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Sustainable, accessible and tech-savvy: discover the European Capitals of Smart Tourism

The European Capital of Smart Tourism initiative champions EU tourism destinations striving for inclusivity, creativity, digitalisation and sustainability. Gothenburg and Málaga, the 2020 capitals, are leading the way.

By The European Capital of Smart Tourism
Published 21 Dec 2020, 08:00 GMT
Visitors at Gothia Towers hotel, Gothenburg.

Visitors at Gothia Towers hotel in Gothenburg, where most hotels are environmentally friendly.

Photograph by Per Pixel Petersson

What is smart tourism?

In a nutshell, smart tourism embraces innovative, digital and eco-savvy approaches to travel. From regulating the flow of travellers and supporting diverse communities to making the most of virtual reality and using the latest technology to break down language barriers, it responds to old and new demands in a fast-changing industry. As hotbeds of creativity and social activity, smart tourism destinations devise solutions that benefit locals while enhancing the visitor experience. In the EU, where tourism is the third-largest socioeconomic activity, making up around 10% of the economy, several cities are ahead of the curve.

Promoting smart tourism across Europe

The European Capital of Smart Tourism initiative aims to kick-start a conversation about smart tourism by applauding forward-thinking destinations. For the past two years, it’s defined smart tourism excellence across four categories: accessibility; sustainability; digitalisation; and cultural heritage and creativity. Rather than acting strictly as a contest, the goal of this EU wide competition — developed in 2018 by the European Union and implemented by the European Commission — is to take examples from leading smart tourism destinations and provide a platform for other cities to discover those ideas, all the while fostering cooperation. Its Compendium of Best Practices is exactly that: chock-full of success stories, the free-to-access guide to smart tourism details everything from reusable coffee cups in Karlsruhe and smart waste management in Ljubljana to forward-thinking digital initiatives, such as Helsinki’s WeChat programme, designed for Chinese tourists. In 2020, Gothenburg and Málaga were both lauded for redefining their tourism offers.

A boulevard in the Port of Málaga. The city has transformed itself from seaside staple to a hotbed of innovation.

Photograph by Getty Images

Setting an example

Digital-forward, accessible to all and a champion of sustainability, Gothenburg, Sweden’s second city, has all the attributes of a leading 21st-century destination. Its strong approach to tech means visitors and locals alike benefit from widespread 4G coverage, future-oriented public transport and smart grids for traffic and electricity. The easy-going port city, hailed as the world’s most sustainable destination by the Global Destination Sustainability Index four years in a row, also adopts a pioneering approach to emission targets, and most of its hotels have been environmentally certified. Green initiatives extend to the city’s festivals, from the six-day Gothenburg Culture Festival getting rid of all disposable packaging to Way Out West committing to climate transparency.

Meanwhile, co-winner Málaga, Spain has transformed itself from a Mediterranean seaside staple to a hotbed of innovation. Its sustainability initiatives range from smart watering systems for parks and gardens and efforts to improve noise quality to the installation of public LED lighting and the introduction of ample bicycle hire stations and cycle lanes. Local authorities have embraced technology aimed at improving the visitor experience and helping businesses to innovate. The city has also boosted its cultural appeal, welcoming more than 30 museums in the past 20 years, including big-hitters like the Centre Pompidou Málaga, providing new itineraries and transforming old buildings into vibrant hubs of arts and culture. One of the best examples of its approach is Tabacalera, a former tobacco factory which now houses the Automobile & Fashion Museum and the Russian Museum Collection — Saint Petersburg, as well as the Spanish National Digital Content Hub, where modern-day artists use virtual reality to improve tourism and other sectors — and all just a short walk from the sea.

In addition to the 2020 capitals, four cities received European Smart Tourism Awards in select categories: Breda, in the Netherlands, for accessibility; Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, for digitalisation; Karlsruhe, in Germany, for cultural heritage and creativity; and Gothenburg for sustainability.

Älvsborg Bridge. Gothenburg, Sweden’s second city, is situated on the country's west coast.

Photograph by Per Pixel Petersson

The way forward

By rewarding destinations at the forefront of innovation, the European Capital of Smart Tourism initiative helps cities attract more visitors — but that’s not all. Smart tourism can also play a role in combatting the negative social, environmental and economic impacts of travelling and help the industry respond to challenges.

Representatives of the 2020 capitals recently shared insight on how smart tourism can support post-pandemic recovery. Gothenburg provided lessons from Sweden’s no-lockdown approach, highlighting the importance of sharing information, attracting regional visitors and investing in technology to digitalise attractions and events. Meanwhile, Málaga stressed the need to support smaller businesses and involve local companies in brainstorming new ideas and solutions. The Spanish city is also showing that, with flexible measures and strict sanitary guidelines, events can still go ahead. While large gatherings have had to be cancelled, attendees at Greencities, Forum of Urban Intelligence and Sustainability, for instance, were offered the chance to take a 15-minute coronavirus antigen test as part of a pilot scheme sponsored by the City of Málaga.

Improved travel for all

Anyone visiting Málaga, one of the oldest towns in Europe with nearly 3000 years of history, can now better experience both its urban and natural charms. Travellers can download apps to guide themselves through the host of museums and attractions or scan QR codes at various places of interest around the city for information on the go. The sun-bathed city has also revitalised many of its natural spaces, including making eight beaches fully accessible for those with reduced mobility and fitting two with supportive devices for the blind. Málaga has also created a website and app to display information such as beach crowding, wave height and presence of jellyfish. Reaching attractions is now easier, too, with sensors across Málaga’s car parks helping those renting a car to quickly spot available slots.

Gothenburg’s strong commitment to technology also benefits visitors. For example, Liseberg amusement park, one of Sweden’s most popular attractions, recently introduced a virtual queuing system, while Röhsska Museum and Gothenburg City Museum both underwent renovations to increase accessibility. Nature lovers are well catered for, too, with Sweden’s Freedom to Roam initiative allowing everyone to make the most of the country’s sprawling open spaces, such as the region's rugged archipelago. Travellers can also take advantage of the ‘Meet the locals’ initiative, which connects visitors with locals and offers an insight into day-to-day life in Sweden. Have a question about the city? Turn to the capital’s comprehensive digital channels or enjoy an online chat with a local expert.

Solar panels, Málaga. The city's sustainability initiatives range from smart watering systems for parks and gardens to efforts to improve noise quality.

Photograph by Studiografen

More info

This EU initiative recognises outstanding achievements in smart tourism. Gothenburg and Málaga proposed attractive programmes to celebrate their titles as 2020 European Capitals of Smart Tourism. They now act as role models and are sharing best practices on a number of platforms.

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