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Let’s go somewhere, anywhere, everywhere

It’s an exciting time to travel in this era. The ubiquity of smartphones and 24X7 connectivity is bringing far-to-reach places closer to a tourist. Armed with destination plans and interactive maps, the nextgeneration traveller is all set to explore the new and old territories on any part of the planet

When Robert Louis Stevenson wrote in his masterpiece Treasure Island: “I am told there are people who do not care for maps, and I find it hard to believe,” he was simply narrating the adventures of a boy sailing to an unknown island in search of a bounty. Little he did know, 130 years down the line, his words would turn out to be so prophetic, at least for travellers.

Of course, maps in various forms and a compass have been the must-haves of almost every traveller’s backpack even before and after Stevenson. That was the standard practice almost till 2005, when Google turned the world of mapping on its head with Google Earth and Google Maps. An explosion in the Internet and smartphone market in the recent years added fuel to the fire. And today, maps play a central role at every step of tourism activities, not only during visits, but also in the planning and preparation stages. Additionally, with tourism coming up as a well-recognised industry on its own, mapping is playing a major role even in tourism marketing and management. No wonder then that even the UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) recognised in 2010 that “georeferenced information plays an increasingly important role for the global travel and tourism sector since the introduction of Google Maps”.

“A decade ago we relied on travel guides to tell us what, where and why. They were written by teams who visited and collected the information. They were good but unreliable,” says Simon Thompson, Director, Commercial Solutions, Esri. Today all of us are virtual tourists who are able to visit the remotest places from our tablets and smartphones. The weathered maps and compass have been replaced by digital maps while apps have taken the place of paper guides.

“The fact that now any individual using the Web can produce a map, publish it and potentially reach an audience of millions is truly groundbreaking,” says Ed Parsons, Geospatial Technologist, Google.

The new-age tools not only help travellers to plan their vacation but also suggest alternatives and provide alerts about interesting places to visit. “Our passive consumption of information has been transformed and now, tourist destinations and places to visit reach out to travellers via georeferenced coupons, social media and digital advertisements,” explains Thompson.

Tourism essentially involves spatial behaviour. “As tourism takes place in space, planning needs to consider spatial awareness and information. Maps are the most important and efficient tools for this,” says Dr Georg Gartner, President of the International Cartographic Association. Mapping has become the benchmark through which people set their expectations of value and opportunity from tourism. In the words of Michael T. Jones, Google’s Chief Technology Advocate, “Maps have become a personal thing; they are not only about geography but also about restaurants or shops people want to visit. Today, it’s the people, and not the cartographer, asking the questions.”

A conscious tourist gathers necessary information before visiting a certain place. They do not want to miss out on anything, especially if it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. More and more tourists are looking at the ‘Top 10 things to do/see’ lists into tours and activity-based sites and apps. Tapping into this huge opportunity, Google has added onto its basic maps and is continuously redefining the market with things like fully integrated media experiences, 3D views and “come along with me” tour guides, changing the very way people think about tourism. Google Street View provides the virtual tours of parks, historic sites, museums etc. spread across the globe. Others like Microsoft’s Bing Maps, Nokia HERE and TomTom are following suit with expansion of their mapping services and new offerings.

For an unforgettable experience
Despite a worldwide economic slowdown, demand for international tourism remained strong throughout the first eight months of 2013, according to the latest UNWTO World Tourism Barometer. Between January and August, the number of international tourists worldwide grew by 5%, driven by strong results in Europe, Asia and the Pacific and the Middle East. In order to maintain this upward trend, countries have to put their best foot forward to woo the tourists and the application of information technology has developed rapidly.

No tourism ministry website is now complete without a map. While most feature a basic map listing various attractions, budget accommodations, restaurants, photos etc., some countries are going high tech to catch up with the latest trends. Singapore’s ‘Street Directory’ is one such example. The website allows tourists to search for maps, businesses, products and services and provides a comprehensive building directory of any location on just one click. “Tourists can get complete information of ‘what’, ‘where’ and ‘how to’ get to the location by bus, taxi, private car, with the fare and time,” says Irvinia Arumsari, GIS Specialist, Niko Asia, an electronics company. A host of European countries also have interactive sites with map features.

The ‘Amazing Thailand’ app powered by the Tourism Authority of Thailand provides travel information such as destination guides, events and festivals, shopping, food etc. “The interactive maps provided by the portal and mobile apps are always more influential, impressive and informative for the tourist in comparison to the regular paper maps, and it facilitates his needs to find the attraction or tourist sites and the accommodation services,” says Adnan Al-Jaber, Saudi Commission for Tourism & Antiquities, Tourism information & Research (MAS), Tourism Information Department. The Saudi kingdom is also using Web GIS and mapping apps to encourage tourism.

The state of Perak in Malaysia, rich in tourist attractions, adopted a Web-based GIS approach to raise awareness about the famous icons of the state. “A general Internet search may throw up superficial information, but we want to provide much more about the icons — their location, details and description. We want to add more visual appeal to these icons through geo-tagged information. We want to make the tourism-related information available to the public on the fingertips,” says Dato’ Dr Dolbani Mijan, Director, Perak Town & Country Planning Department, Malaysia.

“This also helps travellers make more informed decisions on how to plan their routes,” points out Tarun Harnathka, Director, Products and Operations, Local Search Content and Navigation, South Asia, Nokia HERE Maps. HERE has built 3,700 points of interests (PoIs) under its service which lists historical monuments of India. The PoIs include temples, mosques, tombs, churches, cemeteries, forts, palaces etc.

In Israel, the Ministry of Tourism recently uploaded pictures, detailed information and links to over 300 tourist attractions throughout the country on Google Maps and Google Earth. The ministry has also launched a new user-based online forum, where tourists can post questions and get answers from ministry experts, tour guides, and other users. “This will create a direct link between potential tourists and Israeli tourist bodies, and enable new marketing channels,” notes Shaul Tzemah, Director-General, Israeli Tourism Ministry.

In US, the Pennsylvania state tourism office partnered with Google, NASA, Carnegie Melon University and the National Civil War Museum to create technology within Google Earth that would allow users to take interactive tours of historic sites, monuments and trails within American Civil War sites. This georeferenced content was designed to increase tourism in historic battle sites, like Gettysburg as it allowed users to take interactive museum-like tours of specific battle trails.

Concurs Thompson: “Many of the apps and mapping websites are taking volunteered information and using it to change the business model and customer interaction. OpenStreetMap is an obvious example of the feedback cycle and online sources such as Yelp and TripAdvisor, with their rich APIs, public comments and feedback loops, are increasingly being mashed-up on top of the canvas layer of tourist information.”

Getting lost on a holiday is becoming a thing of the past. There is a plethora of location services available today which help tourists navigate the world around them and even discover new places. “HERE traffic offers tourists detailed traffic information to get accurate routes and better estimated travel timings. Tourists can drive through the city without even knowing the routes, find public transport stations /stops, addresses, and points of interest, as well as choose from multiple routes and connections,” says Harnathka.

Geospatial technology can also be used to monitor and assess the tourist traffic. Perak town in Malaysia which has some of the oldest rainforests in the world used GIS to increase the tourist flow in the region. “Recently we held a festival for rainforests which witnessed participation from countries such as Azerbaijan, Australia, Singapore, India and so on. Such turnout was facilitated by increased awareness through geospatial information on the Web,” says Dr Mijan.

Immersive reality
In a first, the tourism board of the Indian state of Kerala has chosen the virtual world to launch its path-breaking ‘Great Backwaters’ campaign. A separate micro-site has been developed for highlighting the vast network of backwater canals and lakes, the images of which have been taken aerially. “It is a tribute to the millions of travellers across the world who embrace technology everyday for knowing about and visiting their favourite destinations,” noted Suman Billa, Secretary, Kerala Tourism.

Riding high on this opportunity, the Archaeological Survey of India recently tied up with Google to put 100 major Indian monuments and sites on its immersive visual walkthroughs.

The VisitBritain site offers interactive tourist map which guides travellers to exciting cities, historic places rich in heritage, stunning countryside and beautiful coastlines

Taking such pleasures to new heights is the site 3D Mekanlar which offers 360-degree panoramic virtual tours of historic and cultural places. “At first it only had mosques on the website. But as the audience grew and more and more interested they started asking for other places as well,” says Ercan Gigi, founder of the website. Now the website offers (besides religious sites), palaces, museums, inns, baths, castles, towers, old houses, squares, parks, caves, ancient cities, etc and received a traffic of around 1.8 million last year. Though it is a lot different from Google StreetView, it promises the same amount of immersive pleasure to tourists. “The high quality, flawless images in the interactive display makes users feel being in that place,” adds Gigi.

Another interesting feature is Arounder.com from Switzerland– headquartered VRWAY Communication, which has mapped over a hundred top destinations in world and gives interactive information about thousands of attractions and places to see, such as prestigious museums and historical cathedrals, unspoiled natural paradises and UNESCO sites as well as the most luxurious hotels and the finest restaurants all over the world. Selected by Apple among ‘top 10 apps’ in 57 countries, the ArounderTouch App brings virtual reality panoramas directly to smartphones and tablet.

Similarly, reproductions of Tutankhamun’s Tomb and the Lascaux cave in south-west France are very popular among tourists. “These sub-millimetre reproductions are indistinguishable from the real ones and can educate many about the world’s wonders,” says Thompson.

Building for the future
Other than basic marketing, developing and sustaining a tourism destination require integration with other sectors as well, such as public transportation, highway infrastructure, culture and terrain. And it is in this planning phase where GIS and other technologies kick in. For example, in the Sumbawa Island in Indonesia, there is a potential location for marine tourism in the southern part of the island, but since the terrain along the coast is very steep, the local government needs to plan other roads or build a tourism attraction along the middle stretch, reveals Arumsari from Niko Asia.

In Iceland, for instance, a study found that GIS could provide a tool for the allocation of resources between conflicting demands and aid decision makers in planning expansion of tourism in the northern regions of the country, which would in return boost economy in those areas. The northern ecosystems are extremely vulnerable and it is therefore of vital importance for such communities to plan the growth of tourism along sustainable lines in order to secure long-term economic benefit from tourism. The study, however, noted that despite increased use of GIS in environmental planning and management, the application of GIS to tourism planning was still limited.

George Town, capital of the state of Penang in Malaysia, is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is considered to be the eighth most liveable place in Asia. Managing a World Heritage Site like this requires the stakeholders to think critically. Accordingly, several technologies have been adopted by the George Town World Heritage Inc (GTWHI) for the management, monitoring and promotion of the city as a cultural heritage site. “We have highlighted hotspots in the city which need to be promoted or upgraded with maps. We also did cultural mapping, including tangible and intangible heritage, to highlight the outstanding universal values within the city,” says Muhammad Hijas Sahari, Research Officer, GTWHI. The map not only helped the planners to identify the attractions, accommodations and walking facilities in the area but also the weak points of the city. “Mapping technology helped us in protecting the site by understanding the area and identifying issues in specific places and time to overcome these issues,” explains Sahari.

In cases of marine or ecotourism, suitable management is essential to conserve and maintain the biological richness of the places. GIS combines decision support methodology with powerful visualisation and mapping capabilities which facilitates the creation of land suitability map. “Mapping gives more understanding of the natural sources and this information will be used as base information for that region’s policy,” says Arumsari.

In US, the federal government’s National Park Service (NPS) has not only mapped every national park but also used advanced technologies like geodesign for developing the landscape, GPS for protecting the animal reserves and remote sensing techniques to check on the biodiversity. NPS has also created a complete directory of over 400 national parks across the continent. The site provides a detailed map of every park and even gives the location of the cultural and historic landmarks near those parks.

Venice, one of the world’s busiest tourist destinations, has adopted an online tool ‘Venice Connected’ to monitor the tourist flow in the city. The innovative tool, for both visitors and local businesses, keeps the prices of public services at low levels and reduces the negative effects of seasonal peaks in the ecologically fragile city. The system is able to estimate the flow of tourists in advance to provide better services, and encourage a better analysis of trends and tourist flows in the city. Furthermore, the tool helps the administration to connect with tourists, mostly through social networks.

Destination managers across the globe are adopting tools like CICtourGUNE which enables them to take decisions that can increase the competitive profile of their destinations. The intelligent platform monitors, measures, analyses and models the flows of visitors to different destinations. It provides an objective, empirical, real-time geo-referenced data that allows understanding the consumption patterns of destination visitors on the basis of variables such as socio-demographic profiles, weather, etc. This tool takes into consideration factors such as transportation used by the visitors, if the visitors leave the city of arrival to visit other destinations, time spent in these visits, destinations visited, if these are first time visits, time spent in shopping areas, repeating visitors, etc.

The tourism flow model of New Zealand is a Web-based tool that can map travel usage in terms of origin and flow of visitors down to individual road segment level. This can allow for detailed analysis at the regional level based on spend, purpose of visit, and flows of visitors, helping generate data that can be used for other development and planning work. Similarly, in Mexico, a GIS-based system called IRIS is used to store information on tourism and socio-economic variables which allows tourism trends data to be visualised within the GIS alongside other social, economic and environmental datasets.

The social connect and interactive travelogues
The emergence of the Internet and social media has also dramatically altered the structure of the travel industry. Travellers are marking the territories they have explored via check-in features offered by the social media. VisitBritain’s Love UK Facebook page has allowed the organisation to develop an extensive platform of social engagement. Moreover, their mobile application is completely consumer generated by listing the top 100 locations of the UK ranked by tourist’s Facebook check-ins. “Social media, tourism blogs, booking sites, integrated with spatial information are essential for today’s backpacker adventure tourists,” underlines Arumsari.

For Dr. Madanmohan Rao, a Bangalore-based social media author, consultant and research project director of the Mobile Monday Community, social media and digital technologies are also vital for travellers during the times of emergency. The tragic events of the Westgate Mall terrorist attacks in Kenya have shown how social media [especially Twitter] was used by tourists and locals caught in the attack, as well as by their loved ones, the local police and foreign embassies.

Initiatives like MapStory or Google’s new feature, Tour Builder, allows users to weave narratives through photos, videos, text on a map. It creates a more well-rounded way of telling a story that is definitely more appealing than the average photo slideshow or album. Features like these not only allow tourists to re-construct their past experiences, but also herald the beginning of other tourists’ pre-travel stage in which they can look for inspiration, information and opinions that is critical for their travel decision making.

Similarly, site Panoramic Earth links panoramas taken worldwide to interactive maps. Alongside each picture is local and travel information. The images are contributed by a growing number of photographers providing an encyclopedia of panoramas and information. The resulting tours may be used by the websites of various ministries to encourage tourism.

Apps like PixMeAway, TripIt and Tripcase are considered to be models for the future. PixMeAway, developed by Pixtri OG, a picture-based search engine, offers intuitive travel inspiration and planning to tourists. Travellers can select the photos that appeal the most to them and get destination recommendations based on the photos, your ‘travel type’, and trip requirements. With the idea of “a picture is worth a thousand words”, the platform provides an innovative solution for tourists to enhance their travel planning in an interactive and personalised way. “I send my itinerary and they enrich them with new geographic context — a map of my hotel, the airport terminals, where the car rental centre is, bus routes, train lines and more,” says Thompson from Esri.


Google Street View offers 360 degree views of famous landmarks, museums and even underwater surfaces

What more in future?
The ‘lonely planet’ is becoming a familiar place with technology. If there is so much available today what is it that a tourist can hope for in future?

“I think the user experience will take a huge leap forward and things will get more immersive with 3D. Companies like Microsoft and Google have been increasing imagery coverage through efforts like aerial or streetside,” says Stephen Lawler, Chief Technology Officer, Microsoft Bing Maps.

Indeed technologies like Google Glass can really enhance a tourist’s experience. “Imagine, instead of referring to maps and smartphones all the time, simply asking your smart-glasses to guide you in a foreign land,” says Jones. “The technology would become so pervasive that it becomes a part of you — it will be built in your glasses, on your phone and in your ears.”

Gartner hopes that more augmented reality applications, hybrid applications (electronic paper), extractable electronic displays at smartphones which are weather-proofed, display techniques (displaying the map on whatever appropriate surface is around me) and wearable maps will further shape the tourism industry worldwide. The geo element will be mashed up in each and every offering for tourists and will be able to provide answers and suggestions to questions one has never thought of. “Imagine being able to ask, ‘what is the best experience I can get in three hours or three days in Bangkok?’ and have the answer delivered,” says Thompson.

However, challenges of standardisation and authenticity of such user-created maps will remain issues, warns Gartner.

One can never tell what more exciting is in store for us in the future. A travel in time perhaps! Till then, Bon Voyage!