Tourists on Autopilot

Published in Dagens Industri, 2017

We’re seeing record growth in summer tourism worldwide. The Chinese are the ones who are getting around the most these days, surpassing Americans in travel statistics, and the United States reports that the average Chinese tourist is now spending more than anyone else. According to Burberry, 70 percent of visitors to their store in London are from China. The travel industry is ecstatic over these statistics, but what you don’t see in the visitor numbers is a new type of tourism that not only brings suitcases and deep pockets, but comes with a digital assistant.

Mobile bots are going to be able to assist with our trips from A to Z. The same virtual agent who books the trip can also, with the help of artificial intelligence, tailor a traveller’s experience at a destination. Services, excursions and restaurants can be automatically pre-booked based on data about the individual’s interests and tastes. The virtual agent then simply follows along on the trip, providing information about activities in the area, acting as guide at different attractions and shopping for merchandise that is collected by e-commerce and delivered directly to one’s home country.

In other words, artificial intelligence opens up possibilities for creating an exceptional travel experience, but also requires large amounts of data and advanced technology. At the same time, hotels, museums and transport operators are investing heavily – Starwood Hotels, Hilton and many more are building unique visitor apps – which says a lot about the fact that the future traveler’s demands for local services can only be answered by global technology platforms. It’s not easy to be a local boat owner who must automatically tailor trips to tourists without knowing who they are. Facebook, Google and similar players know this – and have become a familiar filter for travelers in foreign countries. What used to be an impenetrable jungle of local procedures, inaccessible services and complicated reservations in a different currency suddenly feels a lot like home. With new technology we are able to bring our habits along with us. We can have the menu read in our own language, bring payment apps and use our club memberships with loyalty points.

With the new stream of Chinese tourists comes the first evidence that travelers are not looking for the same local experiences as before. At Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas it is possible to pay with WeChat, China’s largest social platform, at all of their hotels, restaurants and slot machines. Marriott has formed a joint venture with Alibaba, the Chinese e-commerce giant. Even Apple’s Siri is moving into the hotel chain Aloft, so guests have a familiar voice that regulates temperature and light in the room – and KLM is offering their tickets via Facebook.

Customer contact is being taken away from the travel industry, which risks becoming subcontractors of reasonably generic nights, tickets and transportation. It’s a shift that began when guests started using their own phones and downloading movies on their tablets instead of using the hotel phone and ordering pay-per-view movies in the room – and this transition is continuing at a fast pace. Takeout food can be easily ordered, laundry picked up, gym sessions and spa treatments booked from similar five star providers outside the hotel’s walls – all recommended by the assistant in the app, which accordingly holds the power.

Tourism is by definition mobile and with a virtual assistant every part of the travel industry is being transformed. But does artificial intelligence make traveling smarter? When every tourist is able to move across the world with a digital profile and an assistant in one’s luggage, the world becomes more accessible, but also more uniform. It becomes easier, more convenient and predictable. The risk is that we travel in a kind of isolated bubble that becomes a filter through which we view the world. It will feel just like being at home, even when you’re somewhere else.

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