Smart Destinations 2017: Tourism in the Technology Age

United Nations World Tourism Organization Smart Destinations Conference 2017

by Elizabeth Lee
February 28, 2017

Tourism can be a double-edged sword for cultural heritage sites. It is absolutely the lifeblood of many places, bringing much needed funds and awareness, but it can also expose sites to unintended risks and threats. I recently took part in the United Nations World Tourism Organization’s (UNWTO) Conference on Smart Destinations which kicks of 2017 as the UN Year of Sustainable Tourism Development. It was an honor to join my colleagues in the heritage tourism industry and to be recognized for CyArk’s contributions to the field.

I often get asked, and this conference was no different, whether CyArk’s goals might not run contrary to a country’s tourism objectives. Won’t sharing these beautiful places with people online satisfy their curiosity and dampen tourism to the site? Absolutely not! In fact, quite the opposite.

With any new technology, whether it be photography, film or 3D scanning, there are always concerns about interest in the original being surpassed by the excitement for this this new recording or replica. In an age of being able to access nearly anything from your smartphone, global tourism is at an all-time high. If you’re like me, travel images don’t satisfy your curiosity, they pique it! And research shows that others feel the same way.

Our own research in virtual reality indicates that 67% of people who experienced a site virtually became more interested in visiting a site after their virtual trip while another 32% remained as interested in visiting as they had been previously.  Less than 1% of respondents losing interest in visiting a site after the experience.  Over the last year, much time has been spent and ink spilled on the subject of VR and Tourism. A recent trend report by Zeiss and YouGov found that 71% of those surveyed would seek out travel-specific VR content and 31% imagine using it to preview trips before booking.

CyArk’s documentation efforts have always focused on supporting access and exploration of sites through technology but for years we struggled with how best to make our information available to people in a meaningful and educational way. CyArk has been capturing extremely heavy data for years, data so big that a typical web user wasn’t able to use it. We found work-arounds. We relied heavily on animations, panoramic photo tours and heavily decimated models to convey the significance of the sites, but it always felt static, no matter how interactive or how many types of media were involved.

While VR is still in its early days and still requires some pretty specific technical skills to execute, the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks. When CyArk set out to create an archive of the world’s cultural heritage, we always hoped to be able to allow people to fully immerse themselves in a site. With the advent of increased processing power and new virtual reality headsets, it is possible, for the first time, to place someone in the context of a heritage site with the data captured by the CyArk field team.  With motion tracking, users not only experience the site visually, but also physically, moving through the space, around columns and through arches.   This technology is transforming the way we think about our archive and our ability to ignite people’s curiosity and connect them with history and culture. 

Earlier studies from organizations including the UNWTO have pointed towards empathy and emotional response as a key factor in the selection of potential travel destinations. In this context, the value of VR to prompt those emotional responses and desires is clear—it stimulates multiple senses to simulate experiences which trigger genuine emotions. VR’s empathy building function can also promote more thoughtful and respectful tourism.

“I am a better person because I travel” shared The Secretary-General of the World Tourism Organization, Taleb Rifai at the conference opening. 

At CyArk, our mission remains to capture, archive and share the extraordinary cultural heritage we have inherited. We have a golden opportunity with VR to democratize travel to these incredible sites and aide tourism in so many ways. From providing virtual access to those that may never have the opportunity to physically travel to elevating awareness of and visitation to a country’s unknown treasures. We are excited to connect people and places like never before.

Thanks to the United Nations World Tourism Organization and Segittur for their support of CyArk’s attendance.



The UNWTO held its first Conference on Smart Destinations in Murcia, Spain
CyArk took part in a round table titled "Building smart tourist attractions: the management of natural and cultural heritage sites"