If tourism was sustainable, it would consider its current and future impacts on the economy, society and the environment as a whole and manages the needs of visitors, industry, environment and host communities (UNEP & UNWTO, 2005). However, numerous studies revealed that tourism in its conventional (present) forms do not much contribute to sustainable development – primarily due to the prevalent focus on growth in the tourism industry, but also because social and economic benefits are not equally distributed (Gurumurthy & Bharthur, 2020).
Information and Communication Technology (ICT) is considered of having enormous potential to make tourism more sustainable (IFITT, 2019; Schmücker et al., 2019). But despite many positive examples, approaches and concepts, the great upheaval has not yet occurred. Hence, a good dose of skepticism is advisable when the potentials of ICT are being praised. This article aims to provide a short input about the effects of ITC on the tourism industry. It is based on the findings of two recently published studies, namely ‘Digitalization and energy consumption’ by Lange et al. (2020) and ‘Techno-disruptions and travel’ by Gurumurthy & Bharthur (2020). According to the author’s opinion, the way ITCs are currently deployed by the majority of actors in the tourism industry entail greater risks than opportunities for a sustainable development in tourism. Based on the examples concerning ‘energy consumption’ and ‘digital booking platforms’ some of the negative effects on the ecological and socio-economic dimension of sustainability are presented.
ICT in tourism: the sunny part
ICTs have developed an information economy in which everything is digital (Shanker, 2008). Digitalisation nowadays seems to be an (unquestioned) imperative, necessary and entirely desirable direction in which society and its subsystems must orient themselves (Sühlmann & Rammler, 2018). ICT has become a “holistic integrated system of networked equipment and software, which enables effective data processing and communication” (Buhalis & Law, 2008). This development has challenged and changed the global tourism industry, with far-reaching impacts for the entire value chain. As information is a key element in tourism that permeates more or less all aspects of the highly fragmented industry, digital tools and online activities were adopted at a higher pace than in most other industries (Gurumurthy & Bharthur, 2020). Indisputably, modern ICT provides numerous opportunities for marketing, operation, and management of customers, supporting a sustainable transformation of the tourism industry in all dimensions – e.g., the management and provision of information necessary to map and monitor economic impacts, the detection of ecological sensitive areas, and the empowerment of local communities through community-based business models (Ali & Frew, 2013). Other examples of opportunities provided by ICTs are: containment of production and transactional costs, reduction of inefficiencies and uncertainties, novel ways of approaching marketing, energy monitoring, waste management and communication for destinations (Shanker, 2008). Also, there are remarkable dynamics in ICT, leading to a visible progress in resource-saving, a big rise in energy efficiency, and a growing digital network of people interested in the core issues of sustainability (Welfens et al., 2015).
ICT in tourism: the rainy part I
In their study on the relationship between digitalisation and energy consumption, Lange et al. (2020) revealed direct effects on the environment deriving from the production, usage and disposal of ITC as well as rising energy consumption as an effect of economic growth deriving from increases in labour and energy productivity. These impacts tend to prevail, despite energy efficiency also improved, thanks to ICTs. These findings are supported and explained by four insights elaborated in the field of ecological economics: A) Physical capital and energy are complements in the ICT sector; B) Increases in energy efficiency will cause rebound effects; C) ICT do not decouple economic growth from energy; D) ICT services are energy intensive and come on top of former production.
The authors conclude that the projected potentials of reducing energy consumption have not yet been justified and instead have resulted in additional energy consumption.
ICT in tourism: the rainy part II
In their study ‘Techno-disruptions and travel’, Gurumurthy & Bharthur (2020) analysed the effects of the rapidly ‘platformising’ tourism market, using the case of India as well as research from other Asian and African countries. The findings show that current trends in tourism do not contribute to the achievement of sustainability as defined in the Agenda 20303. In theory, the integration of local tourism actors in digital booking platforms could democratise and balance (global) economic power structures. However, in reality, platforms themselves act as kind of gatekeepers that determine the rules through non transparent algorithms and enforce price models making it impossible for small businesses to compete with. In India, big online players such as TripAdvisor, Airbnb, OYO rooms or MakeMyTrip have generated new forms of data-based optimisation and personalisation, but these changes have resulted in highly uneven outcomes for various actors. Many local tourism enterprises are being marginalised, and those who are not able to use the platforms to their advantage are excluded from global value chains. Furthermore, platforms have caused deep and disruptive shifts in the local economies as consolidation and oligopolistic alliances, destroying local collaboration and networks of trust. Furthermore, the connection between platform-led overtourism and its various negative impacts become more and more apparent. As a final consequence, the livelihood of many locals and their communities is threatened, while few (foreigners) benefit and collect the profits.
A priori, the role of ICT in the tourism industry is neither positive nor negative. It will depend on how aspects of sustainability are consciously considered. Currently, most tourism actors fail to do so, because the direct and indirect impacts of ICT are not sufficiently assessed. Although it is a biophysical truism that infinite growth is not possible in a finite biosphere, it is widely believed that the path of supposedly continuous growth can be possible, with the help of ICT and other digital technologies. Though, the opposite has happened so far, as sustainability requires the simultaneity of efficiency and (digital) sufficiency, which first requires a change in lifestyle. It is not enough to control or manage the negative impacts. Therefore, ICTs should rather be used to decouple economic growth and environmental consumption and eliminating barriers to sustainable practices.
A study on the impact of digitalisation by the UBA4 has identified (in quantitative terms) more opportunities than risks from digitisation and that the most high-impact opportunities are to change the behaviour of consumers (Schmücker et al., 2019). Hence, ITC can be used to foster a change in value systems towards more collaboration, participation, democracy and empathy. But, in order to find effective approaches, strategies and policies towards a more sustainable tourism, it is essential to have a profound and holistic understanding about the complexity of the systems (here: tourism and ITC) as well as other systems involved. Events, such as the EIFMeT, can strongly contribute to an interprofessional knowledge transfer, which is the basis for all further steps. However, more emphasis is needed on learning from “bad practice” and the influencing factors of (technological) developments from sectors and systems that are indirectly linked to tourism – and, above all, the impacts on the quality of life of the most important stakeholder group in tourism: the local people at the destinations.