How smart cities are leading the way to smart tourism

Everything seems to be labeled smart today: smart cars, smartphones, smart TV, smartwatch, smart hotels. In order to pull much of this smartness together, a global movement of smart cities is helping to connect the dots of seemingly everything within a city or community to make it more livable, workable and sustainable. Given the cross-cutting nature of travel and tourism, a smart city can help create and sustain smart tourism, but so far this connection is not quite visible yet.

The Smart Cities Council defines a smart city as a city that has digital technology embedded across all city functions. In their Smart Cities Readiness Guide, the council takes a comprehensive, holistic view that “includes the entirety of human activity in an area, including city governments, schools, hospitals, infrastructure, resources, businesses and people.” 

And, although the council calls itself a Cities Council, they also take a holistic view of geography. As Jesse Berst, chairman of the council, explained: “Many are more than a single city, such as a metropolitan region, a cluster of cities, counties and groups of counties, a collection of nearby towns or a regional coalition. Other examples are less than a full-scale city, such as districts, neighborhoods, townships, villages, campuses and military bases. In short, virtually any human entity that could become a better place to live and work, a place that is more sustainable.”

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The list of destinations adopting a smart city approach is quickly multiplying:

  • Malta is becoming a smart city island.
  • Singapore is already there.
  • Seven cities in the U.S. are finalists in the Smart City Challenge: Austin, Columbus, Denver, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Portland and San Francisco.
  • Abu Dhabi’s Masdar City claims to be the world’s smartest, most sustainable eco-neighborhood.
  • India has a national program aiming for at least 20 Smart Cities throughout the country.

And my home city of Washington, D.C., has sometimes been considered the most sustainable city in the US. Smartest city? Hmm…lots of debate when considering political smarts. Politics aside, the city has launched many smart programs aimed at more sustainability in transportation, energy use and waste management among others.

All of this is relevant to tourism, but what does it mean exactly?

A smart city uses information and communications technology to collect and measure conditions in streets, buildings, transportation and the air. That means embedding sensors and other technology throughout a destination to monitor and collect data for everything from water and traffic to energy usage. The data are then communicated through wired and wireless connections, through what is becoming known as the Internet of Everything (IoE) in which everything is inter-connected. Then the data are crunched or analyzed to help decision-makers in government and business to make better decisions.

The Indian Government’s Ministry of Urban Development produced the following chart, which drills down further to the specific services that benefit from the process.

Everything on this list can benefit visitors and tourism development by improving the quality and sustainability of what a destination offers at both macro and micro levels. The smart city approach uses the latest and greatest in technology in providing each of these solutions throughout every part of the city. For the visitor, resident, business owner and investor, the result is a destination that is greener and cleaner and thus a healthier and higher quality place to visit, live and do business in.

Another important dimension of this approach is that when a destination pursues a smart-city approach—as in the places mentioned above, new business opportunities emerge, especially in travel and tourism. Hotels, restaurants, tourism-related transportation and attractions all benefit from the increased quality of life throughout the destination. In effect, it's the broken window theory: disorder such as a broken window on a building attracts more disorder while fixing the window has the opposite effect. Visitors flock to a place that exudes high quality—sometimes, too many. Smart City technology can help monitor and better manage a crowd, i.e. through advance ticket sales, dispersed visit times, etc.

Much of the technology used throughout a smart city, such as for energy, waste and water monitoring and increased efficiency, are also useful for tourism, both in terms of the resulting quality of the place and costs savings. The tourism industry, especially many hotels and hotel chains are well along in adopting sustainability technology—better for the bottom line, better for the customer experience and better for the planet. However, there is still a long way to go.

Not every destination, hotel, tour operator or other tourism operator has adopted sustainability measures and technology yet. For emerging market destinations, the costs of adopting and implementing the technologies can initially be a deterrent, especially if their inbound tourism flows are super sensitive to natural or man-made disasters. However, as the smart city movement grows, it will get easier for the industry to adopt the technologies and become more sustainable. Many smart cities are offering incentives for businesses to get onboard. Actually, the travel and tourism industry, as a fast-growing source of economic growth and thus consumer of natural resources and public services, will be expected, or probably increasingly required, to climb onboard.

RELATED: How hotels approach sustainability

The other growth area for tourism and smart city technology is in using the data to enhance the visitor experience. Apps that use augmented reality, such as Pokémon Go, are connecting people to places in new and more interesting ways. Definitely a growth area to watch as the apps help increase and improve the visitor experience with access to more information, whether it is a statue in a park, a museum, a main street or the best tacos in town. London, for example, provides several smartphone apps that help travelers navigate and find services and events around the city.

We would like to hear from you. Let us know if your hotel, attraction or destination is using smart technology—apps, monitoring or otherwise—in ways that are helping your local economy or business to attract visitors, increase spending and contribute to building a greener, cleaner place.