Artificial intelligence and tourism: opportunities and risks

Until very recently the suggestion that artificial intelligence (AI) could be applied to tourism was likely to be seen by most in the industry as something close to science fiction. However, the extraordinary technological advances that have taken place over the last decade mean that very soon it will become a pervasive commercial tool with benefits and dangers that tourism professionals will need to understand.

Speaking about this recently, Jamaica’s Minister of Tourism, Edmund Bartlett, said that digital technology would change the way in which the region addresses tourism. It would enable, he said, the industry to better understand visitors’ needs and the industry’s requirements, while enhancing its competitiveness and providing a seamless visitor experience. It was, he said, his intention that Jamaica should become a leading player in adapting to and creating digital solutions of the kind that have begun to transform the industry globally.

The application of AI to Caribbean tourism is likely to be far-reaching and to present challenges to the often conservative, bottom-line-oriented industry in the Caribbean.

At its most obvious AI offers multiple commercial benefits.

Firstly, it makes possible the accumulation of big data and the integration of databases and analytics with globally used platforms such as Google, allowing hotel, airlines and other providers to create a sales and booking experience that anticipates a client’s interests and offers bespoke travel solutions.  It is a function that is likely to accelerate as AI evolves and adopts conversational voice formats that result in visitors or agents being able to ‘discuss’ on line, preferences and options.

Secondly, AI will enable real time interventions, for example rebooking if a flight is delayed and could allow a hotel, restaurant or tourist board to advise in-market via a client’s cell phone options based on their location and preferences.

Thirdly, by harnessing data from valuable market segments such as millennials, AI can then, through social media, offer in a targeted and subtle way options for personalised travel and experiences that relate to an individual’s lifestyle.

All of which suggests that the industry in the region will likely benefit directly in the short-term though data accumulation and the purchase of related domestic and external AI services.

However, beyond this there are many newer forms of AI that tour operators, airlines, cruise lines, financial services companies, hotel chains, and internet platforms are all now racing to control and integrate. This rapidly accelerating process suggests that in the longer term the ultimate commercial benefits will principally go the largest and wealthiest international players able to develop and own integrated AI platforms.

For this reason, it may be far more important for the Caribbean to develop a long-term focus on those aspects of AI that are inward facing: that is those that support in-destination efficiencies, inter-sectoral linkages, training, education, and a better understanding of the impact of taxation, so that the domestic industry, governments and citizens can truly benefit from AI.

Local AI use could for example see linkages enabling farmers and fisherfolk to understand demand on a daily basis; personal tailored daily offerings being made to travellers on their cell phones; data led understanding by legislators of the ‘sharing economy’ and cruise visitor spend; and a nationally utilisable mobile money system for visitors.

Some of these ideas are already being explored, but a much better understanding of the wider implications for the Caribbean is required.

For example, forms of AI used for personal profiling are already contentious globally. In a people-oriented industry like tourism, its unmediated and unregulated use raises issues that range from privacy to the legality of data ownership and possession. Externally deployed big data also requires answers as to how information can be controlled and directed nationally to deliver Caribbean development and the retention of revenue.

All of which is to say nothing about the need, if full advantage is to be taken of the possibilities of AI, for country wide 4G cellular networks or better, reliable high-speed broadband, and recognition of the region’s woefully poor cybersecurity preparedness.

There is no doubt AI can bring new benefits for Caribbean tourism, but prudence suggests there is also the need for careful analysis of its longer-term risks. It is a role that Jamaica’s newly established Global Centre for Tourism Resilience and Crisis Management should involve itself in.

 

David Jessop is a consultant to the Caribbean Council and can be contacted at

david.jessop@caribbean-council.org

Previous columns can be found at www.caribbean-council.org

17th October, 2018

The views and opinions expressed in the Business of Tourism are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The Caribbean Council.

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