• Augmented encounter

    Tech is playing a role in boosting tourism as the sector continues to recover from the impact of the pandemic

    Augmented encounter

    Have you seen them yet? They’ve been spotted on buses and city pavements, in cafés and supermarkets; their owners’ eyes obscured by a futuristic headset, fingers mysteriously tapping invisible keys in the air. Love them or loathe them, it seems VR goggles are here to stay.

    The latest must-have accessory for technophiles uses 3D visuals to either augment everyday reality (allowing the user to read emails while simultaneously shopping for groceries, for instance), or immerse themselves in an entirely virtual world – think gaming or watching movies with friends who may or may not be in the room with you.

    Global lockdowns in 2020 saw a spike in the popularity of VR headsets, since they offered a versatile form of escapism that didn’t require leaving the house, and industries have been hard at work finding ways to make VR work for them.

    Escapism being the VR goggle’s main appeal, it’s a natural fit for modern tourism. Now, a ‘virtual vacation’ is just an app download away. Visit Paris, Beijing or Iceland. Take a tour with National Geographic…

    VR headsets are just one of many new technologies that may offer solutions to some of the unique challenges facing tourism in sub-Saharan Africa.

    ‘Providing an immersive VR experience even before booking the ticket… This has the capacity to showcase the rich cultural and natural diversity of African countries,’ says Mervin Govender, head of technology enablement at BIDTravel. ‘I know if people experience it, see it and partake in what makes us African, they will love it.’

    This is just the tip of the iceberg, though. Govender predicts AI chatbots, leveraging geospatial technology for interactive maps and location-based services, will be employed to enhance travellers’ experience.

    ‘We have recently tinkered with an AI bot that is able to provide a custom itinerary based on the traveller’s preferences, but everyone with access to ChatGPT can do that,’ he says.

    ‘What I refer to is a bot that is able to tell you what’s nearby [in real-time], help you find your way there, and perhaps broker a secure payment through blockchain for tickets to a water park or one of our smaller, off-the-beaten-track establishments.’

    At Thompsons Travel, AI robotics have been applied to issue straightforward flight routings. ‘We are also in the process of introducing an AI mobile app called XLGO,’ says CEO Sharon Leong. ‘This platform serves as a unified hub for travellers, offering a range of features such as storing itineraries with check-in functionalities, facilitating in-app purchases, incorporating an expense tracking module, implementing risk management – including duty of care – and integrating a chat function that enables travellers to communicate with consultants, among other functionalities.’

    Leong adds that while several technologies hold promise for enhancing the tourism industry in the region, three in particular stand out – mobile technology, VR and data analytics. ‘The widespread adoption of mobile phones across Africa provides a unique opportunity to leverage mobile technology for various tourism-related services. Mobile apps, mobile payment systems and location-based services can significantly enhance the visitor experience, facilitate bookings and provide real-time information about attractions and events.’

    Like Govender, Leong believes VR can offer immersive experiences that can help showcase the diverse landscapes, wildlife and cultural heritage of sub-Saharan Africa. Virtual tours, interactive exhibits and AR-enhanced guides can attract more tourists and provide them with a deeper understanding of the destination before they even arrive.

    Big data analytics can also play a crucial role in understanding tourist preferences, behaviour patterns and market trends. By analysing data from various sources such as social media, booking platforms and visitor surveys, tourism stakeholders can tailor their offerings, optimise marketing strategies and identify emerging opportunities for growth.

    ‘We as agents are adopting AI to enhance productivity, automate routine tasks and highlight our human-centred interactions during key moments of the customer experience,’ says Leong. ‘When faced with a desperate situation, passengers still seek the empathy and problem-solving capabilities of a human. Ultimately, customers still prefer to communicate with a human rather than an AI system.’

    At the Namibia University of Science and Technology, senior lecturer in hospitality and tourism Sisco Auala is using AR to provide an innovative approach to tourism research data interpretation. The project aims to document indigenous knowledge of astronomy with the San community in Namibia, and to develop ‘dark sky tourism’ (the term given to tourism that caters to prime stargazing locations) that incorporates indigenous knowledge of astronomy.

    ‘We have embarked on a project to present the findings of the research study using […] VR to make it accessible to a larger audience outside academia,’ she says. ‘However, VR can be used in many other ways within the tourism sector. I am more interested in how VR can be used in cultural heritage tourism. As we know, sub-Saharan Africa is a region rich in natural and cultural heritage, which lays the foundation for the experience of cultural heritage tourism. New technology like VR provides an opportunity to experience this through simulating these unique cultural resources, both tangible and intangible, and stimulates an interest to travel to these cultural attractions in real life.

    ‘VR further provides an opportunity to preserve our intangible cultural heritage, which is at risk of being lost altogether, as this knowledge was passed down through oral traditions and never documented. Digitalising this indigenous knowledge and creating tourism experiences around it by using new technology, for sure will bring back to life these cultural experiences for both the locals and tourists to appreciate.’

    SMEs in particular, which constitute a significant portion of the tourism sector, stand to benefit from the adoption of new technologies. Any advantage SMEs can gain by adopting new technologies, from expanding market share to differentiating from larger companies in the space, is an imperative in an increasingly competitive market. Yet, there are numerous challenges to overcome.

    Leong says it is important for the region to get the basics right, such as widespread availability of WiFi in urban areas and on transportation networks. ‘Sub-Saharan Africa must also prioritise addressing security concerns to ensure the safety and peace of mind of tourists. Implementing measures such as duty-of-care tracking devices and enhanced mapping systems can greatly contribute to this effort. These technologies not only aid travellers in navigating unfamiliar terrain, but also help them avoid potentially risky areas, which may not be accurately represented on mainstream mapping platforms like Google Maps.

    An enhanced visitor experience, streamlined bookings and real-time information on attractions and events are just some of the benefits of tourism-centric mobile apps and location-based services

    ‘By proactively addressing these issues, the region can create a more welcoming and secure environment for visitors, ultimately enhancing the tourism experience.’

    Inadequate technology infrastructure, including limited access to reliable internet and electricity supply, is another barrier to the seamless integration of digital solutions, according to Govender.

    ‘Governments and private stakeholders need to be flexible in adopting solutions and invest in technology infrastructure, ensuring widespread access to reliable internet and power sources,’ he says. ‘Complex or restrictive regulations may create barriers to the deployment of certain technologies in the tourism industry. Industry collaboration and advocacy efforts can address regulatory challenges, creating an environment conducive to technology adoption.’

    Finally, ‘technophobia’ is also hampering adoption. According to Auala, there is a fear of new technology among the older generation, particularly in Namibia. ‘They are concerned about job insecurity and privacy, and lack trust in new technology. Most of the fear is there because they do not understand the benefits of these technologies.

    ‘More awareness is required to educate the tourism and hospitality sector on how to take advantage of these technologies to improve business performance.’

    Sub-Saharan Africa needs to find innovative approaches to using these new technologies to its advantage, she adds. These must be developed to align with the region’s unique selling points, its vibrant cultural experiences through human interaction.

    ‘Whatever new technology we develop to provide services to tourists visiting our destinations, we should always find ways to incorporate our uniqueness, so visitors still get to experience the African spirit.’

    By Robyn Maclarty
    Images: Gallo/Getty Images