Updated on 30/09/2022

What is digital tourism? Many things: the integration of new technologies in the tourism sector, an economically relevant sector, an opportunity for business operators, but also a new paradigm that changes not only the rules of the game, but also tourists themselves and how they think about travel.

In a country like Italy, it is worthwhile to look at the concept of digital tourism and, above all, its role within the Italian economy and its relevance in the sector as a whole. On the other hand, for Italy tourism is a fundamental sector, considered by many to be our “oil,” one of our main sources of wealth, which, despite that, can also be undervalued

One of the ways to enhance it and make it even more productive is to open it to digital transformation. Today, digitization is an obligatory choice, not only for increasing the number of people traveling and moving, but for increasing the quality of the experience itself, leaving a lasting impression with all tourists, Italian and foreign.

What is digital tourism? 

Let’s start with a definition of the topic at hand. What is digital tourism? The term “digital tourism” refers to how we use digital tools to organize, manage and even enjoy the travel experience.   

“Digital tourism” therefore uses all of the tools of digital transformation to change how we travel and how the sector itself operates. Much like other sectors, here too, digital transformation has completely changed and continues to change how we travel.  

The relevance of digital tourism

But does this “new sector” have its own relevance compared to the tourism sector in general? To answer this question we need to clarify a couple of things.

The first is that tourism is an incredibly complex sector and one that is difficult to measure since the statistics related to this field never concern “a single sector but a very diverse set of services”. After all, tourism can be measured from different points of view: for example, from the perspective of supply or demand. Therefore, it is assessed through different information sources.

In the first case, statistics will refer to the capacity and occupancy of accommodation facilities, while surveys will be based on information collected directly from travelers, at borders or through traditional household surveys. Secondly, these statistics, already volatile and elusive in themselves, are made even more complicated to detect and calibrate this year due to the recent Covid-19 emergency that has impacted the surveys themselves, distorting or even interrupting them.

All of this is to say that the assessment of the relevance of digital tourism within the tourism sector is very difficult. To have a clear picture of the current situation will require that we take into account data from a couple of years ago—less recent but safer. Having made this necessary premise we can answer the question asked above: how relevant is digital tourism? The answer is much more than what we may have thought.

A powerful sector 

According to data from research conducted by the Milan International Stock Exchange, in 2022 the sector grew by 43%, representing a real driving business.

According to research by the Observatory for Digital Innovation in Tourism, this growth was particularly affected in 2021 by digital tourism, which posted a 55% increase compared to 2020 this is an even more remarkable result if we consider the +1% of transactions recorded by official channels in the same period. This means that digital tourism has a significant economical importance, also in light of the fact that the internet and digital solutions, in general, are becoming increasingly relevant and widespread in this sector.

There are further statistics that can confirm that a lot of trips were booked through a website or smartphone without any human intervention.

Digital tourism is much more than just a simple reservation

Given that digital tourism is indeed an important contributor to the economy, it is necessary to clarify something.

When we talk about digital tourism, we must not make the mistake of believing that the digital component plays a role only in the booking and payment of a trip, accommodation, or transportation. On the contrary, digital transformation manifests itself along all phases of the journey, following the path the tourist takes in his customer experience step by step.

The internet is now an essential component of the experience that every tourist makes when he or she decides to travel. From searching to purchasing, from writing reviews to publishing them: at least one of these actions is carried out online by any tourist during their vacation period. As a tourist yourself, you can just imagine how pervasive and influential the digital component can be when it comes to all these activities.

TripAdvisor is a good example. For some time now, the most famous restaurant and hotel review platform in the world has become a permanent reference point for travelers: when you visit a new city or want to try a new restaurant, one of the first things travelers will do is to search TripAdvisor and read the reviews of other tourists.

In other words, what was once the old analog word of mouth has been replaced by digital word of mouth that is in some ways much more effective. In fact, as shown by the University of Oxford’s Oxford Economics research company, TripAdvisor is absolutely capable of influencing most of the activities that travelers undertake. Already in 2017, this platform played a key role in increasing the number of trips, pushing tourists to spend 15% more, thus moving an amount equal to $80 billion to the sector, until today that counts almost more than a million reviews.


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Digital tourism influences analog tourism

In addition to TripAdvisor, there are many other examples that we can make to understand how the relevance of digital tourism is not only limited to the economic aspect. On the contrary, digital tourism is even able to change and influence the geography and routes of even “analog” tourism. One of the most enlightening cases is that of Instagram

Posting photos, selfies, and stories of vacations and trips has become a summer ritual that few people now manage to escape. Over time, what can be considered a simple pastime to share their experiences with friends has become something more: Instagram, in fact, has become a real “catalog” of trips to choose from. Among other things, it is a catalog with a formidable ability to influence users in the choice of their next destinations.

Research commissioned by EasyJet of tourists between 18 and 68 years old found that 55% of respondents booked their trip based exclusively on images seen on Instagram. In particular, more than 30% of the more than 2,000 people interviewed also stated that they chose their destination thinking about the so-called “photo opportunity”, i.e. the possibility to post nice photos on social networks. This has meant that some destinations that were once considered “off the beaten path” are now coveted places for mass tourism.

This happened to the Trolltunga, a rock formation in Norway, which was largely unknown to most people until recently; only 1,000 people had flown over this remote place in 2009. It only took 10 years and a growing photographic echo on Instagram and, in January 2019 alone, there were already over 100,000 photos on Instagram with the Trolltunga hashtag.

This means that a few trending photos are enough to move the choice of travel of several thousand people, with all that this entails in terms of business.

What is digital tourism? First of all a great opportunity

The above example not only serves to demonstrate what we said at the beginning, that digital tourism can have a great business relevance; it also shows how this sector can represent an incredible opportunity for growth and development. Moreover, it was the progressive integration of new digital solutions in the tourism sector that gave rise to new travel (and business) models.

Think of AirBnB, the most famous hosting platform in the world, which, in just a few years has revolutionized the way to travel and host people. Today, the platform is a tourism giant. Couchsurfing, the hospitality exchange service and social network that allows people to provide their own sofa or rooms in their home for short periods to tourists from all over the world, is also popular.

However, when we talk about the opportunities offered by digital tourism, we’re also referring to all the tools made available by the digital transformation that can be used to further grow existing activities. 

For example, think of the opportunity that the internet offers to small hotels and B&Bs who can now take part in some of the largest online booking portals (Lastminute, Expedia, eDreams etc.) or the opportunity to use tools like digital newsletters to continue to maintain relationships with customers, making them aware of new activities and services, or allowing the business to offer personalized deals and special offers based on the type of customer.  

In addition, social networks are a formidable resource for helping introduce a business to future customers, showing what makes your business special and unique. We’ve already seen how social networks are able to influence the choices of tourists: having a well-kept and attractive Instagram page can push users to discover your business in person. And a simple and complete Facebook page is a very useful tool to give tourists all the necessary information and to simplify communications, making them quick and immediate.

What is digital tourism? A way to improve the “tourism experience”

However, digital tourism is not only simpler bookings, image sharing on social media, or marketing tools amplified by digital tools.

Digital tourism also represents a new approach to the kind of experience that professionals in the sector can offer tourists.

For example, through the Internet of things (IoT), you can host your guests in intelligent rooms, able to react to a simple voice gesture of the guest, who in this way, has at his disposal a real personal virtual assistant able to immediately meet all of his needs and requests (digitalmarketingturistico.it). Or think about the use of Big Data, which is a useful strategic tool for small hotels as well as for airlines and major travel sites alike.

It is thanks to Big Data that all these operators can perfectly profile their clients and build a highly personalized offer that is in line with their characteristics and preferences. After all, it is no mystery that the tourist 2.0, that is, the tourist at the time of the digital transformation, expects this from the companies he or she is doing business with. Today’s tourists expect an experience that is unique and personalized, digital and memorable at the same time. 

On closer inspection, in fact, digital transformation has not only “changed the tourism business”, introducing tools and technologies useful to those who want to grow and enrich their business, it has also irreversibly transformed the tourist and, consequently, its priorities.

The use and influence of social media are just one example of this “anthropological” change that, on closer inspection, has been much more radical and decisive than you might think and which must be taken into account if you want to be successful in this sector. This is another topic that we will explore in more detail in our next post.