How can new technologies help deal with overcrowding?
In this series we’re considering the issues around overcrowding — often referred to as ‘overtourism’ by the media.
We’ve already considered how travellers can change their habits, how destinations can manage demand, how destinations can reduce overcrowding and how local communities must be part of the solution. In this post we look at the new technologies being used to reduce the impact of overcrowding.
It could be argued that new technology is part of the problem. Social media has encouraged a focus on a small number of over-visited places, increased fuel efficiency has made flights much cheaper so we’re travelling far more, peer-to-peer apps have encouraged a boom in tourism rentals in previously unvisited neighbourhoods. So how is technology being deployed to help solve some of the problems too?
One of the most pressing needs for combatting overcrowding is better information. Just how bad is it compared with other places? What times of day or months of the year are worse? Without data, it’s impossible to look for workable solutions. Wifi and Bluetooth tracking are becoming widespread, allowing destinations a deeper understanding of volumes of visitors at different times. A great example is Tourism Tracer. Visitors to Tasmania in Australia use smart phones to record their travel patterns via an app. The app also generates pop-up surveys to capture more qualitative information. Before being recruited, tourists are surveyed to establish socio-demographic status, knowledge of Tasmania, and cultural background. The level of detail is remarkable, down to seeing how long someone stands at a viewpoint. In Europe, Visit Amsterdam uses the data stored on the chip inside Amsterdam’s City Card, which gives access to various attractions and free public transport, to analyse tourist behaviour and devise ways of changing it to ease congestion.
Often overcrowding takes place at key ‘pinch points’ at a destination. Encouraging tourists to venture further afield and see different sites is a key strategy and new tech is helping here. The team at Visit Amsterdam have developed an app called Discover the City. It sends users notifications warning when an attraction is busy and, importantly, suggests alternatives. Next they are planning an AI-powered service for Facebook Messenger which scrapes a person’s profile and suggests appropriate things for them to do based on their posts and likes. Visit London have added gamification to their app. Play London With Mr. Bean suggests different attractions and awards points when they’re visited, redeemable for vouchers and discounts around the city. The idea is to disperse visitors, taking in less visited places like Greenwich. Dispersal of people like this is also about providing better information for tourists themselves. It’s now relatively easy to predict and display waiting times and allow people to decide to come back later if queues are long. In Vail, skiers can use an app which uses data from wifi and Bluetooth signals from visitors’ phones to find out which chairlift lines are shortest. Bliptrack has its technology in a host of ski resorts, amusement parks and airports doing the same thing — typically displaying wait times on big screens.
Speeding and managing flow
Using technology to manage the movement of people through key parts of a site is another way to reduce the impression of overcrowding and maximise the space available. Audio guides have been common at historic sites for many years. Visitors appreciate them for the additional information they provide, but they are also there to keep people moving in an organised fashion and thus avoid bottlenecks. More sophisticated technologies are now being used many at airports to speed the flow of people through key pinch points like security and passport control. Successfully identifying passengers has relied on trained staff manually reviewing passport photographs which takes time. Now new facial recognition technology is being deployed allowing passengers to board planes without presenting a passport, speeding up the process significantly. There are more innovations in seamless travel on the way, for example using the Blockchain to store passenger data securely and thus speed up identification.
Augmented and virtual reality
In the third post in this series, we discussed ways to provide context to bring a site alive and in so doing, reducing the tendency for all visitors to focus on a number of highlight exhibits and create bottlenecks. Smart museums are already here, using new technology to enhance experience. The Smithsonian in Washington DC has a range of apps that allow visitors to interact with exhibits, providing background information, imagery and video and in so doing, reducing the bunching of people at key exhibits. Those audio handset tours will soon be replaced by augmented reality headsets. Castles will be populated with warriors from the past and ancient ruins rebuilt in front of peoples’ eyes. Commuters on a busy train in the UK were recently given Virtual Reality headsets allowing them to swim with whale sharks in Australia. What better way to reduce the stresses of crowded public transport than by helping passengers go somewhere else for a while? Whilst for many, the excitement of travelling to a particular place to experience it for real will feel irreplaceable, the quality of Virtual Reality experiences using headsets is improving in leaps and bounds. Boulevard is just one example. In the not too distant future people might well be able to ‘visit’ overcrowded destinations from the comfort of their living room.
This is final post in this five-part series. You can read the others here.