It has never been easier to travel. Over the past half century, tourism has grown 40-fold to more than 1.2 billion tourist arrivals a year. We can now connect with a new global community and demand increasingly personalized experiences. Customized trip? Designed on your phone? Seamlessly executed? Check, check, check.
Moreover, people are traveling for more reasons and in more ways. While traditional “tourism” continues to boom – including organized tours, complete with umbrella-toting guides – we also see a significant increase in independent and self-organized travel. Shifts in the workplace have led to a rise in “digital nomads” and blurred the lines between business travel and pleasure. Heading to Dubai or Milan for work? Of course you’ll add on a couple days to explore. Business in Johannesburg? Perhaps you can volunteer at a community organization while you’re in town.
Against this backdrop, 1 in 11 people globally are employed in tourism, yet many of these people remain offline; fewer than 3% of all professional tour guides in the world have any sort of online presence. You can’t find them with an old-school computer, much less your phone. They are a vast treasure trove of local knowledge, stories, expertise and passion about the place you are visiting and, practically speaking, they are invisible.
Governments worldwide are keen to grow jobs, entrepreneurship and innovation (to say nothing of tourism revenues). In most places, their technology systems are outdated. They would love to boost digital literacy, sustainable tourism and options for visitors. But they don’t have the tools and struggle to know where to start.
Some cities are further ahead. Mexico City’s Lab for the City is making great strides in digital innovation, but it has yet to prioritize tourism. Iceland – a small country in the midst of a tourism explosion – lacks essential infrastructure and seeks more ways to tap into local expertise. Even cities with well-developed ecosystems, such as Singapore and Barcelona, generally don’t provide ways for tourists to connect with guides directly. Current Singaporean regulations go so far as to deem such activity (i.e. connecting directly with a guide, rather than via an intermediary) illegal.
As a result, we’re missing a huge opportunity to support local entrepreneurs, build new tourism marketplaces and modernize cities’ tech systems. The digital divide is causing a significant economic imbalance between companies with infrastructure and those without. To remedy this and take full advantage of the opportunities available, we need to support and build platforms that don’t just resell services, but rather enable micro-entrepreneurs and small and medium tour businesses (SMBs) in the tourism industry to grow themselves. This will not only massively expand the market for tourism (specifically tour guiding services) and enable more people to have unique experiences, but it will also change the flow of tourism dollars in cities globally, thus keeping more of those dollars invested locally.
Many tech companies sell and aggregate large tours; Expedia and Viator are the most prominent of these. Others, such as Vayable and EatWith (among thousands of smaller and regional platforms) match locals with travelers looking for casual short-term activities and hosts. Companies like AnyRoad (and their AnyGuide product) provide software and education to professional guides and SMBs to help them bring their businesses online. Ironically, government support and legal frameworks to help these SMBs thrive are often missing links. For very little government investment, we could see unprecedented scale-up: more livelihoods, more tourism revenues and more efficient (and enjoyable) systems all around.
It’s hard to innovate in an industry that can’t be found online. It’s equally hard to help entrepreneurs reach the world when they don’t yet have a reliable internet connection. The key to these challenges is to provide the essential infrastructure – both technological and regulatory – that enables entrepreneurs to participate on the modern tourism stage. Doing this is neither complex nor expensive; it simply requires recognition of how tourism is changing and an eye towards the future.
Authors: April Rinne is a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader and head of the Forum’s Sharing Economy Working Group. She is an independent adviser to sharing economy companies, local governments and investors worldwide, including AnyRoad. Jonathan Yaffe is Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer of AnyRoad, a platform that connects the fragmented world of travel and modernizes the tour guiding industry.
Image: Tourists use an iPad tablet in front of Rome’s ancient Colosseum September 20, 2012. REUTERS/Tony Gentile