Google Street View Expands to South African National Parks

One of the reasons we love technology is its ability to revolutionise the travel experience. And that goes for every step of the journey, from searching for a trip to booking, checking in and all of your transport in between. Sure, there are times when we worry that technology is becoming too central, that it risks diminishing our relationship with travel, not improving it. But that’s one of the reasons why we’re always on the lookout for new and exciting use cases: to make sure they are applied in the best way possible.

This week an interesting application of technology from a company we all know, Google, caught our attention. One of Google’s biggest, shall we say, ‘accomplishments’, is Street View. Google Street View is arguably one of the travel industry’s earliest game changers. Maps, used and relied upon for hundreds of years, were suddenly pushed towards obsolescence. Why look at a 2D, birds-eye interpretation when you can wander around street by street and look around the real thing?

Google Street View has since become of those fundamental applications that we all take for granted. Want to know what a particular road looks like? It will just take a second. Keen to get a sense of an area from the comfort of your sofa? It only takes a click.

google street view travel technology

Taking Google Street View One Step Further

Since the dawn of Street View, it’s been clear that what began as a navigation tool could quickly become an exploratory one; a way to map every single road in the world, leaving no single corner untouched or inaccessible.

That’s an interesting concept and a philosophical discussion to be had, for sure. Do we want every single road and track documented? Do we want every possible path accessible with an easy internet search? On one hand, it would provide people without the means to visit a place in person a way to explore the other side of the world.

But on the other hand, there’s no doubt that a Street View mapping exercise on this scale has the potential to render untouched gems anything but. Is the special-ness, that unquantifiable, intangible magic of a hidden destination, tarnished by the knowledge that you can just as easily walk around it from your bedroom in West London?

An important point to note is the fact that Google Street View is not an adequate substitute for the real thing. You don’t get the smells or the sounds (although who knows, that might be included one day). You don’t get the sensual immersion of actually being there. Yet.

At which point we come to an interesting project that has just come to a conclusion in South Africa. Working in tandem with Google Street View, a team of enthusiastic South Africans have mapped out all 19 of the country’s National Parks.

The huge collection of 360-degree imagery of the country’s wildest areas includes 170 new trails in South Africa’s national parks and reserves and prominent tourist attractions such as Kruger National Park, Table Mountain and Cape Point.

Understandably, this was a pretty big undertaking. Here are a few statistics from the project…

  • 170 new trails
  • 900km trekked on foot
  • 50,000 km travelled over the 12-month project duration
  • 232 points of interest recorded
  • 206 South African volunteers
  • 9 Provinces of South Africa
  • All 19 National Parks, 17 nature reserves and many other tourist attractions
  • Lion, cheetah, elephant and other wildlife encountered on foot (guided by rangers)
  • 6 UNESCO World Heritage Sites
  • First time Google has partnered with a third-party in South Africa via the Street View Camera Loan Program

Since the epic project’s completion, Google Street View users can visit some of South Africa’s most iconic sights from the comfort of their living rooms. Whether it’s walking in the footsteps of icon Nelson Mandela, climbing seven new trails to the top of Table Mountain, hiking the famous five-day Otter Trail, tracking cheetah on foot or walking with elephants… many things on the tourist to-do list of the nation are now open to people all over the world.

Where Virtual Reality Comes In

To showcase the launch of South Africa’s new Street View imagery, Drive South Africa has launched a microsite that gives would-be travellers a virtual experience of South Africa.

The site – South Africa in 360 – which has been inspired by a similar project showcasing the US National Parks – is an immersive VR-adventure through South Africa’s four top tourist destinations and a collection of its lesser-known gems. The site is a culmination of Street View imagery with video, photos and stories from the trail, offering viewers unique perspectives.

This is a fantastic example of how Virtual Reality can be used in the travel industry. Just imagine the pulling power that an immersive walk through a national park could have for would-be tourists. Imagine its potential for travel agents and tour operators. Photos and videos that don’t do a destination justice could now be replaced and enhanced just by throwing on a pair of VR goggles.

We’ve written before about the possible applications of VR in the travel industry. Giving tourists a taste of the real thing is certainly the most obvious one.

Going Off-Road With Google Street View

More than 200 South African volunteers from across the country were involved in the 12-month long project, mapping out the parts of South Africa that they call home. Many were SANParks, CapeNature and KZN Ezemvelo Wildlife rangers and guides. Others were avid hikers, nature-lovers and tech enthusiasts.

“The hundreds of volunteers who helped along the way proved to be truly passionate about showing the best of South Africa through their participation in the loan program,” says Magdalena Filak, Program Manager for Google.

The project forms part of Google’s Street View Camera Loan Program, which encourages anyone to apply to borrow the 360-degree camera technology and help map the planet.

The team of volunteers was coordinated by loan program partner Drive South Africa. Andre Van Kets, outdoor enthusiast and founder of the Cape Town-based travel company, saw the potential in this technology to showcase South Africa to travellers around the globe, when applying to the program.

“The Trekker camera is a 22kg custom-made backpack fitted with 15 cameras pointing in all directions. The onboard technology plots the camera’s exact location on the trail. While recording, the camera takes a 360-degree photo every two seconds. It’s basically the off-road equivalent of Google’s Street View cars,” says Van Kets.

“For the first time, travellers and wildlife lovers from across the globe, can explore the full spectrum of South Africa’s diverse wilderness areas on Google Maps and Street View,” he added.

Google street view goes off road in south africa

Travel is About Sharing

As mentioned in the introduction to this article and in recent pieces, the travel experience is fragile and unique. That means it can easily be ruined or diminished by the addition of unnecessary tech. Everyone in the travel industry should be seeking to preserve that special experience, not spoil it with gimmicks.

That’s why we work so diligently on our marketplace software: we want to improve the experience of travellers all over the world by building platforms that serve them better. Part of that process is sharing. In the case of Travelshift software, our marketplaces are a place where tourism information and expertise is willingly shared with the public through community-driven content. That’s how our marketplaces are discovered and its a big part of the reason that people keep coming back.

hat approach explains why we have been inspired by the way that Google Street View and its partners in South Africa have opened up the country in new, exciting ways. Now anybody in the world can witness magnificent wildlife and spectacular landscapes at the touch of a button. And once they’ve had a taste, you can bet they will want to come and explore the real thing. And that can only be a positive in this case.

An appreciation of the natural world is a necessary step toward admitting that it’s our shared responsibility to protect it, after all.

How Blockchain Could Transform the Travel Industry

When we hear the word Blockchain most of us will react in two ways. The first is by drawing some vague connection to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. The second is simply a knowing shrug: it’s important but pretty complicated so we just smile and nod! So today we’re going to try to untangle the complicated mess that is Blockchain. Then we’ll move on to discover how the technology could potentially impact the travel industry.

Beginning with Bitcoin

Blockchain technology rose to prominence in 2011 as more people became aware of Bitcoin, a digital currency based on the technology. After a huge spike in the price of Bitcoin, the public sat up and took notice. The promise of Bitcoin was that through using Blockchain technology, its users could take advantage of a new type of payment mechanism: Truly anonymous, free and secure purchases.

The excitement in Bitcoin was partly driven by the interest in something completely new, as well as the opportunity available for early adopters to ‘mine’ their own Bitcoins – perhaps the digital equivalent of printing money. But how exactly are Bitcoin and Blockchain related?

Put simply, Blockchain is the technology and methodology underpinning Bitcoin. Blockchain can be understood as a database. But it’s no ordinary database. It’s decentralized and encrypted by design and shared across a network of stakeholders. The result is a distributed ledger that can record transactions across multiple computers. This distribution ensures that all transactions are verified by consensus, allowing the flow of digital value to be stored, organized and certified in a transparent and secure way.

Take a look at the video below from Amadeus:

What makes Blockchain unique?

There are a number of factors that come together to make Blockchain a unique and exciting technology. And they go way beyond digital currencies.

Transparency and immutability

We’re living in strange times and there are plenty of people out there talking about alternative facts and half-truths. With Blockchain, there’s no room for misinformation. Once an entry is registered on a public blockchain, it’s there for the world to see. Because it needs the consensus of users to get onto the public ledger and cannot subsequently be altered, everyone can see a time-stamped version of ‘the truth’.

For this reason, plenty of people out there believe that Blockchain technology is ideal for registering ownership of assets such as houses, cars or financial holdings.

Security

Security is built into the Blockchain process. The consensus mechanism has a very high threshold for cryptographic security. Without this, it would be impossible to maintain the integrity of a ledger shared between multiple parties. This level of security is key when sensitive information and transactions are being sent around the world

Blockchain is decentralised

It’s difficult to say how important blockchain’s decentralised nature really is. In terms of payments, the idea is that middle men – those who take a commission off the top of financial transactions such as Paypal – can be avoided.  However, in certain industries, private Blockchains with a more centralised structure can work. The main advantage to having a decentralised database is that there is no single point of failure. If the network is attacked, it’s much more resilient.

Data integrity

If there’s one point about Blockchain that we need to hit home, it’s about this idea of consensus. Because a transaction is processed on all computers in the blockchain, the algorithm ensures that there is a consensus regarding the validity of every transaction. This means that Blockchain data is always complete, accurate, trustworthy and widely available. It’s a shared record of the truth.

Efficiency and cost reduction

One major advantage of Blockchain technology is the promise to improve efficiency and reduce costs for stakeholders. With it, there’s no need to rely upon bulky, centralised record-keeping entities. Hooray!

So those are a few a few key aspects to Blockchain technology. And it all sounds very interesting, right? But now you’re wondering how exactly this technology links into the travel industry? How can the world of travel use Blockchain?

Blockchain in the travel industry

Before we properly delve into Blockchain and its application in the travel industry, we need to fast forward in time from Bitcoin to the rise of another cryptocurrency and now all-around computing platform, Ethereum. Ethereum is a public Blockchain that came to prominence in 2015. Although it has its own cryptocurrency, Ether, it also provides a platform for businesses to build applications based on Blockchain technology.

Arguably its biggest gift to the world has been the introduction of Smart Contracts. What exactly is a Smart Contract? Well, in this case it’s smartness is all about automation, and it wouldn’t be possible without the Blockchain.

These Smart Contracts can automate a range of business dealings between parties without the need for human intervention. Why is this of interest to the travel industry? Well, consider an industry which has a high amount of commission based business. Market aggregators in travel, for example, could stand to benefit. With Ethereum it’s becoming possible to hardcode the stipulations of an agreement between parties into a self-executing blockchain program. For simplicity’s sake: Let’s say “If I hit X in revenue, automatically send 2.5% of X to Y. In travel, commissions between hotels and aggregators could be settled automatically. No more annoying invoices, no more late payments, no more cash flow worries.

Moving on from smart contracts

In a recent report, consultants Amadeus outlined five ways that Blockchain could impact the travel industry in the near future. At the moment, even while the technology is experiencing plenty of exposure and publicity, it’s at an early stage in its development. There don’t appear to be any Blockchain systems being put to use in the travel industry today. But there’s no doubt that the potential is there. Take a look at these possible use cases.

Improving loyalty schemes

We’ve all had experience with loyalty schemes before. But in the travel industry, you can barely book any kind of trip without being bombarded by them. Hotels, booking websites, airlines, retailers… all have different schemes that are a key part of driving return business and keeping customers engaged.

Some are more successful than others. But all depend on outdated systems and principles, with the majority simply offering points in return for purchases. The problem with this method is that points are often left unspent, with travellers frustrated by the lack of leeway and the restrictions on what those points can be spent on.

Sure, some schemes are more flexible than others and allow a wide range of redeemable goodies. But plenty of points out there are left unspent and may even be listed on a travel company’s balance sheet as a liability. And we don’t want that.

blockchain in the travel industry

Blockchain startup Loyyal.

One great example of how Blockchain could improve this situation is California startup Loyyal. The company’s loyalty and rewards platform was built with blockchain and smart contract technology to reduce fragmentation in the loyalty business and make it easy for businesses to partner. The result is a secure system that gives customers more value from their loyalty schemes, eventually even in real-time.

Read more: How Travel Startups can Compete with Established Marketplaces

Improving baggage tracking

As much as the travel industry has developed in recent years, a few age-old problems still linger. One of these is the worst nightmare of any traveller: lost luggage. Lost or damaged bags cost the travel industry a huge amount every year, not to mention the traveller complaints and damage to reputations that comes with it. And the process of tracking it down can be even tougher than losing it in the first place. In part this is due to responsibility for the luggage shifting throughout your journey, from the airline to the airport to ground handling firms.

That’s where Blockchain comes in. It could offer a shared, distributed ledger used by all those within and between airports that at some point have control over baggage. The system would allow for a bag and its ownership details to be automatically logged. These records could be shared among everyone concerned to improve accountability and, most important of all, track down lost luggage.

Automating and simplifying settlements between operators

Remember when we mentioned Smart Contracts before? We know more than most about how the travel industry is dependant on an intricate mixture of operators, service providers and OTAs. There’s a complex set of relationships between those parties, with money moving between them all of the time.

Read more: Travel Marketplace Pricing Strategy: Where to Start

Smart Contracts based on a Blockchain system could change the way those relationships are managed for the better. For example, let’s think about a traveller booking a hotel room. In the background, there’s an aggregator, perhaps an OTA and the hotel itself. Eventually, they will need to settle cash and commissions based on agreements already in place. With Blockchain this process could be automated and executed in a way that maximises efficiency and cuts costs for everyone involved.

Revolutionising identification

One of the most exciting potential Blockchain uses in travel is in the realm of identification. We have all experienced the endless showing of IDs and passports throughout a travel journey, from booking to boarding to airport security to hotel check-in.

In future, the trustworthy and immutable nature of blockchain could transform the way travellers are identified throughout the course of a journey.  Imagine a trip that didn’t require this at every stage. Blockchain technology could offer travellers a more frictionless experience in the coming years. Startups such as Civic are already pioneering in this space.

How Travel Companies Can Kickstart the Blockchain Revolution

Blockchain startups are beginning to spring up in all kinds of industries, and you can bet that travel won’t be far behind. Our is an industry in which innovation is rife and competition drives progression. With that in mind, what should travel companies start doing now in order to ride the inevitable Blockchain wave?

According to Amadeus’ latest report on the matter, there are five steps that should be taken by industry stakeholders.

The first is to appreciate the pace at which decentralised technology is moving. This requires an understanding of what it’s all about and its potential impact on the industry. If senior management is going to buy-in to future projects that involve Blockchain, they need to be educated now, not later.

The second step is to explore Blockchain’s potential even further. Nobody yet knows the extent to which it could impact the travel industry. There are bound to be more innovations and use cases that come to light aside from those mentioned above.

The third step will be new to many in the travel industry: collaboration. By definition, Blockchain is a system that requires collaboration between partners and competitors in order to work.

The fourth step is to, as with any emerging technology, experiment. Opportunities may present themselves to conduct trials and test Blockchain in a real-world scenario. Why not take the initiative and see where it takes you?

The fifth and final step that Amadeus recommends for potential Blockchain adoptees is to recruit with the technology in mind. Understandably there’s a shallow pool of talent out there with the knowledge and skills to turn potential into reality. But working with technology partners and hiring the right people could go a long way towards successful implementation in the future.

 

Instagram Algorithm Raises Questions Over Travel Authenticity

If there’s one thing that all travellers want to do, it’s fit in. Nobody wants to be the tourist, to feel like an outsider in a new place. Instead, the desire is to blend in with those surroundings, to be one of the locals. Part of being a local is doing as the locals do, skipping the tourist traps and finding the hidden gems that only people who know the city well will have discovered.

If this need for a genuine experience is one of the permanent threads running through the narrative of the modern travel industry, others include the need to remember, record and share our experiences. We all want to have memories to look back on, even if it’s a postcard, a few old photographs or a 10-second video. And we all seem to want to publicize these trip highlights and share them with friends and family.

So blending in with the locals and sharing memories are two things that modern tourists seek. It’s about time that someone ties these two desires together, right?

New Tech Detects Attractions By Tracking Locals’ Instagram Activity

Programmers from ITMO University, Russia, have come up with an ingenious, indirect way for locals to give advice to tourists. The research team has developed an algorithm that scans local Instagram accounts to come up with a list of the most popular museums, cafes, streets and parks. By using data from locals, tourists can be sure they are getting as authentic an experience as possible.

Results of the research were presented at The International Conference on Computational Science and published in the peer-reviewed journal Procedia Computer Science.

Clearly, this is an interesting combination of social media, artificial intelligence and travel software. It merges the popular platform used to store and share memories, Instagram, with the desire many tourists have to get off the beaten track.

Let’s go back to the craving many of us have to capture and share our favourite holiday moments. Social networks like Instagram are becoming increasingly popular for that exact reason. The platform currently has over 700 million monthly active users around the world. 14.4 million of those are in Russia, where this study was conducted. There are two examples of why people would post an update about a specific place: because it’s their first time there or because they visit often.

You might be thinking that the algorithm might have an obvious flaw: tracking both locals’ and tourists’ Instagram activity instead of just locals. But the team at ITMO (Or more specifically from the Uni’s eScience Research Institute) found a way to distinguish between Instagram users living in St. Petersburg and visiting tourists based on how they use social media. By doing this, they were able to provide off-the-beaten-track locations that were most loved by St. Petersburg locals.

Of course, popular locations for locals and for tourists differ, but it was important for us to know just how they differ. Guides usually offer tourists a list of 10-15 attractions. However, locals usually know more. By identifying their favorite places, we can significantly diversify such guide books” – Alexander Visheratin, engineer and Head of Research at eScience Institute at ITMO University.

An important thing to factor into any tourism guide is that sites, scenes and destinations change over time. What’s popular today may not be popular tomorrow. As such, a service that works in real time and offers tourists an insight into recent trends could be invaluable.

“Instagram is a dynamically changing environment. Some places gain popularity while others lose it. Sometimes new restaurants or cafés open. Therefore, the creation of a recommendation service which follows photographs of interesting places in real time is a logical continuation of the current results. This is what we are currently working on”. – Ksenia Mukhina, lead author of the study.

ITMO University instagram travel technology

Visualisation of Saint Petersburg residents’ favourite places, according to analysis of public and geotagged Instagram posts, versus those of tourists. Photograph: Ksenia Mukhina et al/ITMO University

Is Authenticity Permanent?

Travellers’ quest for authenticity brings about an interesting philosophical question. At what point does a sight or destination lose its authenticity? The whole notion of ‘off the beaten track’ is that it’s a tourist-free zone, a place where locals get together and do locals things. Do technologies such as the one developed in St Petersburg threaten to undermine the authenticity it helps tourists to discover?

The answer is not straightforward. Take a quiet church or a secluded park. Part of the magic of these little-known destinations is their secrecy and their atmosphere. A horde of tourists would quickly see both of those things dissipate.

And this kind of phenomena could happen on a much bigger scale. We’ve recently written about issues with over-tourism in cities such as Barcelona and countries like Iceland. Although there are many factors at work in both examples, part of the issue is that locals feel like they are being crowded out, like their usual places are being overrun with tourists.

It’s a fact that authenticity can be damaged, if not lost completely, by too much tourism. A key for technologies such as that developed in Russia is to find the right balance: to give travellers the local experience they seek without putting locals off themselves. Arguably this is just a case of simple numbers. But it’s also about education. These technologies don’t only have to locate secluded spots. Maybe they can also advise on how to behave like a local. Maybe don’t take selfies in that peaceful church? Or don’t play music out loud in that pretty park only the locals know about?

After all, blending in is as much about how you behave as the language you speak.

The Power of Community-Driven Content

We’re big fans of community-driven content here at Travelshift. But the technology described above is slightly different to what we usually specialise in. Our marketplace platform gives sellers the ability to invite locals with expert knowledge to blog and contribute to a thriving community of influencers.  As well as boosting SEO with bundles of unique, informative content, travellers can learn from authentic stories, hints and tips.

The notion of passively filtering Instagram data is not one we have considered before. But this study shows how it can be done to effectively make every Instagram user a participant in one enormous content community. By tracking hubs of activity in real time, tourists will never be far behind the latest trends and popular locations.

The Trump Effect is Real: US Travel Industry Slump in Numbers

When Donald Trump became president of the United States back in January 2017, plenty in the travel industry were making predictions about how the radical shift in American politics would impact upon tourism to the country. This was due to a number of factors. Not least the new president’s xenophobic rhetoric and his intention to adopt policies restricting the rights of people depending on their country of origin and religion.

This, as we’ve pointed out in previous posts, is an example of just how incongruous Trump is with the modern travel industry. It was always going to be fascinating to observe how an industry based on openness, tolerance and community would respond to the new America.

And now we have some data to work with. It appears as though there’s been a significant Trump slump. Since the reality TV star came into office, international tourism to the States has dropped. Here are the details…

The Trump Slump?

Despite some positive noises coming out of the U.S. Travel Association in recent months concerning the expected number of tourists into the States from abroad, they have now put forward a “substantially more pessimistic assessment” of travel into the US. They’ve gone so far as to put out a warning of “major storm clouds for the inbound international travel market.”

According to the latest Travel Trends Index, a revised analysis of recent inbound travel suggests that “international visitation—initially found to have grown consistently this year—actually declined in four of the seven months for which data is so far available.”

The contractions were most apparent in February (-6.8 percent) and March (-8.2 percent). Travel economists have suggested that even the slight uptick in April is likely down to the Easter holiday falling in that month this year.

 

For the TTI, as in many similar indices, a score above 50 indicates growth while a score under 50 indicates a decline.

 

U.S. Travel Association Senior Vice President for Research David Huether said the results were in line with what the organisation expected.

Read more: Trump Travel Ban Hits USA Tourism Industry Hard

“We kept projecting drops in international visitation, and they kept not materializing,” Huether said. “However, we recently were able to access new data inputs for the TTI to give us an even more comprehensive picture, and sure enough, the international travel segment has been far weaker than what was initially shown.”

In case you’re wondering how accurate the data is, the TTI is prepared for US. Travel by the research firm Oxford Economics. ‘U.S. Travel and Oxford routinely seek to identify available data sources that add to the accuracy and comprehensiveness of the index. The data sets added to the latest TTI calculations came from IATA, OAG and other tabulations of international inbound travel to the U.S., and resulted in the downward revision of TTI results from earlier in the year.’

Currently, travel and tourism are responsible for one in nine American jobs. Inbound international travel is actually the No. 2 overall U.S. export. With that in mind, it’s no surprise that the head of US Travel believes the American economy can’t afford this troubling downward trend to continue.

“The international travel market is ultra-competitive, and the U.S. is falling behind,” said U.S. Travel Association President and CEO Roger Dow. “Fortunately, there are levers the Trump administration can pull to help right the ship—continue the Brand USA tourism marketing organization, and protect policies that enable international travel to the U.S., such as Open Skies aviation agreements and the Visa Waiver Program.

“Inbound travel to the U.S. already went through one ‘lost decade’ after 9/11,” Dow said. “It took a sustained national policy effort to return to the pre-9/11 level of travel exports, which only happened last year. If we don’t want to give back all of that progress, the time to act is now.”

In the statement from the U.S. Travel Association there is no mention of the reason for the declines in international visitors.

Interestingly, domestic markets for business and leisure travel are performing well and seeing growth from last year.

Read moreHow Will President Trump Affect The Travel Industry?

“Upbeat consumer attitudes and solid labor market conditions continue to support the domestic travel market,” said Adam Sacks, president of Oxford Economics’ Tourism Economics group.

“However, stagnant wages and the recalibration of expectations regarding the Trump administration’s campaign pledges pose risks to consumer and business sentiment. Additionally, the President’s continued rhetoric and policies weigh heavily on the international inbound market outlook.”

donald trump usa travel decline

It seems as though international travelers don’t identify well with Donald Trump’s policies and rhetoric – much like plenty of his own citizens.

International Tourism into US in Decline: In Numbers

According to USA Today, it’s estimated that 700,000 fewer international tourists arrived in the U.S. during the January 2017- March 2017 period compared to same period last year.

As you might expect given Trump’s rhetoric and attempts to enforce a Muslim ban, the steepest drops were from the Middle East and Africa, regions that sent almost 25% fewer visitors than just twelve months before.

European arrivals were also down by around 10%, with 2.6 million visitors representing a 300,000 decline during the first three months of 2017. Again unsurprisingly, arrivals from Mexico were down 7% -nearly 300,000.

Overall, the 15.8 million international tourists during the first quarter were down 4%, or 697,791 visitors.

This decline has hit US business, too. That many lost tourists represent a $2.7 billion reduction in spending, according to an estimate by Tourism Economics of Wayne.

Read more: Why Tourism and Politics Go Hand in Hand

This is About Atmosphere, Not Just Legislation

It’s impossible to pinpoint how much the decline in international visitors to the USA is because of President Trump. But we can safely assume that his rhetoric and actions have played a part in the market contractions.

Some of the President’s attempted legislation, such as the Muslim ban, had a marked impact on business travel into the US, as we reported back in February. However, consistent decreases in international tourist numbers are likely to be the result of atmosphere, not failed legislation.

Trump led a divisive campaign that caused controversy among liberal Americans, minorities, and travelers the world over, including smears at Mexicans and disabled people. And his actions in office have done little to repair the damage. The USA is as divided as it has been for decades, and the resulting atmosphere is not one that international tourists are keen to engage with.

The sense of a nation in turmoil has similarities with scenes in the UK, where the Brexit vote has led to a change in tourist attitudes on the European continent. According to research published by Travelzoo, a third of travelers from Germany, Italy and Spain – and a quarter from France – confirmed that they would be less inclined to travel to the UK in the event of a Leave vote. Four in 10 respondents from EU countries also worry that Brexit could make UK holidays more expensive.

The latter has not quite turned out to be true, since the plummeting pound has actually caused a boost to the UK tourism market. However, the feelings of Europeans is clear: Brexit, just like Trump, suddenly made the UK seem like a destination that was unwelcoming and less appealing.

Why B2B Travel Technology is Vital to the Industry

Depending on who you speak to, there are different definitions of what constitutes travel technology. As a travel marketplace provider, we certainly see that definition in a different light to a transport company like Uber or an OTA like Expedia. Our job as a (mostly) B2B service is to enable operators to reach as many travellers as possible. We provide the travel technology and work in the space in between operators and customers.

But it makes sense that, as technology becomes more of a feature in our daily lives, travel companies of one sort or another will utilise different aspects and become a part of the ‘travel technology’ family. A case in point is Skift’s Travel Tech 250, which includes everything from deal sites like GroupOn to rental platforms and price comparison websites.

Travel Technology Now Comes In Many Forms

From looking through Skift’s map of ‘250 travel tech companies’ shaping the modern day travel experience, it’s clear to see that travel tech has an extremely broad meaning. It spans marketplaces for travel, transport and accommodation. There are also B2B services covering distribution, booking engines and even travel industry marketing specialists.

As Skift writes, “We recognize that the travel industry is in constant flux, with new brands and disruptors coming on line all of the time. The design we chose for this visualization is exactly that – a snapshot of what the industry looks like today.”

Sure, we might be biased, but we think we deserve a little more recognition here. Not in terms of being included, although that would be nice. But in terms of the significance of what we and other booking engines do. The Skift image is just a snapshot of the industry as a whole, so let’s try to explain why what we do is so vital.

As more and more travellers research and organise their trips online, having a web presence is becoming a prerequisite to winning bookings from international tourists.

But that’s putting it mildly. Having an online presence is a pre-condition to attracting tourists in the same way that having a warm pair of socks is needed if you’re going to climb Mt Everest. There’s a lot more to it than that. There are some serious marketing challenges facing small travel operators that we’ve outlined again and again.

The first – and most important – is being discovered. An online presence is worth nothing unless people can find it. Only once your products are found can you begin actually selling them. This is getting harder by the day for two reasons. First, a small number of B2C travel industry giants dominate search engine results. And by dominate, we mean that you’ll be lucky to get a look in. They’ve got more content than you, more backlinks than you, and you can bet that their marketing budgets far exceed your own.

The second challenge to getting noticed is increased competition from other smaller operators. As they fight to take traffic from the big guys, many smaller travel startups are making life harder for each other.

But it’s not all bad…

But there is a silver lining. There are two, in fact. The first is that once they get over the hurdle of being heard, smaller operators are in a unique position to concentrate on a single niche. They can then easily build brand awareness and customer loyalty around that target market. By definition, smaller travel operators can be lean, more flexible and highly specialised. That’s the personal touch that many travellers want, not a mass tourism package trip churned out by an industry giant.

With specialised knowledge comes a specialised service. And with that comes a trip that travellers remember for all the right reasons.

travel technology - our marketplace platform

Why True Travel Technology is an Enabler

In our view, true B2B travel technology is tech that helps startups in the industry overcome the challenges mentioned above. True travel technology is empowering, breaks down conventional barriers and gives the small guys a fighting chance against established dominance.

Sure: all of the companies listed above under ‘Travel technology’ are, according to Skift, “shaping the modern-day travel experience”. We don’t deny that Uber, Secret Escapes and Trivago are all offering valuable services that the industry couldn’t do without. Yet the key word for us in that Skift definition is ‘experience’.

Shaping the Travel Experience for the Better

Here at Travelshift, we firmly believe that smaller operators are in a much better position to give 21st century travellers the immersive trips and personalised service they’re looking for.

As we’ve mentioned before, there is a fear that the combining forces of big data and seamless integration will leave the largest technology companies in the best position to dominate the travel industry – even more so than the current industry giants. There is no telling what kind of impact even more dominance in the hands of a few major players will have on the traveller experience.

That’s why we are remaining firmly in the corner of the little guys, enabling them to compete with travel industry giants with our unique, feature-packed marketplace software. We hope that the result will be a greater number of specialised marketplaces, catering to their chosen niche and providing the best possible experience to travellers – right the way through from booking to returning home.

Our Travel Technology Gives Smaller Operators The Platform They Deserve

As we’ve mentioned, setting up in the travel industry and offering your expertise to tourists is only the first step on a long, difficult journey. Many fall at the opening hurdles, and many more follow suit soon after that.

That’s why we put our heads together before launching our first platform in 2014 to produce the perfect solution: A travel marketplace that brings together small operators and allows them to reach a larger audience than they could ever imagine when working as individual suppliers.

Take a look at the impact our platform had in its opening few years when combined with the Iceland tourism boom.

Guide to Iceland growth timeline, proving our travel technologyThis goes to show that a small but dedicated (and talented) team can achieve great things with the right travel technology in place. Our aim is for the same platform solution and techniques to be used to develop partnerships and niche marketplaces all over the world.

The result will be the growth of smaller travel operators, as they each benefit from the support and association of a marketplace that’s purpose-built to drive traffic and sales for niche travel sectors. More success among smaller operators promises to shift the travel landscape, provide tourists with more authentic experiences and bring back the concept of ‘loyalty’ to an industry that has lost its personal touch.

All of this takes us back to the title of this post. So why are B2B travel technology suppliers so vital to the industry? Simply put, we support startups and breed innovation. We make things happen.

More Than Just Another Booking Engine

Earlier in this post we compared having an online presence in the travel industry to having a pair of socks at the base of Mount Everest: It’s only the beginning. And the same can be said for having a travel marketplace that aggregates operators in your chosen niche.

Building a marketplace is only half of the challenge. You still need to market it properly, to streamline its systems and drive as many sales as possible.

That’s where Travelshift’s technology comes in. Our marketplace solution has been honed over time and proven in practice. It’s complete with localisation features, built-in SEO tools, flexible inventory systems and much more besides. Most important of all, the Travelshift platform was built and designed to bring in as much relevant traffic as possible.

To do that, we’ve combined a smart, flexible SaaS travel marketplace solution with unparalleled content marketing capabilities. But the key is where that content comes from: The community. By encouraging locals and tour guides to contribute article and blog posts, our platform allows you to amass a huge social media following and drive significantly more traffic into the marketplace than operators can manage independently. With our tools and no shortage of hard work, you can quickly become the leading producer of content in your field.

Community-driven content is a foundation of our success, and we’re convinced that the model can be applied to any number of travel niches.

Trvaelshift marketplace software

Feeling Inspired?

We’re always on the lookout for new partners, exciting startups and talented individuals to work with. If you’d like to be considered, all we need from you is a discovery letter. In the letter, you should indicate as concisely as possible the following elements of your proposal:

  • Define the market. What are you trying to aggregate?
  • How do you plan to bring in suppliers and/or access inventory?
  • What is your preferred form of partnership (joint venture, revenue sharing agreement, etc)?

You can send your discovery letters to info@travelshift.com.

The travel industry is an exciting and thriving sector with a seemingly endless amount of business opportunities and prospective ventures. We love to team up with intelligent and creative people and enjoy receiving new proposals. Get in touch with us today!

The Challenges of Mass Tourism in the 21st Century

Working in the travel industry, it can be easy to forget that our responsibility extends further than just the people and businesses we sell services and products to. The bigger picture stretches beyond travellers, encompassing residents of popular destinations, natural ecosystems and, of course, the sustainability of the industry in general.

That’s where the challenge of mass tourism rears its head. In our increasingly connected world, access to certain destinations is easier than it has ever been. Budget airlines, currency fluctuations and the sharing economy have made trips more accessible to more people. Countries like Iceland and cities such as Barcelona have effectively gone viral. There are no secrets anymore.

A recent Skift documentary took a closer look at the escalating situation in Barcelona, where locals are growing increasingly frustrated at the quantity of tourists flocking to the city. The Catalan capital has become the third most popular city in Europe, after London and Paris.

A growing number of residents are concerned that the high concentration of tourists is pushing up house prices, negatively impacting their lives and well-being and rendering parts of the city overcrowded and uninhabitable.

skift documentary challenges of 21st century tourism

Skift’s latest documentary: Barcelona and the Trials of 21st Century Over-Tourism

And this feeling is coming to the surface all over Spain, which has traditionally been one of Europe’s most popular destinations. The number of visitors to Spain hit a record high in 2016 of 75.3 million, according to the Minister for Energy and Tourism, Alvaro Nadal. Last year was the fourth consecutive record year, as tourist numbers were boosted by security concerns in the Mediterranean from Turkey to north Africa.

Frustration with tourism has not come out of the blue. In a protest in Barcelona in June, one demonstrator held a banner that read: “Tourist flats displace families”.

Protest group Arran has carried out events in Valencia and the Balearic Islands in recent weeks. In Palma de Mallorca, protesters smashed windows at a restaurant and set off smoke bombs before raising a banner declaring in English that, “Tourism is killing Mallorca”.

anti tourism protests in barcelona

Lluis Gene, AFP | Protesters at a demonstration in Barcelona on June 10, 2017 against what they claim is a lack of control by the city’s tourism management.

A similar demonstration is planned in foodie capital San Sebastian on 17 August, due to how tourism represents “precariousness” and “exploitation” for the young.

Are these mass tourism numbers sustainable?

Although mass tourism has come to represent a significant amount of income for cities like Barcelona, there is little doubt that its detriments are felt by locals. Areas such as the iconic Las Ramblas and the Sagrada Familia are no longer what they used to be; years of culture are being crowded and eroded by tourists eager for a quick selfie, by those looking for entertainment rather than something to appreciate.

Read more: In Depth With Barcelona’s Foodie&Tours

Aside from overcrowded public areas and pressures on transport and infrastructure, accommodation is arguably the single biggest concern for residents in cities like Barcelona. A thriving rental market for short term accommodations has led to gentrification and higher long-term rents for residents.

The concern was so grave that in 2012, residents in Barcelona voted in a mayor whose main promise was to curb the rise in tourism. Whereas before there was little regulation regarding the set up of tourist accommodation, Ada Colau introduced a register and required online platforms such as Airbnb and Booking.com to sign up their apartments.

The key is to find a sustainable solution. The Skift documentary speaks to one boutique hotel owner who set up a hotel but opened the ground floor as a bar and restaurant, effectively redeveloping public space for locals at the same time as opening new rooms for tourists.

Could more community-focused travel companies like this be a solution?

Iceland: Another Example of Over-Tourism?

Much closer to home for us, Skift has also conducted investigations into the Icelandic travel scene, particularly looking at the growing number of visitors to Iceland and the sustainability of its booming tourism industry.

Just like in Spain, the boom in tourism to Iceland was predicated by the global financial crisis, which made visiting the land of ice and fire a lot cheaper than it once would have been and resulted in a surge of visitors keen to take advantage.

“Tourism is the factor that got us out of the recession and placed us where we are now,” said Ólöf Ýrr Atladóttir, director general of the Icelandic Tourist Board. “We couldn’t foresee this tremendous growth in interest for Iceland. That is also coupled with the fact that, in the last five years, the world has gone out of a recession. People are travelling more and more.”

There are also parallels in terms of the public reaction to increased numbers of tourists in Iceland and Spain. Both countries can partly attribute their recoveries from the economic crash to tourism, but locals are beginning to worry whether or not the benefits of the influx are being felt by all. Or if the detriments are worth it.

Increased tourism has led to a high demand for short term rentals, to the point where capacity is not enough. The result will be as familiar to locals in Reykjavik as it is to residents in the Catalan capital:

“There is a massive shortage of housing, There is a massive shortage of hotels,” said Sölvi Melax, founder of Icelandic car share startup Cario. “Renting long-term is getting more and more expensive. And that’s because people are going [with] short-term rentals.”

Of Iceland's three main industries, only tourism has increased in value over the last five years.

Iceland’s rising tourism, from Skift’s report into travel in Iceland

Huge changes over a relatively short period of time have perhaps caught city officials on the back foot. After all, it’s hard to encourage a blossoming industry at the same time as keeping things sustainable and under control.

Read more: In Depth With Zen Resort Bali

The public’s perception is partly because tourism is an industry like no other. It’s brash and in your face; there’s no escaping it. “We are just realizing what tourism is. It’s a totally different industry from all others,” said Atladóttir, comparing tourism to fishing:

“You can go out and fish, and you go and get your fish, and then come back. There’s somebody in the factory that prepares it, and then it’s sold. That, of course, is a tremendous economic impact, but then everybody goes home. The fish aren’t bothering you out in the streets asking where the restaurants are, and aren’t using your buses or utilizing a lot of the public goods. They aren’t sitting in your swimming pools.”

Just as in Barcelona, creaking infrastructure is struggling to meet the demands of rising numbers of tourists. To the point where government officials are considering airport entry fees, road tolls, and other types of taxes to fund improvements.

There could eventually be a cap on the number of visitors per year. While that may seem like a dramatic move, part of the allure for visitors to Iceland is the opportunity to see the natural world at its finest. Instead of being known for cathedrals (although Reykjavik has a spectacular one) and architecture, Iceland’s popular sights include glaciers, the northern lights and volcanic landscapes.

Preserving these for future destinations of tourists and residents is understandably a priority. Keeping Iceland’s nature intact is vital to any tourism going forwards, not just an ethical necessity.

Read more: Our Deep Dive into Sustainable Travel

Changes are required at a national level to deal with mass tourism

If there’s one thing we can take from the situations in Spain and Iceland, it’s that this kind of problem requires solutions at a national level.

Despite the fact that increasing tourism has brought with it prosperity and development to both countries, there is a lingering sense that residents’ best interests are being overlooked in the pursuit of industry growth. This is reflected in rising costs of living, rapid changes to what were once established communities and iconic sights being overrun with tourists.

The challenge is to develop sustainable tourism practices that bring the same benefits but welcome international travellers in a more harmonious way: putting in place sensible sustainability measures without putting off tourists. Finding the right balance is vital, especially in countries that have quickly seen tourism grow to be a crucial part of the economy.

Taxes on tourists in the form of entry visas; caps on visitor numbers every year; quotas and ticketing on certain landmarks; more investment in under-pressure infrastructure… all of these are steps that local authorities could take to effectively deal with the problems that come with high levels of tourism.

There’s also a need to keep residents onside by educating them about the benefits that tourism brings and giving them tangible access to those benefits.

Perhaps putting limits or taxes on tourism in the short term is the best way to solve problems around infrastructure, capacity and resident’s concerns. Just as fishing quotas in the 1980s helped return Iceland’s fish stock to sustainable levels, maybe something similar could be done with the booming travel industry. Sometimes you have to take a few steps back and readjust your path to move forwards in the right way.

sustainable tourism in barcelona and iceland

Some of Iceland’s most enticing sights could be at risk as mass tourism becomes the norm.

But what can travel operators do in the face of mass tourism?

Let’s not kid ourselves: the primary motive for the majority of travel service providers is to make a profit from tourism. That can lead to a situation where short term growth and dollar signs are put ahead of sustainability.

However, travel operators would do well to take a step back and think about the long-term impact of mass tourism. In cities like Barcelona, excessive tourism threatens to overrun the local culture that makes it such an enticing destination in the first place. But this point is perhaps more significant to destinations popular because of nature. In countries like Iceland, sheer footfall could have a detrimental effect on the natural sights that make it so popular.

With that in mind, perhaps operators can shift to focus on smaller, more upscale tour groups with more focused itineraries. That way the heavy footfall of budget tourism can be reduced without necessarily hitting operators’ bottom lines.

It’s up to governments and travel operators to work together to ensure that tourism remains sustainable. Without progressive measures, some of our mose treasured destinations could lose the heart and soul that made them popular in the first place.