There is an interesting paradox at the heart of the boom in digital tourism. As the world becomes increasingly digital, what tourists are seeking becomes increasingly analog.
“I don’t think anything is going to stop people wanting to have sand between their toes, paddling in the sea, no matter how good virtual reality is,” says Marco Ryan, until recently, Chief Digital Officer for Thomas Cook, one of the world’s oldest travel companies.
It is this drive to provide something out of the ordinary that is fueling the growth of the travel start-up sector. One such new company is Tel Aviv-based Trekking In, a start-up for trekkers, backpackers and mountain bikers.
Ron Rozen, CEO and co-founder, says what today’s tourists are after are real experiences, not the package holiday.
“Look at the explosion of Airbnb,” he says. “It’s not just about money, it is about living like a local, it’s about having an authentic experience. They want to find the local coffee shops, they want the local experience.”
Nor has the explosion in digital tourism escaped the attention of the big players. El Al, Israel’s national carrier, recently opened its first accelerator program, Cockpit, in Tel Aviv.
One of its first start-ups is shopnfly, which allows travelers to browse and pre-purchase items that can be picked up at a duty-free shop, delivered in-flight or to a destination hotel. The company recently won the Tel Aviv Mayor’s Digital Travel Award aimed at encouraging innovation in the digital travel space and providing exposure for digital travel start-ups In Tel Aviv.
But while a lot of the travel start-ups are focusing on millennials who want something apart from the traditional holiday, they make up only a fraction of the total tourist market.
Former Thomas Cook CDO Ryan was skeptical about a lot of the innovation that he saw. Too much, he says, is gimmicky. “Technology in tourism is going to become more and more pervasive. I think the danger is that it becomes invasive.
At the moment, says Ryan, the best use of technology has been limited to things like letting people order services in their hotel. “If I am by the pool I can check on my kids, I can book the restaurant, I can look at the menu, I can plan the next day’s excursion. I can do all this on my iPad. There’s nothing more irritating for holidaymakers [than] having to leave the pool at three to go and see the rep to book an excursion for tomorrow.”
However, Ryan was optimistic for the future, singling out augmented reality apps, particularly in the pre-booking stage. “You can get a real sense of what your hotel room is going to look like” he says. “That brings a sense of ‘oh this is great, we’re going to do this’ and that brings the excitement forward.”
And excitement is what holidays are all about.