developed.
Digital Transformation & SDGs
Digitalization is expected to continue propelling the travel experience on its trajectory towards becoming more seamless, frictionless, and high quality and in a way that contributes to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the United Nations..
The use of technologies including the ‘Internet of Things’, location-based services, artificial intelligence, augmented and virtual reality, and blockchain technology (see definitions below) has resulted in a tourism offer that is more attractive, efficient, inclusive, and economically, socially and environmentally sustainable than its predecessor. It has also facilitated innovation and rethinking of processes, with a view to tackling challenges such as seasonality and overcrowding and developing smarter destinations.
Digitalization has a positive environmental impact and can yet have a greater one, with innovations in manufacturing, smart assets and efficient use of resources contributing to a more sustainable industry footprint.
Some major impacts on the sector as a whole are the development of smart travel facilitation, smart destinations, and a new wave of job profiles.
Smart travel facilitation
In the same way the smartphone has transformed telecommunications and media, a comprehensive smart travel model – one that includes smart visas, borders, security processes and infrastructure – will revolutionize tourism. With consolidation of these tools, passengers can book their flights and check in online, have their boarding passes on their smartphones, go through automated clearance gates and even validate their boarding passes electronically to board planes. These measures improve both travel facilitation and security.
A smart destination is one with a strategy for technology, innovation, sustainability, accessibility and inclusivity along the entire tourism cycle: before, during and after the trip. A smart destination is also one with residents as well as tourists in mind, factoring multilingualism, cultural idiosyncrasies and seasonality into tourism planning.
This is why smart destinations are key to the transformation of the tourism sector. By continuously and accurately measuring, integrating and analyzing data for efficient decision-making, prioritization and anticipation of challenges, they create a seamless and exciting experience for tourists while managing local resources efficiently.
Smart destinations can make tourism governance more inclusive through inclusive entities, such as boards, trusts or foundations, which represent all public/private stakeholders in the destination. They can help ensure maximum accessibility in sites, products and services, eliminating barriers to mobility. And they allow us to analyse sustainable tourism management through different lenses.
Consider, for example, the challenge of seasonality, where population change from variation in tourist flows makes tourism’s impact difficult to measure. Technology-based data tools, such as remote sensors and big data management systems, can help destination managers capture and process large volumes of data for a greater understanding of the impact of seasonality on tourism and on sustainability. It can therefore help them to predict and manage tourist flows in order to more efficiently and effectively manage destinations.
The future of travel is technology-based, so tourism jobs will require both technical and advanced soft skills used to effectively implement and manage smart initiatives. The greatest societal impact of digital transformation in tourism may be the effect on the sector’s workforce, which directly and indirectly represents 1 in every 10 jobs worldwide. Like in other economic sectors, intelligent automation will change the nature of some travel jobs and eradicate others altogether. However, digitally-enabled growth will also generate new employment opportunities that could outpace the automation of existing roles, especially as strong growth is forecast for the sector.
Startups and micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) – drivers of technology-based innovation and entrepreneurship in tourism – will take on an increasingly important role in developing the skills needed for the jobs of the future. The sector should therefore prioritize strengthening startups and MSMEs so they can become integral parts of the tourism value chain, and boosting technology- and skills-based education, training and policies that stimulate innovation and decent employment.