Using Big Data To Help Plan Your Next Vacation

What if you could plan your next trip to a busy destination using Google Street View, heat maps of Airbnb, and user reviews, to avoid crowds and be a more responsible and sustainable traveler? You can do that, but Edmund Morris, founder, and CEO of Equator Analytics, can do it better, faster, and with insights that leave the rest of us playing catch up.

I experienced that when I heard him speak at the Adventure Travel World Summit in Lugano a couple of weeks ago.

Equator Analytics is a tech startup that uses big data to help destinations, hotels, and tour operators make travel and tourism sustainable.

“We take as much data as we can, give it to the destination, and hope that they inform their visitors of the best time to visit this place or announce that this museum is very busy at this period,” Morris says. “This is real-time information, and in an ideal world, I would love destinations to look closely at this data.”

I caught up with Morris after the speech because I wanted to learn more about his work with destinations worldwide and places that are confronting various problems, especially those caused by over-tourism.

On the surface, his methodology is quite simple. Morris does his research by analyzing publicly available data ranging from closely tallying user reviews on Airbnb to using Google Street View and heat maps, websites and apps that show where people congregate, whether at a museum, a tourist attraction or a transportation hub. Morris studies and interprets that data. He then extrapolates a story and a forecast for a particular issue for a given destination. He developed his methodology while working for the U.S. Agency for International Development in Jordan, creating models to determine the impact of adventure travel and its potential to create jobs and support local economic growth.

In theory, you could look at this data yourself before a trip and decide where you’re going based on the data. Yet Morris admits that “it’s hard for consumers to access information from the destination because it’s not really written for them. Even if they could get the information, it probably wouldn’t make a huge amount of sense to them or inform their decision-making.”

Sustainability is at the forefront of his research. For example, when it comes to carbon emissions, Morris says, “If I tell you that hot air ballooning has ten times the emissions of your daily carbon allocation, you might reconsider. Your child might say, ‘Dad, it’s really bad for the environment, I want to do something else.’

Even if you tell students and young people that this information is out there, you might decide not to do something. Alternatively, if you have a really high emission activity on day one, you might decide to do a very low emission activity on day two. Until we start putting that information out from the destination to the consumer level, we will continue to think that people don’t behave in a sustainable way. How could you do otherwise if you don’t know?”

Short-term rentals are another area where Morris has researched on behalf of destinations, and he mentions places like Barcelona, Oahu, and Porto that have struggled to balance limits on such rentals with quality-of-life issues. Crowds are relative to what a destination can manage or cope with. They might have less impact in an already crowded metropolis like Shanghai or Seoul, and a much greater one in a place like Hallstatt, Austria, which gets something like one million tourists a year and has a population of around 800 people.

“Just because you see a busload of people doesn’t mean that there’s a problem,” Morris says. “ But when you have a fragile ecosystem, it isn’t going to take much to exceed what those limits should be. When you find remote places in the adventure travel world, somewhere where the population isn’t very dense, and you throw a bunch of tourists on top of them, they struggle. We haven’t seen those limits start. I’d love to see all destinations, as best they can, start to ask ‘What is too much for us, what is our threshold?’ “I think it’s really important to understand when we’ve gone too far and then come back and put in the limits before we spiral out of control. Villages and towns have to do that. I don’t think it’s limited to big cities.”

While cities such as Venice, Bordeaux and Paris suffer from over-tourism, Morris says some places are already making changes.

“Amsterdam has gone through a huge problem with over-tourism, and I think they’re really reacting,” he says. “Their data is the best I’ve ever seen for a destination and they’re good at making it public and visualizing it. I think New Zealand is, too, though it has the advantage of being remote. They’re very forward-thinking in their approach. There’s a lot we can learn.”

Social media is also a significant factor in over-tourism. Morris cites a super bloom of poppies and other wildflowers at Lake Elsinore near San Francisco a few years ago, which overnight brought tens of thousands of Instagrammers to town.

“It isn’t clear to me how much you can do to stop people from wanting to go places,” he says. “If people post stunning images and videos, maybe there’s an opportunity to reorient social media to be a little bit more positive in its storytelling. I would love to see social media promoting for positive impact. It can tell the stories of how to alleviate poverty or how you can contribute to conservation efforts or anti-poaching efforts. Or you’re actively working at reducing your carbon emissions and telling that story on social media. It could start to have a behavioral impact and create long-term change.”

Morris feels that “destinations will have to start using the publicly available tools to monitor the data,” whether it’s through Equator or other means. “I remain an optimist, but I think we really need to start working very, very quickly.”

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