Digital tourism and marginal providers after the crisis

Bouncing back” in tourism should not be about connecting local providers to platforms but ensuring that available online tools provide inclusive outcomes

As tourism has become global it has become an important part of the economy in a number of countries of the global south. It brings foreign currency into the economy and provides a surprising number of jobs to those who provide services. For all the ethical and environmental issues it poses, in countries such as Thailand, Indonesia, Tanzania and Rwanda, the loss of tourists during the pandemic led to crises. Vast swathes of workers and firms have had to move into other sectors with broader implications for economies.

A major imperative following the crisis has been to ensure that tourism can bounce back. Institutions such as the OECD and the UN, as well as development donors and governments have pushed recovery plans with significant “digital tourism” components. Embracing digital tourism is seen as a quick win. Tourists have grown more used to online platforms – whether that be booking hotels, arranging transportation, sharing tourism experiences or posting reviews. The vision of recovery plans is that if local providers can embrace platforms, not only will they become more efficient, but drive forward tourism demand.

Drawing on recent research examining platform practices of small/marginal tourism service providers in Indonesia and Rwanda [1], we argue these visions for digital tourism may have limits. This research highlights three major considerations: the contexts of the adoption of platforms by tourism firms, the inflexibility of tourism platforms, and how tourism development may better be guided by grassroots online practices.

Platform use by small service providers

With several decades of investment in internet connectivity, the costs and barriers to internet use have been reducing, leading to growing use. This is especially the case for businesses in tourism, where digital tourism is becoming the norm. In both Indonesia and Rwanda, major global platforms such as TripAdvisor, Uber, Booking.com, Airbnb, Google maps and Traveloka are now well-established.

With the growing ubiquity, we might say that platforms are moving from something that forward-thinking firms opt into, to being non-negotiable for all firms. It is now almost like an infrastructure that firms need to be part of. This is true even amongst more marginal service providers such as tour guides, tiny hotels and those providing cultural activities who would use mobile devices to be part of such platforms.

Whether they want to go online or not, they are aware they are being mapped, rated and discussed online.

The complexity of tourism platforms

At first glance platforms seem to offer significant potential. They are easy to sign up for tourism providers and provide a way to quickly reach and interact with tourists across the globe. They often offer services such as online payments and booking systems that can make operations more efficient.

However, for small tourism providers platforms remain a challenge. While it is easy to join, successfully harnessing these platforms requires a broad range of technical skills. Successful firms need to be adept at website design, digital media skills and social media use to be able to stand out.

Challenges are not just about the capabilities of service providers, platforms are often highly complex and inflexible. For example, in Rwanda, small hotels were spending time and resources trying to move up search rankings on platforms. In Indonesia, some providers of tourism services were trying to negotiate algorithmic pricing systems.

With local support from platforms often non-existent and limited flexibility, small providers in these countries often suffered in competition with larger and foreign providers who were better places to make gains from being online.

Agency of tourism service providers

Even with these significant challenges, small service providers were able to combine digital tools for benefits – using shared calendar software, mobile apps, cloud sharing, online translation and social media to collaborate with customers and better fit with their daily needs.

Moreover, in Indonesia some tourism enterprises have come together to collaborate in more social- or environmentally-orientated online spaces.  In some other countries, we have also seen the success of commercial platforms more attuned to small enterprise needs and activities (e.g. South African platform Nightbridge)

These types of activity are very different to the policy prescriptions of joining the platform “juggernauts” for pandemic recovery. They suggest alternative ways forwards for small tourism providers – by amplifying the bottom-up activities already occurring outside mainstream platforms, and by being aware that service providers are negotiating multiple platforms and online software.

Summary: Bouncing back and “digitalisation”

These experiences of tourism and the goals of pandemic recovery are mirrored in other sectors in the global south. Governments and donors are not sitting back but seeking to play an active part in recovery through support. And, like tourism, one of the areas that are repeatedly mentioned is “digitalisation” – supporting so-called “inefficient” small firms to connect and use digital platforms for economic gain. 

But as this research shows, the reality is that platforms pose challenges. Connecting online is often no longer the major barrier. Rather platforms fit poorly with the skills of small firms and their growing complexity favour better-financed firms. They rarely adapt to the challenges faced in global south contexts.

Blindly shepherding firms towards adopting large platforms may negatively affect small providers. Interventions should rather support more creative uses of technology and leverage the unique relationships and applications that could afford more inclusive outcomes.

[1] This article is based on the recently published paper:

Foster, C., & Bentley, C. (2022). Examining Ecosystems and Infrastructure Perspectives of Platforms: The Case of Small Tourism Service Providers in Indonesia and Rwanda. Communications of the Association for Information Systems, 50

An open-access version is available to download.

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