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August 26, 2022

September 16, 2022

Can Tourism Ever Be Sustainable? Tech Innovations as Solutions

As the world recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic, the tourism industry is staging a comeback. Yet, this resurgence comes with ramifications: tourism accounts for over 5 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Tourism is increasingly seen as an out of place and “unsustainable” practice in a world battling climate change. Fortunately, tech innovations provide opportunities for governments to incorporate sustainable practices in tourism. In this article, we look at a number of startups whose solutions can be deployed to meet the public sector’s needs for sustainable tourism.

How can governments expand their tourism industry whilst keeping to their sustainability targets? They could reduce tourism’s carbon footprint by bringing down overall tourist transportation, or develop different niche tourism markets to distribute regional stress. Fundamentally, however, any viable approach to sustainable tourism needs to involve tech. Luckily, public sectors looking to sustainably transform their tourism industries can find tech solutions in the private sector. Hence, public-private partnerships are an integral part of the sustainable future of travel.

Any sustainable future needs to involve long-lasting and comprehensive solutions. Therefore, the UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO)’s perspective on sustainable tourism is valuable here. The UNWTO requires sustainable tourism to not only be environmentally friendly, but also be compatible with sociocultural and economic development. Below we delineate how tourism tech innovated by startups around the world can mediate the negative impacts of tourism on sustainability in all its dimensions: environmental, sociocultural, and economic. 

Protecting local environments

Tourism can cause various forms of critical environmental degradation.  Some of the most common negative impacts include overconsumption of natural resources, physical disturbance of wildlife, litter pollution, and habitat alteration. CleanTech — knowledge-based products and services that reduce negative environmental impacts — can creatively and intersectionally intervene to cushion tourism’s worst environmental effects. 

Green Beli from Vietnam is a cryptocurrency initiative where gamers find, rate eco-friendly places, and share knowledge for environmental protection. It is the world’s first eco-friendly GameFi project and innovatively integrates gamification, NFT and blockchain elements, and sustainable tourism.

A major reason why tourism leads to adverse climate impacts stems from the fact that the energy consumed in tourism — whether it is in accommodation or transportation — is extracted and produced unsustainably. One innovative solution that negates the need for intensive energy consumption is virtual tourism, which is a mode of tourism based on augmented and virtual reality (AR and VR) technologies.

CultuAR from Spain is a mobile application that digitalises tourism by using AR, technology, and geolocation technology. It provides dynamic, immersive, and interactive sustainable tourism content in real-time and does not require an internet connection. 

Promoting socio-cultural inclusivity 

Tourism also needs to promote social inclusivity to be sustainable. The COVID-19 pandemic’s economic impacts confined mobility as travelling costs increased alongside local restrictions, and especially affected people with disabilities and marginalised groups. After the pandemic, these mobility issues are still widely unaddressed. Yet, startup innovation could provide solutions to countries wanting to reinvigorate travel in a truly inclusive way. 

Travaxy and Wheel the World from the United States are travel and booking platforms that empower people with disabilities and senior citizens to plan accessible trips simply and efficiently. 

Tourism should promote not just social, but also cultural inclusiveness. Sustainable development necessitates the preservation of local cultures and a more personalised and diversified experience for travellers. Sustainable tourism hence must involve community-based experiences and specialised tours. 

EsenciAr from Argentina deployed an online platform that promotes the integral development of indigenous peoples and rural communities. The platform enables programmes such as cultural exchange days and reforestation learning sessions whilst participants immerse themselves in the local gastronomy and oenology.

Being properly inclusive, local public sectors have to consider other encounters in areas of regulations and public management. Any sustainable tourism programme will need to be socially and culturally inclusive, and any inclusive tourism programme will need to include the local and regional interests of the original residents of tourist destinations. Yet, it is difficult to view, measure, and quantify these local and regional interests. Hence, public sector actors will need to embrace data-based analytics to gain insight into the local effects of global tourism. Whether it is for evaluating real estate prices, the overuse of local infrastructure, or biosecurity issues, data services innovated by startups are invaluable tech solutions. 

Kido Dynamics from Switzerland created a data platform that helps companies and local governments make tourism-related decisions. It uses machine learning to analyse mobility data to provide insights across geographies and time periods, allowing it to be deployed around the world. 

Connecting economies

Economic interconnection is another necessary component of sustainable tourism, as it facilitates the creation of a smart supply chain that can channel resources  less wastefully. But how can public sectors create smart supply chains? Startups have created digital platforms that incorporate big data in the tourism supply chain, leading to better and more sustainable resource distribution. 

Byhours from Spain is the world’s first hotel booking platform that allows hotels to sell their inventory, such as accommodation, meeting rooms, and amenities access, by hours, permitting more efficient turnarounds.

Economic interconnection between different companies in an industry can also be nurtured by tech innovations. In so doing, tech not only nurtures better distribution, but also leads to a more efficient and sustainable usage of resources.

Travelgatex from Spain created an automated, data-driven application programming interface (API) that connects different travel companies and cultivates intra-industry networking.

Pinpointing future opportunities

Is there a reason for public sector actors to be sceptical of the viability of investment in sustainable tourism tech? The UNWTO Travel and Tourism Tech Startup report highlights that even though overall venture capital funding to tourism decreased during the pandemic, sustainable tourism tech maintained high levels of investment from significant players. 

Investors are attracted by the B2B and B2B2C models adopted by tourism tech companies. They also recognise the necessity of tourism tech’s innovative solutions to public health, air quality, biosecurity, and COVID-related sustainability issues. Moreover, investors recognise the innovative emphasis on personalisation present in tourism tech’s B2C models can find popularity amongst Gen-Z consumers. Given the presence of eager investors and a growing generational consumer market, tourism tech has demonstrated itself as a viable — and indeed necessary — industry with immense potential that needs to be on policymakers’ radars.

So what can policymakers seeking to develop sustainable tourism learn from startup innovation? The startups we spotlighted above illuminate three potential avenues for the public sector to consider to make sustainable tourism work:

Big data and AI can support packaged data services including cloud services for better management, assist client management and data analysis, and stimulate better internal collaboration. Hence, governments can harness big data and AI to generate smarter predictions for better decision-making and planning.

AR and VR can be harnessed in immersive experiences and environmental protection technology, both enablers of virtual tourism — a necessary component of sustainable tourism.

The internet of things (IoT) supports digital platforms for better distributions in hourly booking. It is also the backbone of community-based and event-oriented touring. Both these applications of IoT are integral to sustainable tourism.

When governments learn from and adopt the innovations startups have developed, they can foster a flourishing tourism industry and be responsible to our planet and its inhabitants at the same time. Let’s make the “mutually exclusive” inclusive.

PUBLIC views the rapidly rebounding tourism sectors and the innovation taken within the tourism tech space as exciting opportunities. We are committed to supporting climate action and have worked on CleanTech and mobility. We look to continue our work towards sustainability through enabling cross-sector technological innovation and digitalisation. To find out how PUBLIC can help you connect to the broader tech ecosystem and implement smarter strategies on your sustainability journey, please contact Cassie (cassie@public.io) and Sarah (sarah@public.io). 

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Sarah Alkhedheiri

Senior Associate

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