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How tech could help tourist destinations struggling in the wake of COVID-19

Amid a global pandemic, some popular places might look to publicize virtual tours and invest in tech to help mitigate overtourism for when the crowds do return.

How tech could help tourist destinations struggling in the wake of COVID-19
A man wearing a protective mask walks in Piazza Navona, downtown Rome, Italy, on March 17, 2020. [Photo: Riccardo De Luca/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images]

For years, popular destinations have been heaving under the weight of overtourism, desperate to get the problem under control. But thanks to the coronavirus’s spread, destinations that were once struggling with too many visitors, such as Venice and Rome, are eerily empty of travelers.

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Venice has been one of the hardest-hit places as Italy faces one of the worst outbreaks of COVID-19, with The New York Times reporting that more than 50% of hotel reservations had been canceled by the end of February.

As a whole, the tourism industry is bracing for a financial plunge—an estimated $24 billion in the United States alone. It’s clear that the economic impact will be undeniably devastating.

“I am pretty sure this crisis will last a lot longer than people think, and that afterwards people will simply not want to travel again for a long time,” Venice-based jewelry maker Gloria Astolfo told The Guardian. “And my business, like all of Venice, relies wholly on tourism, so it is nothing less than a catastrophe.”

What will destinations—and stuck-at-home travelers—do in the meantime? For people who love traveling, you might just have to get used to taking a trip virtually. And for popular places, this could be a chance to invest in technology to help manage overtourism when the crowds do return.

Visiting via VR

Even as people try to curb the spread of the virus by canceling their travel plans and staying at home, many of us still have the travel bug. Luckily, many destinations have turned to virtual reality and 360-degree content to inspire and attract travelers over the last several years. For people stuck at home, that kind of content will be especially welcome right now.

“People are already seeking out all sorts of alternative ways of connecting with one another, with culture, with the natural world,” says Jeremy Smith, editor of the tourism industry news site Travindy. “Destinations and travel businesses should not be scared of this. They should embrace it, support and encourage people, which could be as simple as pointing them towards online resources like webcams at watering holes in national parks, free virtual museums, and Google Arts and Culture VR films.” Several Chinese attractions are already taking advantage of technology to offer virtual tours in the wake of the coronavirus.

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The benefits of virtual tours don’t end once the pandemic does finally ebb. South Carolina State Parks launched a five-minute VR version of the strenuous hike up Table Rock Mountain in January of this year so people with mobility or health restrictions can also enjoy the 3.6-mile trek. Offering VR experiences such as this one for typically popular destinations can also proactively slow environmental degradation and overcrowding once people start traveling again.

“VR offers the potential to create substitute experiences that may be extremely useful for heritage and natural preservation,” says Ralph Hollister, a travel and tourism associate analyst and the author of a report on VR and travel published by ResearchAndMarkets.com in October 2019.

One such example is Egypt’s Tomb of Nefertari, which has been compared to Italy’s Sistine Chapel. Over the years, the size of tour groups allowed in the tomb has shrunk considerably while the ticket price has greatly increased—both of which have been important for preserving and protecting the site. For those who can’t go to Egypt or who are on a tight budget, a VR experience is available.

“You don’t want to deprive people from knowing, seeing, and experiencing these fragile places,” says Milena Nikolova, a behavioral expert in the travel industry. “When people know, see, and learn about them, they’re much more engaged and more likely to support their protection.”

Investing in the future

There may be a small opportunity for places that were suffering from overtourism as they aim to mitigate the coronavirus’s impact. This could be the ideal time for some of those overcrowded destinations to rethink the ways in which they manage hordes of tourists when they do return.

While it might sound contradictory that a global pandemic would be an ideal time to invest in mitigating overtourism, there’s some precedent for this. When the popular Ha’ena State Park on Kauai’s North Shore was forced to close due to catastrophic flooding in April 2018, Hawaii state officials took the opportunity to integrate technology into its future visitation management plans.

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That was necessary because Ha’ena State Park “was a poster child for overtourism,” says Alan Carpenter, assistant administrator for the Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of State Parks. “Two-thousand-plus visitors a day were flowing into the area and illegally parking both within and outside of the park’s boundaries, causing traffic problems, safety hazards, fostering illegal commercial use, and straining the nerves of the adjacent rural community, who were pushed out of their own neighborhood. Natural and cultural resources were being negatively impacted, as well as the quality of visitor experience.”

While a drop in tourism will undoubtedly have a harsh economic impact for travel destinations globally, investing in the future could provide some stability for workers. Ha’ena’s disaster and subsequent reopening in 2019 provides a kind of road map for hard-hit places. The park now has features in place to manage overtourism, including a visitor limit (less than half the number of daily visitors before the flooding) supported by a web-based advanced reservation system and associated shuttle system. “Those nonresident visitors without advance reservations are denied entry and turned around,” Carpenter says.

In its efforts to plan for future overcrowding, the Hawaii Tourism Authority turned tech savvy. On behalf of the State Parks Division, the agency conducts surveys that collect user-enabled location data via smartphones and smartphone apps within the park’s geofenced boundary. Additional characteristic data entered by smartphone users in online profiles and quizzes provides more demographic detail about the people within the park.

Together, this data—which is aggregated, nontraceable to specific individuals, and not tracked in real time—is then plotted on a map so park authorities can learn about the frequented areas in the park, better serve park users based on their needs and habits, and understand how to deploy staff.

“Although we are continuing to adaptively manage the area, the combination of new improvements and management have been transformational,” Carpenter says. Local residents, in particular, are pleased.

Even in Venice, some are cautiously optimistic about the future—especially if it includes measures to plan for more sustainable, healthy tourism.

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“I am curious to see how the situation will improve after corona. It will take a while before trust in safe traveling returns,” Venice hotel owner Francesca Perkhofer told The Guardian. “Will everybody rush to recover lost turnover at all costs? Or will we all think and learn—how we can improve the quality of worldwide tourism and cut down excessive traveling?”

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