Feature Story

Europe's Cities Get Smarter on Tourism

by Joanne Taaffe

Smart city infrastructure is helping Europe's cities better understand and serve tourists.

The "Mona Lisa" is estimated to attract 15,000 visitors on average per day. Such high traffic rates offer art-lovers little hope of solitary contemplation of the Louvre's most famous painting. The story is similar across Europe's principal museums, whether it is the Prado in Madrid, where crowds throng to view "Las Meninas" by Velasquez, or the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam where "The Night Watchmen" by Rembrandt is the must-see.

Yet smart-city trafic management applications could help visitors better plan their visit around an art gallery by allowing them to see in real-time on a mobile app where the crowds are densest, says Jan Kadijk, who was the smart cities program manager at Platform31, the Netherlands institute for urban and regional issues until july 2014, and now works on smart city solutions for SmartSensors.me.

And indeed Amsterdam is working on just such an application for its museums as part of its smart city program, according to a city spokesperson.

The city is also collaborating with the Amsterdam Arena, which is a privately-run stadium that hosts concerts and sporting events, on ways to use smartphones to manage crowd circulation. The city and the arena are also looking at apps that would improve how spectators experience events.

The use of GPS information could also help determine which sites in a city are visited primarily either by locals or tourists, “The creative analysis of which can bring new information to tourism planners,” which could help spread tourism to new parts of the city, points out Kadijk.

For although the primary goal of wide-scale smart city projects is to better manage resources and improve the day-to-day lives of citizens, well-managed, culturally rich cities with good infrastructure also attract visitors. Smart cities could prove better placed to develop tourism, which continues to be a source of growth in particular for Europe's cities.

In the last five years, for example, the average yearly international bednight growth rate for European cities was 6.2% – or almost 2% above the average total yearly bednight growth rate for the 28 EU countries taken as a whole, according to the European Cities Marketing Benchmarking Report published in July 2014.

Europe is also set to play a key role in developing smart cities, as its most densely populated urban areas increasingly use technology to more efficiently manage the use of energy, water and transport systems and improve access to cultural, social and educational facilities. Some European cities are even turning their smart infrastructure research into tourist attractions.

In March this year, for example, President Obama became the highest profile tourist to visit Amsterdam's 3D Print Canal House Project. The smart city project aims to build a full-scale model of one of the city's canal houses out of 3D printed parts with dimensions of up to 2 meters x 2 meters x 3.5 meters. Visitors pay to visit the construction site, thereby funding the three-year endeavor.

Tourism applications are also becoming an element of regional smart city projects. The Smart Tourism Lead pilot, for example, which is part-funded by the European Commission, aims to make it easier for developers to build tourism apps based on public data. Initially started in Lisbon and extended in the summer of 2013 to Amsterdam, Rome, Helsinki and Larnia, the pilot sets out to encourage the development of location-based mobile services for tourists, using open data from public and private bodies. The idea is that cities can provide open data to third parties more cheaply than they can build tourism apps.

However, since Europe's cities tend to make public data available in different formats, it can be difficult for developers to use it to create applications that work in different cities. The project sets out to offer developers a CitySDK Tourism API, which ensures their applications will be portable to all cities that provide a CitySDK Tourism interface to their data.

In the meantime developers are already using GPS data to create applications that offer Europe's tourists a different take on a popular destination.

BikeCityGuide is an app developed by two former bike couriers, which shows routes around more than thirty European cities that are bike friendly or which cover sites of interest.

And the founders of Nostalgeo are calling on inhabitants of Europe's cities to send in old postcards or photos depicting local streets. Nostalgeo will make the pictures available via a mobile application so that tourists can see how the street they are walking down looked in the past.

In the meantime, smart city projects that aim to create greener energy consumption or improve the use of public transport can be used by tourists. Commuter trains in the Amsterdam area, for example, are being equipped with a system to display which carriages on an incoming train that have empty seats, says Kadijk.

And the city of Amsterdam has also installed 200 power stations in its harbor so that boats can rely on renewable energy sources for their power supply rather than on-board diesel generators. The captain of a boat who wants to use a green energy source when visiting Amsterdam can activate a connection with the power point via a mobile app, and then enter a personal code; the amount of money owed will be transferred automatically from the vessel's account. However, although such a scheme can be used by tourists, they need an account with the harbor authorities.

Indeed as smart cities take root then authorities will have to do more to make their initiatives readily available to tourists, believes Kadijk, starting by making sure they there are English language versions of their applications.

“Not many initiatives are specific to tourists... and it is not always as transparent for tourists as it could be,” says Kadijk.

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