Understanding smart tourism and smart tourism ecosystems

As a fashionable and novel tourism agenda, the theory of smart tourism is still evolving but the literature brings out three perspectives. First, tourists . The primary starting point of smart tourism is to fully satisfy the tourists’ need for scenic spots and create more value for them. In this sense, smart tourism is seen as a new pattern of tourism operation, which regards the tourist as the basic service object [1][2][3]. Second, managers (e.g., in government and tourism enterprises). Smart tourism is about achieving a comprehensive and thorough system which aims to offer accurate, convenient and ubiquitous tourism information applications, as well as a range of travel services [4]. In this case, the managers refer to the local scenic area managers and staff, government officials, and the company offering the technology  [5]. Third, technology. Although the main point of the smart tourism system is the service, the capabilities and foundation of smart tourism is technology[6]. This refers to the highly systematic, detailed interaction between physical tourism and information resources [7], including digital data exchange[8].

Accompanied by the development of information and communication technologies (ICTs), the evolution of tourism goes through three stages: traditional tourism, e-tourism and smart tourism. Traditional tourism refers to people moving to countries outside their usual environment[9]. With evolution of technology, e-tourism emerged to address users’ interactivity and web-based technology was used to enhance the tourism experience and information governance, which is considered an early step of smart tourism[10].Subsequently, e-tourism evolved into smart tourism, building on technology infrastructure and ICTs (e,g. cloud service, big data). Importantly, smart tourism emphasises explicitly the support of variously smart activities and value-addition through the dynamic interaction between different actors[11]. The difference between e-tourism and smart tourism is detailed in the table below.

  e-Tourism Smart Tourism
Sphere digital bridging digital & physical
Core technology websites sensors & smartphones
Travel phase pre-& post-travel during trip
Lifeblood information big data
Paradigm interactivity technology-mediated co-creation
Structure value chain / intermediaries ecosystem
Exchange B2B, B2C, C2C public-private-consumer collaboration
Table 1 Comparison of e-tourism and smart tourism [12]

Smart tourism systems

Based on the development of ICTs, the smart tourism system (STS) is regarded as a complex system based on a digital service platform to support smart tourism, which addresses the innovation service provided to different stakeholders[7] [9]. Specifically, it emphasizes the actors’ intelligent demands of value-added through information service creation, delivery and exchange[13]. Thereby, the STS is characterized by value co-creation through the integration of sources into both micro and macro levels[3][8]. The table below presents the established system in China based on literature and reality [14][15].

STS Sub-system STS Functionalities STS Instances
Forecasting system Passenger flowWeather forecastQueuing-time forecast Wind speed sensorHumiture sensorImage recognition
Panoramic virtual reality system Virtual tourism experienceVirtual community Panoramic photographyVR 
Intelligent management system Smart vehicle and transportReal-time traffic Crowd handling RFID·        Video surveillanceTourist-flow monitoring 
Smart guide system Scenic spot interpreterPersonalized tours route E/Robot tour map Mobile app Electronic map Voice navigation
Smart recommend system Scenic spot recommendation Recommended route QR codeMobile app
Table 2 Smart tourism systems in China

Figure 1 demonstrates the conceptual model of a non-profit smart tourism system, which is summarized from the current literature[15].The objective is that the STS provides service to government, enterprise, tourists, and residents [16]. Importantly, these applications are not isolated and individual but also service the interaction requirements. For example, from the perspective of tourism, the STS faces the tourist (T), the connection between tourists (T2T), and the interaction needs between the tourist and government (T2G).

Figure 1 A conceptual model of structuring STS adapted from [15]

Smart tourism ecosystem (STE)

When linking the ecosystem with the smart tourism system, an STE can be established, which contains the characteristic of both the smart tourism system and wider ecosystem components. An STE consists of two layers.  The information ecology layer emphasizes the interaction between humans, firms, technology and their environment[9].This indicates the importance of the different actors related to information behaviour and information systems. The service system layer emphasizes the interactions through institutions and technologies to provide services to the beneficiaries, to exchange resources, and to co-create value [12].

Gretzel and Werthner defined the STE as “a tourism system that uses smart technology to create, manage, and provide smart tourism services/ experiences”[17].It is characterized by intensive information sharing and value co-creation. Buhalis and Amaranggana indicated that an STE aims to provide sustainable, enhanced/rich, valuable travel service and experience [6].To reach this, digital ecosystems that provide technical resources and facilitate interactions within and between stakeholders form the core of STE[17]. In other words, the generation of tourism experiences always requires extensive coordination and cooperation between different industry stakeholders and government players [18].

As shown in Figure 2, Gretzel & Werthner proposed a schematic representation of an STE [17].Their study describes an STE as an interactive space supported by a digital ecosystem and containing various types of actors, which are distinguished as tourism consumers (TC), residential consumers (RC), tourism suppliers (TS), other industry suppliers (OS), government agencies, destination marketing organizations (DMO) and intermediaries. These actors are not necessarily discrete, as a single player can play multiple roles. Moreover, this model is also adopted by other researchers like Brandt et al, who proposed an social media analytics (SMA)-enabled STE model, which also indicated the RC, TC, TS and government as vital actors [19]. The tourism consumers (TCs) have resources and, because they have access to the digital ecosystem, can be organized among themselves or mixed with closely related residential consumers (RCs) and act as producers. Through smart technology, tourism providers (TS) or other business-focused groups can connect and create new service offerings. In an ecosystem, the main source of ‘food’ for a ‘species’ is data/information, and the effective conversion of this food into rich tourism experiences can lead to a longer life for the ‘species’. Telecom companies and banking/payment support service providers representing other industry providers (OS) are vital ‘predators’ in the ecosystem and provide essential information to the system. Destination marketing organizations (DMOs) perform traditional information brokering, marketing, and quality control functions, while various intermediaries facilitate transactions through innovative data and devices [9]. Government utilization of social media in the STE could enhance the development and the value co-creation of local tourism [12].

Figure 2 Smart tourism ecosystem [17]

To conclude, STE studies regard the STE as a complex information and service ecosystem, which involves multiple actors like government, tourists, platform providers, residents etc. The main characteristics of STE are 1) the dynamic interactions between multiple actors; 2) the value co-creation during the actors’ interactions; 2) sustainable development; 4) the creation and exchange of tourism resources; 5) the innovation service. Thus, STEs could facilitate the interaction between actors, the exchange and creation of tourism resources, and value creation. This could further improve the tourism experiences and enhance the sustainable development of smart tourism. 


[1] Yao, G. (2012). Analysis of smart tourism construction framework. Nanjing University of Posts and Telecommunications (The Social Sciences Edition), 14(2), 5e9.

[2] Fu, Y., & Zheng, X. (2013). China smart tourism development status and counter- measures. Development Research, 4, 62e65.

[8] Hunter, W. C., Chung, N., Gretzel, U., & Koo, C. (2015). Constructivist research in smart tourism. Asia Pacific Journal of Information Systems, 25(1), 105–120.

[3] Shafiee, S., Ghatari, A. R., Hasanzadeh, A., & Jahanyan, S. (2019). Developing a model for sustainable smart tourism destinations: A systematic review. Tourism Management Perspectives, 31, 287-300.

[4] Jin, W. (2012). Smart tourism and the construction of tourism public service system. Tourism Tribune, 27(2), 5e6.

[5] Huang, C., Goo, J., Nam, K., & Yoo, C. (2016). Smart tourism technologies in travel planning: The role of exploration and exploitation. Information & Management, 54(6), 757-770. doi: 10.1016/j.im.2016.11.010

[6] Buhalis, D., & Amaranggana, A. (2013). Smart tourism destinations. In Z. Xiang, & L. Tussyadiah (Eds.), Information and communication technologies in tourism 2014 (pp. 553e564). Cham, New York: Springer.

[7] Law, R., Buhalis, D., & Cobanoglu, C. (2014). Progress on information and communication technologies in hospitality and tourism. International Journal of Contemporary Hospitality Management, 26(5), 727–750.

[9] Gretzel, U., Sigala, M., Xiang, Z., & Koo, C. (2015). Smart tourism: foundations and developments. Electronic Markets, 25(3), 179-188.

[10] Werthner, H., & Ricci, F. (2004). E-commerce and tourism. Communications of the ACM, 47(12), 101-105.

[11] Lamsfus, C., Martín, D., Alzua-Sorzabal, A., & Torres-Manzanera, E. (2015). Smart tourism destinations: An extended conception of smart cities focusing on human mobility. In information and communication technologies in tourism 2015 (pp. 363-375). Springer, Cham.

[12]Park, J. H., Lee, C., Yoo, C., & Nam, Y. (2016). An analysis of the utilization of Facebook by local Korean governments for tourism development and the network of smart tourism ecosystem. International Journal of Information Management, 36(6), 1320-1327.

[13] Buhalis, D., Harwood, T., Bogicevic, V., Viglia, G., Beldona, S., & Hofacker, C. (2019). Technological disruptions in services: lessons from tourism and hospitality. Journal of Service Management. 

[14] Zhu, W., Zhang, L., & Li, N. (2014). Challenges, function changing of government and enterprises in Chinese smart tourism. Information and Communication Technologies in Tourism, 10.

[15] Wang, X., Li, X. R., Zhen, F., & Zhang, J. (2016). How smart is your tourist attraction?: Measuring tourist preferences of smart tourism attractions via a FCEM-AHP and IPA approach. Tourism Management, 54, 309-320. 

[16] Zhang, L., Li, N., & Liu, M. (2012). On the basic concept of smarter tourism and its theoretical system. Tourism Tribune, 27(5), 66–73.

[17]Gretzel, U., Werthner, H., Koo, C., & Lamsfus, C. (2015). Conceptual foundations for understanding smart tourism smart tourism ecosystems. Computers in Human Behavior, 50, 558-563.

[18]Mill, R. C., & Morrison, A. M. (2002). The tourism system. Kendall Hunt

[19]Brandt, T., Bendler, J., & Neumann, D. (2017). Social media analytics and value creation in urban smart tourism  ecosystems. Information & Management, 54(6), 703-713


Return of the “Third World”?

Are we seeing a return to the old notion of a “third world”?

Originating in the 1950s, the term “third world” was used to refer to those nations not aligned to either the bloc of Western democracies or the Eastern bloc of communist states.  Over time, and particularly since the end of the Warsaw Pact and dissolution of the Soviet Union, the term has fallen from use.

Recent events, though, may point to a revival in two senses.  First, politically.  Compare the two maps below: of first, second and third worlds in the 1970s[1]; and of reaction to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022[2].  Yes, there are plenty of differences but the neutral countries are almost all third world; and very few third world countries have taken a strongly-supporting or strongly-condemnatory stance.

Second, economically.  Resource procurement and global supply chains are being rethought.  Western democracies are seeking to delink from Russian energy[3], and Russia is turning East to find new sales outlets[4].  Russia and China are collaborating more closely on financial and other systems[5].  Western firms are considering moving supply chains closer to home, into domains that are both more secure and less abusive of human rights[6].  China’s “dual circulation” strategy presages less economic interaction with the West[7].  Overall, “democracies are banding together, as are autocracies”[8].

If there is some greater economic and political coalescence into a Western democratic bloc and an Eastern autocratic bloc, what are the implications for the “third world” of those countries outside those blocs?

Some will benefit as the blocs seek economic collaboration and political alliance.  Mexico, Vietnam, Indonesia and others are already benefitting, for example, from US firms’ search for non-Chinese production bases[9].  China’s Belt & Road Initiative and Western responses such as the US Build Back Better World initiative are competitively channelling infrastructure funding to lower-income countries[10].

Some states may be adept enough to play off the two blocs, squeezing concessions and enabling greater attention to local development goals and interests[11].  But many will come under pressure to pick a side, as seems particularly to be happening with Western pressure on states to turn away from Russia and China[12].  Third world history suggests, if they do this, then such states may then face attempts at destabilisation from the other bloc.

The world is different, more complex and more connected than it was during the era in which “Third World” arose as a concept.  The realities of first and second world bloc formation will likely be less than they might be.  Just as in the 1970s, and as the 2022 diagram above illustrates, many countries outside those blocs may be more aligned with one than the other.  But, nonetheless, echoes of the Third World are sufficiently strong to be taken seriously.

[1] https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:World_map_worlds_first_second_third.gif https://rgs-ibg.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/tran.12480

[2] https://www.economist.com/graphic-detail/2022/04/04/who-are-russias-supporters

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/apr/04/pressure-mounts-germany-embargo-russian-energy-imports

[4] https://www.energypolicy.columbia.edu/research/qa/qa-china-russia-energy-relations-will-new-oil-and-natural-gas-deals-help-russia-weather-economic

[5] https://www.economist.com/leaders/2022/03/12/will-china-offer-russia-financial-help

[6] https://www.economist.com/business/2022/04/02/is-cancel-culture-coming-to-free-trade; https://economistchina.com/wp-content/uploads/North-American-supply-chains-Will-reshoring-actually-happen.pdf

[7] https://www.economist.com/china/2021/03/11/a-confident-china-seeks-to-insulate-itself-from-the-world

[8] https://www.economist.com/finance-and-economics/2022/03/19/globalisation-and-autocracy-are-locked-together-for-how-much-longer

[9] https://www.economist.com/finance-and-economics/2022/01/01/new-research-counts-the-costs-of-the-sino-american-trade-war; https://economistchina.com/wp-content/uploads/North-American-supply-chains-Will-reshoring-actually-happen.pdf

[10] https://www.firstpost.com/world/explained-as-g7-plans-build-back-better-world-heres-how-much-china-has-spent-on-belt-and-road-initiative-9732641.html

[11] https://rgs-ibg.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/tran.12480

[12] https://www.economist.com/leaders/2021/07/17/bidens-new-china-doctrine; https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/pressure-building-on-india-to-condemn-russian-invasion-of-ukraine/; https://www.business-standard.com/article/international/pakistan-under-western-pressure-to-condemn-russia-s-invasion-in-ukraine-122030700563_1.html

ICT infrastructures, e-commerce and rural China’s Taobao villages

The development of information and communications technology (ICT) infrastructures such as internet, smartphones and online social networks has contributed to the rapid growth of e-commerce, which has gradually changed people’s lifestyles and begun to play an essential role in socioeconomic development. Though ICT infrastructures and e-commerce emerged first in urban areas, they are increasingly becoming a profound influencing factor for the development of rural society in addressing their conventional deprivations such as geographical isolation and information asymmetry. With appropriate human capital conditions, ICT infrastructures and e-commerce are facilitating new forms of economic activity and providing alternative development approaches in some rural communities. From this narrative, rural development has entered into a digital era, and the rural communities in the Global South, which used to be deprived and marginalised in terms of geographical locations and institutional settings, are more rapidly influenced by the emerging forces of ICT infrastructures and e-commerce.

While rural communities indeed sit in a vulnerable position in terms of upscaling services and digitalisation, paradoxically, the problem of physical remoteness and inadequate service provision could to a large extent be solved by promoting digital connectivity as a substitute for many of those services. However, a deadlocked situation is that remote rural areas especially lack the required digital connectivity, which has increased the risk of these areas falling even further behind in terms of service accessibility amid the digital transformation. In particular, the population sparsity of those remote rural communities leads to a higher unit cost for ICT services and infrastructures delivery. For this, government support and investment towards narrowing the “digital divide” between rural and urban areas (or informationally disadvantaged and advanced areas) are essential.

China is therefore a typical case in navigating the roles that ICT infrastructures and e-commerce play in reshaping rural society, where state investments into linking rural communities to digital services are significant. Since 2006, the Chinese central government has implemented a series of national initiatives for “village informatisation” and “rural digital development”, aiming to “informatise” and “digitalise” the rural communities in China. The major actions underpinned in these programs include the two aspects of “access” and “application”, namely, 1) to improve rural society’s access to internet and communication infrastructures (including telephone, television, and the internet), and 2) to provide various applications of internet and communication infrastructures (such as government websites, information services stations, agriculture-related websites and e-commerce portals). With the efforts devoted by the central and local government, the gap of internet coverage between urban and rural areas in China has been narrowed effectively. By June 2021, internet coverage in rural China reached 59.2% (the figure is 78.3% for urban China) and broadband speed has achieved urban-rural equality (CNNIC, 2021).

In line with linking ICT services to both urban and rural sectors, China has also made remarkable progress in e-commerce development. By June 2021, the number of internet users in China reached 1011 million, and the number of online e-commerce users reached 812 million, indicating that 80.3% of the country’s internet users have been engaging in e-commerce activities (CNNIC, 2021). Mobile Taobao, established by Alibaba Group, has become the world’s largest online e-commerce platform where customers can buy products, interact with e-traders, and share their content with friends and other users.

Amid the wave of ICT development, digital transformation and e-commerce growth, a new form of regional development based on online platforms has recently emerged in rural China, and some of the rural villages developing e-commerce activities by Taobao platforms are defined as a Taobao village if certain criteria are met: 1) the basic unit of trading venue is an administrative village; 2) the scale of annual e-commerce sales is above 10 million RMB (c.US$1.5m); 3) the number of active online stores is over 100 or the number of active online stores is more than 10% of the total number of local households. The first three Taobao villages emerged in Zhejiang, Jiangsu and Hebei provinces respectively in the year 2009, and by September 2020 there were in total 5,425 Taobao villages (appropriately 1% of the total number of villages in China) distributed in 28 provinces in China (see Figure 1 below, showing most to be located in the East and especially coastal regions of the country) (AliResearch, 2020). The booming of Taobao villages and townships has contributed to socioeconomic development in rural China, evidenced by the fact that for the single year of 2020, the development of Taobao villages and townships is assessed to have created more than 8.28 million job opportunities and achieved more than 1,000 billion RMB (c.US$150bn) sales, which is 50% of the overall online retail sales in rural China (AliResearch, 2020).

Figure 1: Spatial distribution of Taobao villages in China (aggregated in East region) (AliResearch, 2020)

The Taobao villages and rural China’s digital development in a broader sense have been at the forefront of the digital revolution that is taking place around the world today. E-commerce-engaged development patterns in rural China more generally, illustrate how the internet promotes inclusion, efficiency, and innovation for development (World Bank, 2016). Compared with the prosperous development of rural China’s e-commerce development, though existing research has made some initial attempts to unravel the development phenomenon of Taobao villages, more interdisciplinary research efforts are called for in order to explore how ICT infrastructures and e-commerce are embedded into the rural territories, and what insightful implications can be drawn from rural China’s e-commerce activities to help catalyse breakthrough development of rural areas in the wider context of the Global South.

Note: This blog is based upon the PhD research of Yitian Ren at The University of Manchester.