Little is known about where the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) will take the tourism industry globally, or indeed what the full impact of 4IR will be.

Tourism was one of the first sectors to digitalise business processes on a global scale, according to research from the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO). The tourism industry brought flight and hotel bookings online, and the sector became a digital pioneer. As information and communications technology became a worldwide phenomenon, tourism was always a consistent early adopter of new technologies and platforms.

Today, the tourism industry leads the way in 4IR. Travellers are constantly connected, constantly searching for information, constantly sharing their experiences on social media and constantly demanding that their needs are instantly gratified.

Tourism stakeholders have successfully played into this trend by applying technology to enhance the traveller experience. Airports around the world are introducing biometric technology to identify travellers and make their trip as frictionless as possible. Artificial intelligence allows hotels and travel agents to offer more personalised and tailored experiences for their clients.

In this exciting world of technological innovation, it’s important not to lose sight of the person behind the technology. The World Economic Forum shows us that as the forces of 4IR accelerate, consumers are enjoying the benefits of rapid innovation, but they are also struggling to maintain a sense of connection.

Technological innovation should therefore never be a goal in itself, but should instead be used to enhance the human experience. This was one of the main topics of discussion at a panel discussion on the impact of the 4IR on tourism at the University of Johannesburg. The panel discussion took place at a prestigious event celebrating the 50-year anniversary of the School of Tourism and Hospitality.

“We are in the business of giving the customer service,” said Arthur Gillis, CEO Platinum Hospitality Holdings. “People are glued to their devices and are more stressed than ever before. They want to come to their hotel as a place of refuge. They don’t want to be confronted with more tech that is impossible to understand or load yet another app they don’t need.”

Velma Corcoran, Country Manager for Airbnb, agrees, saying that people will always remain at the core of the tourism experience. She explained that there is an underlying fear that robots will take over the world and the tourism industry. However, the opposite is true.

Said Corcoran: “Technology connects people. Airbnb is a people-powered platform underpinned by technology. We connect people who have a space to share or people who have a passion to share, to people across the world who are looking for unique tourism experiences.”

According to Corcoran, tech will increasingly be used as an enabler for more inclusive growth. “We have seen incredible growth across the continent, and we have realised that technology can offer real potential. You can use tech to take tourism to communities that haven’t previously benefitted from tourism. They now have access to a global audience of travellers who are looking for unique experiences.”

Jurni CEO, Dr Nomvuselelo Songelwa, explained that Jurni was launched recently to address the challenge of connecting the tourism products in more isolated areas with tourists worldwide. “People are running fantastic products in the rural outskirts of our country. We can help put those on the map through technology,” she explained.

Jurni recently developed an affordable SMME booking tool and a visitor app to level the playing field and allow everyone to be able to market their tourism products in the same way. Simultaneously, Jurni is working on the development of a data hub.

“We need reliable and current data in this 4IR age to be able to make informed decisions in the tourism industry,” said Dr. Songelwa. She warns, however, that this can’t be done in isolation. “The time of gathering statistics and developing our own analysis in isolation is long gone. We have to change our mindset, behave innovatively and respond to the needs of the customers as a community. Jurni will provide incomparable tourism analysis for our country with integrated data at a granular level. The 4IR canvas is set and Jurni is painting it for the tourism sector.”

The Fourth Industrial Revolution will without a doubt continue to revolutionise the tourism industry, the experts agreed, but not without human input. “Technology does not change society; people change society,” concluded Dr Songelwa.