Data Capital: On a mission to save holidays

Crowded car parks, overflowing litter bins, mile-long queues to get into a café and huge traffic jams. The downside to a boom in tourists across Scotland has been well-documented – but there is a growing move to see this as an opportunity, both for the tourism sector and the environment.

Central to grasping that opportunity is data, according to Joshua Ryan-Saha, director of Traveltech for Scotland, and the tourism, festivals and infrastructure lead for The Edinburgh Futures Institute, part of the Data-Driven Innovation initiative at University of Edinburgh.

Ryan-Saha says data is already linked to any trip we make when going away for a break, whether that be through website cookies or a database created when we sign up to a newsletter. “When planning or booking a holiday you are leaving a data footprint, leading you to advertising or other offers,” he adds.

That can then influence where you might finally decide where to go – and what to visit while you are there.

It might sound obvious, taking people where they want to go and enjoying things they have chosen. But that can lead to problems of too many being directed to the same place at the same time. It can be caused by long-term trends – high numbers of visitors to Loch Lomond or Loch Morlich in the Cairngorms – or it can happen very quickly, such as Glen Etive near Glencoe, which was deluged with visitors after it was seen in James Bond film Skyfall.

Ryan-Saha says that “we all like to think we have distinct and unique travel preferences” – but when we want to go to lovely locations, it is inevitable that there are going to be surges in some areas because they are the most popular.

So what to do about the rising numbers of tourists? On Skye, sensors are used to show how busy some areas are. This can then alert Highland Council to the potential need to empty bins, close a car park or direct people to other sites through social media, signage or using council staff on the ground.

A similar thing is happening in East Lothian, where an app uses sensor data at beach car parks to gauge the “busyness”, and to allow visitors and locals alike to choose a quieter spot.

Image: Skyfall ©2012 Danjaq, LLC, United Artists Corporation, Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc.

As well as alleviating the potential for bottlenecks in tourist hotspots, data could also help visitors to explore further afield. When it comes to spreading the movement of large numbers of tourists,Ryan-Saha says it is important to get them “to think beyond where they are going, or planning to go”.

He highlights the changes Airbnb has made in the way customers search for places to stay on its platform, saying: “Data can create these intense honeypot destinations, but what Airbnb is doing is helping you explore more. You can search the characteristics, rather than just location, of a holiday and that allows you to find other places.”

Data is vital to understanding where visitors are, why they are there and where they are coming from, according to Ryan-Saha. That information can then be used in a variety of ways to help local businesses maximise the potential to strengthen their operation.

He says: “If we know a beach is often busy, they can look to reach the people there through apps such as Google Maps – if you are not listed on Google Maps, you should be. More simply, you could put up a sign near the car park.”

Image: Richard Johnson/Adobe Stock

Although real-time data gathered through sensors can help manage day-to-day surges, businesses such as cafés or gift shops can look at third-party data harvested legally and with consent from apps with the location activated. “This gives long-term trends to allow you to plan opening times and staff numbers, what you sell and where you do your marketing.”

Acquiring that knowledge would allow better long-term building of infrastructure by the private and public sectors. Ryan-Saha believes more could be done using data to inform where improvements to roads, car parks and public toilet provision is needed, and what accommodation could be built.

Data-informed regulation could also be used to see affordable housing built so businesses can take on staff who have somewhere to live.

He adds: “There is potential here but at the moment we don’t use data as much as we could.”

It’s about spreading people out

Iain McNeill, managing director of Whereverly, which develops app and web platforms designed to improve travel, believes the growing numbers of tourists in Scotland’s rural areas should be viewed as an opportunity.

Whereverly has already developed a North Coast 500 app, encouraging visits to less-frequented yet still wonderful spots on the route, as well as more popular places that can become crowded. Its work also includes the Scottish Island Passport and Highland Discovery apps, developed with local communities.

Next on the list is a major project with Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park, and Stirling and Perth and Kinross councils, as part of the Scottish Government’s CivTech digital accelerator programme. The aim is to reduce the amount of overcrowding seen in the National Park, pre- and post-pandemic.

Central to the work is a series of sensors – in car parks, on roads and at visitor centres – which anonymously record how busy a specific place is. In turn, this data will be available for an app which tourists can download, as well as for variable message boards on roadsides.

McNeill says that means visitors, on the day, or when planning a trip, can be encouraged to change destinations at busy times using data: “It’s spreading people about a little bit to make a huge difference.”

The app developer is also using Augmented Reality (AR) to help visitors to an area discover its past, revealing how an old township, barracks or ring cairn would have looked, for example.

They have also used the information for 3D maps. McNeill says: “We’re bringing different data sets into mapping. If you bring in nature, you get more of a feel of staying in the place and hopefully seeing something like a whale or a red squirrel. It is about playing to the strengths of areas that maybe the old rules of tourism were not working for.”

Direction for green travel

All this travel to and around Scotland has an environmental impact and, while no-one is suggesting tourists should stay at home, there is a growing move to make travel greener, which Josh Ryan-Saha says will only become a bigger issue.

He highlights Electrek Explorer, a member of Traveltech for Scotland – which is a cluster of travel technology businesses which has mapped out all EV charging points in Scotland and curates routes for visitors to follow between them, taking into account things like cold temperatures, which can reduce the battery life of electric vehicles.

He says: “It is giving an opportunity for more exploration to hidden gems like a great viewpoint, café or village.”

Fuse Mobility, another Scottish traveltech company, helps visitors to Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park choose the greenest route for them by giving people a breakdown of the carbon cost of their trip.

In the future, Ryan-Saha sees the development of electric planes making Scottish island hopping far more sustainable, and further forward allowing travellers from Europe to arrive in a carbon neutral way.

On the ground, in a decade or so, autonomous vehicles have great potential for transforming tourism in Scotland.

Ryan-Saha sees a day when algorithms can be built into them to allow the car to take visitors “with a glass roof and 360-degree views” through quieter, scenic countryside.

He does warn that we need to “rethink tourism in Scotland because of climate change”, and that could be because of higher temperatures ruling out other parts of the world for holidaymakers or regulation making flying highly expensive.

But, he adds: “There could be a way to allow people to discover more in Scotland using only green options.”

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