FROM VACATION SPOTS TO SMART DESTINATIONS: TECHNOLOGY AND TOURISM. QR, APPS AND AUGMENTED REALITY FOR CITIES.

The Smart City paradigm is meant to be the last (and beloved) son of Postmodernity for urban territories, providing useful tools (an attractive mix of leadership, infrastructures, services and people powered solutions) for making them more efficient, more sustainable and more livable for citizens, as well as more attractive for tourist and occasional visitors.

Tourism is recognised as a global industry for many territories, which see in it a key source of income and benefits, competing with other places and destinations to attract people and businesses.

The addition of both concepts, Smart City + Tourism, may be useful for destinations, particularly if, as nowadays, there isan overwhelming need for cities (and its DMOs and tourist bureaux) to differentiate themselves in order to challenge other territories and establish their credentials as the best choice for prospective visitors and tourists of all sorts. The race of cities to be recognised as a major tourist destination can reveal some success stories, several examples of the perils of commoditisation (urbanalización according to the Spanish term coined by F. Muñoz) and a bunch of sad accounts of wrong programmes regarding city branding/place making policies putting some cities in risk of dying of starvation.

The twin forces of globalisation and technological innovation have put considerable pressure on institutions and DMOs to achieve advances by moving to new products and new processes regarding tourism, some of them to be provided by ICT and Smart City tools. For that reason, tourism policies are already turning to technology issues as a main topic for the city narration itself, linking the identity of the destination with the brand new Smart City label.  It is not only about selling the city but about projecting the ‘right’ image to the world.

New services, apps or urban products regarding safety, ecology, mobility, connectivity, retail or cultural issues associated with the Smart City deployment are growing in importance regarding the consolidation or re-creation of the image and identity of destinations perceived by visitors. If some years ago Japan was the Mecca for techie geeks, today, cities as Vancouver, Amsterdam or Barcelona are tasting the sweet flavor of increasing ROI related to the Smart and Green vision of the city packaging new tourism products that are experiential in nature. It is not coincidence that the 3 of them are focusing on the collaborativenature of the tourist experience, making visitors actively engaged in the process of creating and attaching meaning to the tourism destination’ s image. (Indeed, next SITC, Salón Internacional del Turismo de Cataluña, to be opened in April 2012,  will focus on #Smartdestinations). Alive and sharing!

As almost everything in life, tourism is usually constrained in time and finding where things are and what things to do becomes sometimes the target of visitors, when not a problem instead. The goal is not about bombarding visitors with advertisements and pop-up windows and all sorts of other things that just distract them, but making making tourism more enjoyable. Anyone with a smart phone can enjoy (and, indeed, improve it, as the smart city wants people powered experiences) the cloud of services and proposals linked to the tourist offer of smart city destination and share it with others in real time.

If you are a politician, a DMO or a single citizen or businessman wanting to encourage people to visit (and expend money) your city, and besides the needs of proper agreements with the world’s leading travel companies to market, distribute and sell your destination within their online travel offerings (I am deeply grateful to Ricardo Navarro Alés, Regional Director at OpenJaw Madrid  for his patient explanations about this issue) maybe the following experiences could inspire your next action.

 * FAST AIRPORT CHECK-IN PROCESS.- No doubt. When travel starts, Airports play an important role. It is a common feeling that almost no-one likes airports, but technology could go some way to reducing the stress a little. For that reason Air transportation IT provider SITA has demonstrated how integrating Near field communication (NFC) technology into mobile SIM cards may get you through the airport more smoothly, providing testimonies to show airlines and airport managers how NFC phones can be used to improve airport efficiency.

The idea centers around storing boarding pass information on the SIM card, meaning that you’d be able to check in, open security gates, or get easy access to airport lounges by simply waving your phone over a reader rather than searching for the papers in your bag or the QR code in an app. Because the data is written directly to the SIM card, it’ll work even if the phone is powered off. SITA is part of the aviation industry, so there is a good chance that anything we see developed in its labs will eventually be deployed at the airports it helps manage. It won’t speed up baggage claim or help you avoid pat-downs from surly TSA officers, but it’s a start.

According to the developers, a passenger using an NFC-enabled device can be processed faster than any of the current boarding processes available today. Users of FourSquare, Gowalla or Twitter will do the rest.

* QR CODES are becoming a popular marketing tactic for the tourism industry, cheap and easy to deploy. QR codes provide a unique link between the physical world and a limitless supply of digital content, adding value to the tourist experience by offering a perfect blend of location-based information, rich content and mobile/internet access.

Gotham Guide is the first QR tour of New York City, covering areas from the Brooklyn Bridge to Central Park. Still in NY, you can find an Specific use of tourism / place QR code campaign around Central Park and National Arbor Day. The  World Park campaign allows interactive exchange in this notorious and beloved park, with creativity and nice results.

In some cases, the use of QR is a solution for delivering additional content such as photos, video or audio recordings to visitors who are literally in the middle of nowhere, allowing the connection between a real-life environment, the history of the location and the visitor’s experience via rich media on a mobile device. A good example of that use of QR is given by the program of a self-guided walking tour of the famed River Walk area of San Antonio (Texas). Just scan a QR code with a  smart phone and start to explore 12 points along the San Antonio River Walk, a winding, tree-lined linear park that meanders through the heart of the city, one block below the street, sharing the vision of a young architect, Robert H. H. Hugman, in 1929. The QR codes link back to an audio narration by a local historian and author.

The City of Grand Rapids (Michigan) has 13 stops on its QR tour along with a printable map that gathers all the codes in one convenient place. Visitors are encouraged to take photos and upload them to Flickr as well as to check in on Foursquare.  The experience is such good that the whole state of Michigan may be joining the project. The Michigan Department Of Transportation has began printing QR codes on the maps and it distributing them to tourists.

In Europe, the Mackintosh Heritage Group, a non-profit making organisation, established in 1982, whose mission is to promote and raise awareness of the Mackintosh heritage in the West of Scotland (Glasgow) started last summer with three architectural tours to guide visitors in tours of 90 minutes through some of the great infraestructures in the city. Cards were distributed to visitors with a starter code and brief instructions on how to use the technology, allowing the visit according to the free-wheeling wanted by independent tourists. Finally, the spanish start-up I Want Apps prepares a shocking brand new QR Tourist resources for the small villa of Biar (Alicante – Spain).

Other interesting uses of QR for enhancing tourist experiences can be found for commercial uses. Since mobile barcodes utilize mobile phones, they encourage the consumer to take immediate action. Whether it is coupon to a nearby restaurant or a ticket to an upcoming event, the visitors can quickly and easily access the information they need to make a choice. Radisson Edwardian, which operates several hotels around the UK has been running some innovative social media campaigns recently. These include adding QR codes to its menus, which send users to videos of chefs preparing the seasonal special, as well as a new Foursquare campaign offering late checkouts. After several weeks of use, they found that a lot of people were tech and social media savvy, and a surprising number of people picked up on it quickly, proving a useful exercise on engagement.

* APPS FOR TOURISM.- Apart from the bunch of City Guides for Iphone/Android, we can find hundreds of smartphone apps designed to make traveling easier for tourists and occasional visitors. In that way, it is important that your travel apps could work offline, since most of us can’t afford the outrageous roaming charges that come with using an iPhone overseas.

A few Apps are dedicated to helping you navigate the various underground transport systems, like the next ones to be foun in Spain. The Madrid Subway app is offline, includes an official Madrid subway map, and is a “complete guide to getting around” in Madrid. There is a Valencia Metro app that offers the same features, plus the ability to use GPS to find the closest subway stop to wherever you are. There are two Barcelona metro apps: Barcelona Metro AR , an augmented reality app that requires a network connection and GPS, but has the ability to not just locate nearby metro stops on a map but show them to you using your iPhone’s camera. and Barcelona Metro Map that has a route planner, station finder (no network connection required), and timetable information.

Some good examples of helpful travel apps (for the United States) are FlightAware, that allows you to knowexactly where your flight (or any other flight) is at the moment, although the plane is on air; Hotel Tonight helps you with your unexpected needs of room for the night (a flight canceled,a strike) This company negotiates deals with hotels for last-minute rooms in many big cities. Within seconds, you can have the room reserved for a low rate; GateGuru gives the rundown on which stores and restaurants are in each terminal and it pulls in reviews as well. If you’re in an airport looking for a particular product or service, this will make your task much easier; Taxi Magic: If you don’t know a city well, the taxi scene can be worrisome. Where is the best place to hail a cab? How much should you pay? Taxi Magic makes it a lot easier. If there’s a participating cab company in your city, Taxi Magic will have a cab sent right to you. You can pay directly through the app so you don’t have to worry about whether credit is accepted or not. The app and booking services are free, and there’s a $1.50 documentation fee for using a credit card through the app. If there isn’t a participating cab company in the area, Taxi Magic will give you phone numbers for local companies so you can call and arrange for a cab yourself.

Finally, some companies like Pocket Places offer Destination Apps for UK, focusing on the traditional market of City Guides.

 * AUGMENTED REALITY FOR TOURISM.- Aside from thedebate about technology that doesn’t demand its users to attend to it but rather enables them to attend from (or through) it to the task in hand, (the most powerful technologies become invisible allowing the visitor to focus the attention through them, not on them) the potential impact augmented reality can have on tourism is very exciting, and the possibilities are endless. Sponsored treasure hunts or promotional tours are at stake, and companies are paying attention to AR virtues.

Why AR? According to Lonely Planet Travel Editor Tom “Augmented reality can help in both practical and inspirational ways. Firstly, it can open your eyes to what’s around you. When travelling, you spend a lot of time actively looking both at and for things and AR is an obvious companion for this. It helps you find places and sights that may otherwise be tricky. And it gives users a new route into accessing travel information.”

Augmented reality (AR) enable visitors to have an experience of digital recreation of place and time in history.  With AR, destination marketing opportunities can become a ‘virtual’ attraction with the increasing tech-savvy traveler and tourist, allowing travel guides come to life in real-time. In defying of linear time, visitors can visualize in 3D historical places, beautiful landscapes, or anything they desire to see in real-time locations, getting supplementary information and superimposed images of times past. Augmented reality on mobile smartphones can also enhance any tourist’s experience by giving them the ability to access additional information or images associated with a priceless, historical work of art or an historic place, simply by viewing it through the smartphone.

The risk of Augmented Reality is to get visitors totally absorbed in scanning QR codes or manipulating the screens on their smart phones, disconnecting from reality. Meanwhile they couldn’t be even looking, touching, walking around or imagining life in the stunning remains of a Roman amphitheatre right in front of them!

Augmented reality apps comprise different layers, such as museums, historic sites, dining and real estate to name but a few. The tourism layer works since tourists need information which will make their travelling experience easier, more informed and more secure, allowing visitors to experience the destination before, during and after they arrive. A few examples of how augmented reality is used in tourism can be the following: TripAdvisor launched their Augmented Reality Tours app for iPad, using images from Google Street View to create a virtual walk through various destinations. This app might not be as cool as apps by Layar, Lonely Planet (has produced 25 of what it calls Compass Guides) or mTrip, but is still more useful and fun to use than 2D maps.

The Museum of London launched its own Augmented Reality (AR) app called StreetMuseum for the iPhone, that provides interesting opportunities not only for visitors but for global tourism brands and affliates. It works by simply selecting a destination from aLondon map or using a GPS to locate an image near you. Hold the phone camera up to the present day street and see the sameLondon location appear on your screen offering a window through time. The app will recognize the location and overlay a historical image over the live video feed of the real world.Museum ofLondon has integrated hundreds of images from its collection into the app, including the Great Fire of 1666 to the sixties, and the results are astonishing.

As useful as the previous ones, GraffitiGeo launched the augmented reality restaurant recommendations app. Just point your phone towards a restaurant and see immediate reviews.

Scotland has launched a Scottish travel app, that makes a huge difference with others as  many of the most beautiful rural locations in that country suffer from poor broadband and mobile data coverage. So, one of the Welcome to Scotland app’s most valuable and unusual features is that all of its content and main map are preloaded, visitors from abroad to use the app on the go without risking expensive roaming charges.

Finally, Santander (Spain) well known for its Smart City project and advances has joined a workgroup with the aim to extend the concept of “Smart Cities” by its application to the tourist sector, as announced some days ago the Mayor of the city, Iñigo de la Serna. The group is integrated by public as private entities, and fosters a line of investigation called “Destination Hub”, consisting of the identification of all those tools, applications and Internet technologies of the future which could be applied to a destination to improve the quality of life of the citizens, tourist and visitors. Destination Hub”, was presented and approved by the Assembly of the FIA (Future Internet Assembly) last December, to obtain a major visibility inside the European Program of Internet of the Future (PPP FI).

Travel smart!

For more info, please visit:

http://informer.truth.travel/2010/07/ad-agencies-these-days-in.html (When Ad agencies go bad: 4 tourist campaigns that flooped)

http://www.larioja.com/20111006/local/region/campana-cree-sabatico-sido-201110061628.html (La Rioja tourist campaign)

http://www.theverge.com/2012/1/24/2729415/nfc-airports-orange-sita-concept (Sita airport check-in)

http://www.leparisien.fr/voyages/la-technologie-nfc-pourrait-accelerer-l-embarquement-aux-aeroports-26-01-2012-1832221.php (Fast airports check in. In French)

http://smartcity.co.in/kerala-tourism-joins-hands-zapak (Kerala online game for tourism)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LD49vuUh0Ms&feature=player_embedded (Visit Scotland in Youtube)

 http://www.turismo.intoscana.it/allthingstuscany/aroundtuscany/tuscany-the-first-augmented-reality-tourism-application/ (Tuscany AR 2010)