How smart city innovations can power the future of sustainable tourism destination management

Cities and small municipalities are embracing the smart city movement—the growing practice of connecting traditional infrastructure to “smart” technology to improve public safety, quality of life, and environmental management.  Smart city technologies have been adopted across the world, and tourism destinations have begun to realize how these technologies can advance sustainability, accessibility, business innovation, destination branding and marketing, and the preservation of cultural heritage[i].  Recent industry efforts, like DMOcracy, have highlighted the important role technology can play in cultivating a participatory approach to tourism governance and development[ii].

Research at both Harvard and Cornell Universities on the Invisible Burden of Tourism has demonstrated that tracking tourism costs at the utility level can help cities to understand the underlying costs of tourism on their infrastructure.  These costs—both social and environmental—often remain “invisible” until the destination hits a breaking point.  In fact, destination managers require a new set of tourism indicators that enable ongoing monitoring of tourism’s social and environmental impacts.  Indicators should track six key areas:

  • Energy and Greenhouse Gas Emissions
  • Water
  • Solid Waste
  • Sewage and Wastewater Treatment
  • Natural Capital
  • Social Capital


Worldwide, Destination Management Organizations (DMOs) are transitioning to new models that are better adapted to today’s tourism issues and destination managers are responsible for the active management of tourism’s impacts.   This makes working with local smart city initiatives even more enticing, as these innovations can help destination managers address negative tourism impacts like overcrowding, rising housing costs, the disruption of residents’ way of life, and the degradation of precious natural and cultural heritage.

How do smart cities work?

Think about how smart city solutions function to understand their use[iii]:

  • Smart city solutions should improve communities through better decision making or behavior change
  • Connected devices (like cell phones) or sensors form a technology network that is used to collect data
  • A technology platform or app is created to enable data analysis and reporting

For example, a tourism destination could improve water efficiency by installing sensors that automatically track consumption at individual properties, enabling businesses and residents to detect leaks, irrigate only as necessary, and monitor water quality.  Data can be accessed by both customers and the public utility, and such solutions are likely to lower water consumption by 20-30%ii.

These individual solutions can add up to significant impact.  A recent global study of more than 150 cities documented that smart cities will be essential to meeting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)—those cities who have made the most progress on the SDGs also tend to be utilizing advanced technology and data analytics[iv].

Generally, smart city solutions have been led by local government.  But cities like Singapore, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Copenhagen, Dubai, London, and New York have integrated private-sector data with government data to enhance public services and economic value for business[v].  These public-private partnerships can also drive innovation—in 2020 New York launched an initiative to “facilitate the development and integration of emerging technologies into public services” that included $1 million of funding and access to city data so that startups could pilot new innovations[vi].

A few critical considerations when implementing smart city initiatives[vii]:

  • Think about how data from residents, the private sector, or travelers could enhance destination management. 
  • Be certain that data privacy is prioritized, and that the initiative invests in security measures. 
  • Early on, explore how existing data sets can best work together. Can small changes be made that makes implementation of the smart city solution easier?
  • Consider how your unit can bring on or collaborate with “knowledge workers” to help with data collection and analysis.

Which destination management issues could benefit from smart city efforts?

Smart city solutions can be developed to address issues in all six Invisible burden categories, which have been shown to impact the ability of municipal governments to operate in the black.  Smart city initiatives can create efficiencies related to the Invisible Burden of tourism:


  • Building and energy automation
  • Tracking water consumption, water quality, and waste disposal
  • Enhancing transit
  • Crowd management
  • Stakeholder engagement, and
  • Monitoring and enhancing livability

If you are a destination manager or working in government or industry, it is possible to leverage existing smart city programs to improve transportation options and reduce crowding for tourists.  For example, Seoul used big data technology to plan new late-night bus routes with enhanced service, safety, and sustainability and the “night owl” bus service has been consistently rated as one of residents’ favorite public programs[viii].  London made public transport more accessible by launching an app that provides visually impaired travelers audio instructions on how to navigate the London Undergroundiv.  Both of these programs could be utilized to benefit tourism and tourists.  In other cities, technology has been deployed to directly address tourism issues—in Cinque Terre and Florence, new travel apps monitor tourist flows in real time using cell phone data, and then suggest the least crowded trails and attractions to visitors[ix].

As destinations launch efforts to manage tourism’s environmental impacts, smart city efforts can be deployed to benefit tourism stakeholders across the city.  Initiatives like automating trash collection, electricity pricing, and waste management billing can drive better sustainability outcomes.  In Singapore,  public-private “urban solar” smart city solutions have scaled renewable energy quickly while decreasing risk for the private sectoriv.  And, smart technology that combines photography and AI has been deployed worldwide to help hotels and resorts to limit food waste—a large contributor to carbon emissions in the travel sector[x].  

It is well worth your team’s time to review the full suite of smart city solutions used to regularly engage residents.  This resident data can inform tourism planning, enabling destination managers to take a resident-centered approach.  Barcelona and Moscow have both developed digital platforms so that residents can provide feedback on new legislation, make policy proposals, and communicate concerns to city departments more easilyii.  And Dubai has implemented a live sentiment capture tool called the Smart Dubai Happiness Meter[xi].  It includes a consolidated dashboard that monitors results across sectors and geographic areas, which has already been applied to some areas that are useful for tourism—for example, the airport[xii].

How can destination managers take advantage of smart city solutions?

The timeliness of moving toward smart destination management is not to be ignored. Such actions can leverage the deep relationship between the travel industry, the city, and the destination management group.  Integrating existing smart city efforts with tourism destination planning and management will save time and money, because it utilizes untapped expertise and data already held within local government and the private sector. 

To target smart city solutions, destination managers should identify the tourism destination’s most pressing issues.  The Sustainable Tourism Asset Management Program (STAMP) at Cornell has collaborated with two destinations to develop systems that monitor and analyze tourism impacts, with excellent results that demonstrate this can be done effectively and efficiently once the system is established.  In many cities, the data required by destination managers is already being tracked by government, and teams can work together to enhance knowledge using well-presented data which serves the city, industry and citizens.  Cornell’s research team has also developed several tools and a full course, Sustainable Tourism Destination Management, to help destination managers identify socio-cultural and environmental issues and implement innovative sustainability solutions. 


About the Author

A headshot of O'Shannon Burns looking to the left.O’Shannon Burns is a sustainability researcher and consultant with almost fifteen years of experience shaping mission-driven businesses and embedding regenerative principles into operations with a focus on travel, tourism, climate action, conservation, and environmental justice. O’Shannon is Program Manager for Cornell University’s Sustainable Tourism Asset Management Program at the SC Johnson College of Business and recently co-produced a new online course for professionals on Sustainable Tourism Destination Management.  Through her consultancy, she has collaborated with The World Bank, Disney, National Geographic, Atlas Obscura, Regenerative Travel, and dozens of small businesses on sustainability strategy and management, working directly with tour operators, DMC’s, hotels, and DMO’s. Previously, she spent a decade as staff at National Geographic where she created and was then appointed to National Geographic Partners’ first full-time sustainability position, overseeing sustainability for the company’s travel business, and serving as an internal sustainability leader and expert.  O’Shannon holds a Master’s in Sustainability from Harvard University and BS from The Pennsylvania State University in Physical Geography with a focus on Climate Science. 


Related reading

[i] The European Commission. “Leading Examples of Smart Tourism Practices in Europe.” Accessed February 21, 2023.

[ii] Group NAO. “White Paper on DMOcracy.” Group NAO, 2023.

[iii] McKinsey Global Institute. “Smart Cities: Digital Solutions for a More Livable Future,” June 2018.

[iv] ESI Thoughtlab. “Smart City Solutions for a Riskier World,” 2021.

[v] World Economic Forum Global Future Council on Cities and Urbanization. “Smart at Scale: Cities to Watch,” August 2020.

[vi] Empire State Development. “New York Smart Cities Innovation Partnership,” March 17, 2020.

[vii] Seravalli, Alessandro, Mariaelena Busani, Simone Venturi, Arianna Brutti, Carlo Petrovich, Angelo Frascella, Fabrizio Paolucci, et al. “Towards Smart Cities for Tourism: The POLIS-EYE Project.” In 2022 IEEE International Smart Cities Conference (ISC2), 1–7, 2022.

[viii] Seoulsolution. “Big Data in Seoul’s Transportation Policy: Designing Late Night Bus Routes Based on Big Data.” 서울정책아카이브 Seoul Solution, December 28, 2017.

[ix] Hotel Management Network. “Smart City Solutions Are Vital to Combat Overtourism.” Hotel Management Network (blog), July 19, 2022.

[x] Bourke, Evan. “Food for Thought: How AI Is Reducing Waste in Restaurants.” euronews, December 7, 2022.

[xi] Digital Dubai. “Happiness Meter.” Default. Accessed February 24, 2023.

[xii] Khan, M. Sajid, Mina Woo, Kichan Nam, and Prakash K. Chathoth. “Smart City and Smart Tourism: A Case of Dubai.” Sustainability 9, no. 12 (2017).

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