Innovation fuels new tech for travelers

Illustration by Colin Smith, Daily Sun

Only 20 years ago, going on vacation required sorting through a jumble of atlases and paper maps just to get to the destination.

Now, not only is GPS technology more accessible, but an assortment of mobile apps exist that offer real-time directions from one city to another or even between themed lands at theme parks.

Such innovations in travel technology are shaping the tourism industry and the way people take vacations.

Although making greater use of technology was an ongoing trend in travel long before the COVID-19 pandemic, features like touchless check-ins became more widespread as travelers sought safer means of getting away.

That may mean using your phone as a theme park ticket, or even your face to board a plane.

It may sound unreal, or even scary, but new and emerging technology is making it possible.

"Tourism used to be very different, even 10 years ago," said Naveen Eluru, a civil engineering professor at the University of Central Florida who leads a master's program in travel technology and analytics. "The industry is mainly becoming big tech."

Smartphones, Apps Revolutionize Travel

The revolution of smartphone technology in recent years, particularly Apple's introduction of the iPhone in 2007, expanded the possibilities of how useful phones may be to people in their travels.

"The ability to use mobile data and mobile apps has radically changed how we travel. It really has," said Robert Paluszak,

president of The Villages Worldwide Foreign Travel Club.

A tourism and hospitality trends report from We Are Marketing, a digital marketing agency with clients in the tourism industry, describes smartphone technology as "the main character in the new ways of travel."

A TripAdvisor survey found that a high percentage of travelers use mobile technology for various tasks during their journeys. The top six were:

  1. Maps and navigation (81%)
  2. Finding restaurants (72%)
  3. Finding activities (67%)
  4. Reading reviews (64%)
  5. Finding hotels (64%)
  6. Placing a restaurant reservation (46%)

"The cellphone has become our tour guide, travel agency, best restaurant locator, map and more," We Are Marketing's report stated. "It's by our side during the entire purchase journey. In fact, according to TripAdvisor, 45% of users use their smartphone for everything having to do with their vacations."

That is especially true of people visiting Central Florida's theme parks. Walt Disney World Resort, Universal Orlando Resort, SeaWorld Orlando, Busch Gardens Tampa Bay and Legoland Florida Resort all have their own mobile apps. Collectively, they offer the ability to scan the phone for admission, order food from on-site restaurants, find out how long the waits are for attractions and use in-app maps to navigate the park's grounds.

Virtual queues are being tried and tested in places other than theme parks.

Orlando International Airport recently launched a complimentary pilot program from a company called CLEAR that allows fliers to reserve a spot in security screening lines before arriving at the airport. CLEAR, headquartered in New York City, offers products for places like airports and stadiums to allow touchless entry and easier experiences going through security screenings and airport terminals.

Orlando Airport debuted the new Reservation Lane program on Oct. 21.

"The Reservation Lane service will offer a streamlined process for the modern traveler, allowing us to better deliver the Orlando experience," said Brian Engle,

director of customer experience with the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority, in a statement.

More information about the service is available at reserve.clearme.com. Fliers must enter flight details and the number of people in the traveling party before seeing a limited number of reservation times available. They will receive a QR code for confirmation that will help them gain priority access to security screenings.

Right now, the program only operates from 5 to 11 a.m., but that could change based on demand, according to Orlando airport staff.

When cruise lines returned to service following the COVID-19 pandemic, they adapted their operations to reduce or eliminate high-touch surfaces. This included incorporating more of their experiences into their apps.

Tom Fujawa, who sailed in August aboard one of Royal Caribbean's first pandemic-era cruises from the U.S., said he and his wife, Judy, thought most cruisers aboard the ship would have been lost without the cruise line's Royal App.

It allows users to schedule attraction times and view restaurant menus, among other tasks.

"Paper menus were not provided as we sat down for our meals, and we were asked to bring up the menu on our smartphone and select our meals from that," said Tom, of the Village of Calumet Grove.

The most significant way mobile apps are changing the way people travel is by allowing greater independence, said Paluszak, of the Village of Mallory Square.

Apps that allow people to purchase airfare and place hotel room reservations are part of making this possible.

Travelers also are feeling more comfortable using ride-sharing apps. Paluszak uses Uber and Lyft in his travels.

"In Europe, I can get a cab or a ride-share and boom, it's done," he said. "We would have never done it before (the technology existed) because in the past we'd be booking a taxi and we'd be wondering if they'd rip me off."

Just like email and social media, mobile technology also is changing the way international travelers communicate with family and friends back home. They can video call at no or little cost with apps like Skype, which proved useful to Paluszak and other members of the Worldwide Foreign Travel Club in their international journeys.

Remote connections with others is one of the most significant positives of high-tech travel, said Norm Rose, president and founder of Travel Tech Consulting Inc. Rose is a globally recognized expert on technology's impact on travel and tourism.

"Thank God for the internet and that we have things that allow you to do that," he said.

Wearables, Personal Assistants

Using the internet while traveling goes beyond smartphones and computers.

It includes in-room concierges at hotels in the form of personal assistants like Amazon's Alexa and Apple's Siri.

It also includes wearable devices like Disney World's MagicBands and Carnival Cruise Line's Ocean Medallion, which serve many important purposes such as boarding passes.

These are possible thanks to a concept known as the Internet of Things, which encompasses physical objects equipped with the sensors and software that allow for internet connectivity.

Wearable devices function similarly to mobile apps, providing a means of contactless payments and ticketing.

"(Destinations) can use these devices to crowdsource, direct, and have you spend more money than you would and have a better experience," said Lisa Cain, associate professor at Florida International University's Chaplin School of Hospitality and Tourism Management.

Cain is one of the professors who teach classes in FIU's badge and certificate program on the Internet of Things in tourism, a first of its kind in the U.S. She has worn wearables during theme park trips — her whole family has, she said.

"I think it's fun," she said. "I think it's interesting when you know what it's being used for, to take a step back and look at it. It's interactive."

Carnival's Ocean Medallion and Royal Caribbean's WOW Bands, both offered on select ships, may serve as a guest's room key, assist in activity planning and be used to make onboard purchases. Ocean Medallion even can be used to place bets on a ship's onboard casino.

Royal Caribbean also is using wearables to guide contact tracing for COVID-19. Guests must wear a device called the Tracelet to board the cruise line's ships; these colorful devices are used to identify close contacts in the event someone tests positive for COVID-19.

Internet of Things technology isn't limited to wearables.

As part of its safety protocols returning to business during the pandemic, Royal Caribbean equipped its staterooms with technology that allows guests to control the TV, lighting, window shades and thermostat with their smartphones. The cruise line stated its goal is to limit touch points while also improving the guest experience.

Similarly, Universal Orlando's Aventura Hotel has rooms equipped with tablet devices that control thermostat settings and television volume.

Limiting these touch points is critical to pandemic-era travelers. About 85% of travelers feel safer in hotels that use technology to reduce direct contact with high-touch surfaces, according to a survey from the American Hotel and Lodging Association.

Hotels also are equipping their rooms with devices powered by virtual assistant technology.

Alexa for Hospitality, a version of Amazon's Alexa for the tourism industry, offers functions Alexa users may be used to at home, such as playing music, setting alarms and checking weather. But in-room Alexa devices also may assist guests with local recommendations, requesting additional towels or toiletries and adjusting thermostats.

Legoland's on-site hotel, Legoland Pirate Island Resort, uses Alexa for Hospitality. It not only reduces direct contact with surfaces through hands-free control of TV remotes, music, alarms and an in-room guest directory, it also offers an element of fun for guests with an in-room treasure hunt.

"The guest room experience with Alexa is so unique and immersive, it will drive repeat visitors," said Kevin Carr, hotels director at Legoland Resorts Florida, in a statement. "This is priceless."

Last month, Amazon and the Walt Disney Company announced a new voice assistant called "Hey, Disney!" that will work alongside Alexa in rooms at Disney World's resort hotels.

The voice assistant, expected to launch in 2022, will allow guests to use the "Hey, Disney!" command to ask about the best way to get to the parks, where to eat at the parks, and ask for items for the room, like more towels. It also lets guests interact with their favorite Disney characters.

"Our focus is to bring Disney storytelling to our guests wherever they are," said Josh D'Amaro, chairman of experiences and products with Disney Parks, in a

statement. "Through Alexa technology, 'Hey, Disney!' will unlock new ways for guests to engage with our iconic characters and stories both at home as well as at our Walt Disney World Resort hotels."

Data sent to Amazon from Alexa use is encrypted and hotel properties cannot listen to what guests said to Alexa, or what the device says back, Amazon stated.

Those who do not want to use Alexa during their stays can turn off the microphone at the top of the device.

Touchless travel experiences are not becoming widespread because of COVID-19, but it has accelerated the trend, said Rose, the globally renowned travel technology expert.

He added that virtual assistants prove beneficial for translating human communication into digital forms to improve travelers' experiences.

But he doubts artificial intelligence technology will replace human labor, despite ongoing concerns about the effects of technology on jobs.

"The AI is only as good as how you program it," Rose said.

Augmented and Virtual Reality

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, some people sought out virtual reality travel.

Many tourism promoters close to and far from The Villages put together virtual tours during that time to inspire people to travel when it became safe to do so.

For example, officials in the Faroe Islands, located between Iceland and Norway, organized a "remote tourism" experience that allows the user to control the movements of a tour guide exploring the islands.

Tourism officials there organized 22 remote tours from April to June 2020.

Visit Orlando launched virtual tours of Orlando landmarks using a platform called XplorIt, with 360-degree views of common areas at Walt Disney World Resort, the roller coaster Mako at SeaWorld Orlando and the zipline at Gatorland.

Virtual tours of a shipwreck and coral reef at Dry Tortugas National Park in the Florida Keys, one of Florida's three national parks, were offered as part of a Google Arts & Culture project that launched near the start of the pandemic. The Hidden Worlds of the National Parks based its tours on Google Earth imagery and narration from park rangers.

Alan Fyall, associate dean of academic affairs with the University of Central Florida's Rosen College of Hospitality Management, thinks virtual tourism serves a purpose as a "temporary or complementary experience" that can inspire and aid travelers in planning future vacations.

"Nothing replaces the fresh air on the beach," he said. "Nothing replaces being on a canoe on Wekiwa Springs and seeing a real-life gator."

That was how Paluszak, of the Worldwide Foreign Travel Club, approached it when using a virtual reality headset to explore destinations. He said virtual reality does not replace actually going to a place, but it gives him ideas for his travels.

"You can put on your headset and just walk around Venice, which is sort of amazing," he said.

Another technological innovation Paluszak is excited about is augmented reality, which can offer information about a destination while you are there.

Pokemon Go, perhaps the most famous augmented reality app, allows people to track down and catch Pokemon in a given area they are exploring. Significant landmarks at a given destination serve as Pokestops, places where a player can collect items like Pokeballs, which are used to catch Pokemon.

Other augmented reality apps use gaming-influenced elements to introduce treasure hunt-like features to a destination, or allow users to find Disney characters or virtual celebrities.

Paluszak finds augmented reality most valuable for its potential to break language barriers. Some augmented reality apps are capable of translating foreign text.

He said he recently purchased a device called Ambassador Interpreter, made by the voice technology startup Waverly Labs. The device involves two earpieces, which go over one ear of each person in a conversation.

"If the person only spoke Spanish, basically I would speak and it would translate it into Spanish," Paluszak said. "I played with it a little bit and the reason they're so expensive is because the translation database is a more commercial product."

A Face For Tickets

International travelers, departing from Florida especially, may notice how technology eases the burden and stress that comes with traveling from one country to another.

In 2019, U.S. Customs and Border Protection announced that Orlando International Airport would be the first airport in the nation to mandate facial recognition scanning for all international travelers.

The cameras used for scanning compare photographs of travelers with those on file with the Department of Homeland Security. It takes less than two seconds to complete verification.

Answering to privacy concerns from some travelers regarding the technology, Customs and Border Protection staff stated its commitment to privacy through Privacy Impact Assessments, employing strong technical security safeguards and limiting personally identifiable information used in the biometric process.

Facial recognition is not the only advanced tool designed to shorten waits for leaving and re-entering the country.

Customs and Border Protection also offers a mobile application for Apple and Android phones called Mobile Passport. It allows users to set up an encrypted profile and submit it at the port of entry instead of filling out Customs paperwork.

Upon submission, travelers receive a receipt valid for four hours that is scanned while going through Customs.

Travel Tech's Future

What the future holds for travel technology has few limits.

Even robots are more reality than sci-fi these days.

Some hotels around the world deployed disinfecting robots to keep rooms clean through the pandemic.

One of Marriott's hotel brands, Aloft Hotels, has robot butlers that provide room service.

Cain, the FIU professor and expert on the Internet of Things, thinks travel technology will be limited only by people's ability to properly analyze the data that new technologies provide.

"I think it's going to help with increasing demand and knowing how and when to supply," she said. "We'll only be limited by our own creativity and our ability to assess and understand the data and what it tells us." That creativity is apparent in innovations on the horizon.

Aprilli Design Studio, a Canadian company, designed a concept known as the Autonomous Travel Suite that is part taxi and part hotel room. The studio describes the driverless vehicle as a "mobile room" because of the ways it differs from traditional commuter cars.

Self-driving cars like Google's Waymo, Amazon's Zoox and autonomous Teslas soon could alter how people travel between sites when exploring cities.

Elon Musk, owner of Tesla and SpaceX, developed a concept called the Hyperloop that would use high speed trains traveling at hundreds of miles per hour to speed commutes between major cities.

One of Musk's private spaceflight competitors — Richard Branson's Virgin Group — is working to make Musk's concept a reality. Virgin Hyperloop completed a test of one of its XP-2 vehicles with passengers onboard in November 2020. It also released a concept video in August that showed how, when complete, it would travel at top speeds of 670 mph.

Eluru, the UCF professor leading its travel technology and analytics program, sees technology eventually making travelers' experiences more immersive and more customized to their interests.

"When people do so much planning and use these applications, you can actually see the data of what people are doing," he said. "When they're doing it on an app, we can understand data on what the people are doing. (Tourism companies) can start tailoring their experiences to people and their personalities."

After 39 years of specializing in travel technology and its implications on the tourism industry, Rose offers a suggestion for the future: Don't be fearful of new technology.

"I hope these technologies are combined to make the travelers' lives easier," he said.

Senior writer Michael Salerno can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5369, or michael.salerno@thevillagesmedia.com.