How New Smart Cities Hope to Attract Smart Tourists

Tech-savvy tourists are demanding more from the places they visit. Smart city projects are well-placed to give travellers the enhanced experiences they crave.

Modern tourists are playing it ‘smart’ when it comes to travel. They plan their trips using reviews and Top 10 lists on TripAdvisor, use comparison websites to find the best flights, even shun traditional hotels in favour of cheaper Airbnb-listed apartments. Today’s tech-savvy travellers don’t just want to see the sights, they want to experience the best of every destination they visit.

It’s why some of the UK’s top tourist destinations are turning to computing technology to track, analyse and enhance visitor experiences. This might come in the form of ‘city guide’ apps that provide visitors with deeper, on demand information; top hotels rigged with impressive connected tech; or immersive VR/AR experiences that bring cultural sites to amazing digital life.

More than that, real-time data can be often be captured, including where tourists are from, their travel information and where they visit. By analysing this data, ‘flow’ models can be constructed that can predict the popularity of tourist spots and ultimately help organisations promote and improve their services.

We’ve looked at smart city infrastructure elsewhere in this series and many of its core concepts can also benefit the tourism industry. After all, what makes a smart city a better place to live – improved transportation, crowd analytics, enhanced networking, predictive crime prevention and green technology – can also make it a better to visit.

Bluetooth Beacons at Jodrell Bank provide extra information to enhance the visitor experience.

There are many tourism-specific cloud and data analytics-based systems and concepts gaining traction across the world’s tourist hotspots. In the UK, there are many investment and research projects operating in regions looking to maximise the economic boost that comes from attracting regular holiday makers.

Scotland, for example, has a three-year Smart Tourism programme delivered through the Scottish Informatics and Computer Science Alliance (SICSA), supported by the Scottish Funding Council, Scottish tourism organisations and industry. Its aim is to provide “innovative approaches and technology to enhance the Scottish tourism sector's technology base, helping local SMEs and corporates operating at the technology-tourism interface, leading to increased employment and sustainable economic growth.”[1]

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Manchester, meanwhile, is part of a project that aims to provide visitors with a smart tourism experiences and enhanced retail ventures. The city’s ‘Beacons for Science’ app was launched as a virtual reality and augmented reality mobile experience based on Bluetooth Beacon technology.

As part of the project – a joint effort between Salford University in collaboration with Manchester Metropolitan University, Marketing Manchester and other local partners – these strategically placed Beacons were placed around Manchester near heritage sites and places of scientific history. Attractions included Jodrell Bank Observatory and Manchester Art Gallery.

The project used Samsung 360-degree cameras to create content specific to each site of interest, and Google Cardboard to deliver a virtual and augmented reality experience.[2]

According to the National Tourism Agency, 39.9 million tourists visited the UK in 2017[3], with almost half that number spending time in London. Unsurprisingly, the London Visitor Survey shows that there is a huge demand for easier access to relevant tourist information and London is looking to invest in data-powered smart tourism to achieve this.

The Mayor of London’s promotional agency – London and Partners – is working with Mastercard to produce a series of smart city initiatives. The first of these to emerge is the Visit London Official City Guide app[4], designed to help tourists have a better visitor experience.

Using real-time data feeds, the app guides users around the city’s top tourist locations in the most efficient way possible by plugging into transport databases through a collaboration with Transport For London.

What makes a smart city a better place to live, also makes it a better place to visit.

The app uses geolocation to suggest places of interest in the local vicinity, such as historic landmarks, parks, attractions, museums and galleries. As well as giving information on what to see and how to get there, users can make purchases instantly through the app thanks to a Masterpass plug in – meaning users can buy tickets to attractions with the touch of a button. It also provides discounts and offers for restaurants.

As well as highlighting the capital’s tourist hotspots, the Visit London Official City Guide app also suggests top street markets and cheap eats, while allowing visitors to create personalised maps and itineraries right across the city.

Outside of the capital, the West of England Combined Authority recently secured £5 million in funding from the Government to trial a 5G network at tourist destinations in Bristol and Bath. The project will see trial applications developed at the Roman Baths in Bath, plus the M Shed and We The Curious (formerly the @Bristol Science Centre) in Bristol.

“Imagine a virtual Roman soldier showing you around the Roman Baths,” says West of England Mayor, Tim Bowles. “Now imagine this moving 360 degrees on your mobile phone at a resolution you have never experienced before – that’s what 5G technology can offer. The 5G Smart Tourism bid will allow us to trial some exciting technology at our top tourist attractions, whilst looking at wider and longer-term benefits for our region. This new technology holds the key to a more advanced, sustainable and smart future which will revolutionise the way we all live, travel and work.”[5]

A 5G network trial will bring the Roman Baths to life with 360 degree augmented reality tours.

Smart Hotels are another way in which cloud computing is being utilised to offer tourists a high-tech visitor experience. Behind its 19th century Georgian façade, The Eccleston Square Hotel[6] in London has kitted out each guestroom with 46-inch HD 3D Neo Plasma Panasonic TVs, iPads (which act as an in-room concierges), Smart-glass walls between the bathroom and the bedroom, and smartphones offering free phone calls to five international countries.

And it’s not just top-end hotels that are getting in on the act. Budget hotel chain Premier Inn has unveiled a new room concept called Hub[7]. Set to be rolled out later in the year, guests will be able to control lighting and room temperature using a mobile phone app, as well as pre-order breakfast and even change the television channel so their favourite programme is on when they arrive.

Professor Dimitrios Buhalis is director of the eTourism Lab at Bournemouth University, and he believes data analytics and cloud computing is likely to play an even greater role in UK tourism in the years to come.

“Cloud computing, the Internet of Things, and data analytics will enable us to understand what is happening in real time, and dynamically adjust the product and service,” he says. “You’ll be able to see when a flight is delayed, when a train is delayed, and then all the other players in the value chain are going to come together to adjust the experience of the customer in real time.”

Technological development is reengineering everything in the marketplace. “It’s changing how things connect to each other,” Buhalis explains. “So, it’s inevitable that those people that adapt technologies and adapt agility will move forward to a new era where they will be able to offer a better service to their consumers.”

Whether it’s through cloud-based apps that help you get around a city more efficiently, innovative VR experiences that add layers to places of historical interest, or understanding visitor behaviour through algorithms, cloud-based systems and data analytics could transform the UK’s tourism hotspots in the future.

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