How Artificial Intelligence Is Becoming A Gamechanger In The Travel & Tourism Sector In Oman

With AI front and centre stage in 2023, OER sat down with His Excellency Azzan Al Busaidi, Undersecretary for Tourism at the Ministry of Heritage & Tourism to discuss his views on the role of this game-changing technology in Oman’s travel and tourism sector.

Q) Could you give us some insights on how AI might be used in the travel and tourism industry?

Towards the end of last year, generative artificial intelligence technologies such as Chat GPT and Dall-E firmly focused the attention of the world on the possibilities and potential of AI. But AI has already been embedded in our daily lives for over a decade; it is already playing a part in our industries and economic growth. So, right now the question is not how this technology might be used, but how it is being used and what impact it is already having. In tourism, a typical use would be, for example, the chat bots that have for some time been assisting tourists as they take the first steps in booking their holidays. This is something we are all already familiar with and might not immediately think of as AI, but it certainlyis. To give an example of how prevalent it is, research by Statista indicates that by 2024, 32% of all travel industry revenue will be influenced by AI in some form or other.

Q) Beyond chatbots, how is AI technology being used?

Generally speaking, the travel and tourism industry uses AI technology to provide a more personalised experience. This is most commonly seen with websites offering hotel, flight or other tailored travel-related recommendations during the booking journey. This works in the same way retailers like Amazon suggest products based on past purchases or browsing. And while the use of AI for powering online customer service is now relatively common, one upcoming trend is the use of technology for in-person customer service interactions. In fact, a number of hotels are now using robot concierges to aid their check-in processes. Take, for example, Hilton’s Connie – a robot hotelier powered by IBM’s Watson supercomputer. Connie is not alone, Aloft Hotels has ALO; Yotel Hotels has Yobot; and Hotel EMC2 has twin robots named Cleo and Leo.

While these robots are deployed mostly to attract customers, there is no denying that hotels are now fully embracing the potential of AI in making efficient working strategies. A study from Duetto reveals almost 78% of hotel managers and property owners are investing in hotel tech to improve business management procedures. Research from Colliers International shows hotels using AI can boost profits by 10% and reduce operational costs by more than 15%, enabling businesses to reach significant revenue growth.

Q) One concern shared by many is the impact of AI on employment. How do you see this?

Here in Oman, as we look to create quality long-term employment and rewarding careers for our talented youth, of course, we have to consider how AI can affect and take over jobs. Certainly, many jobs are likely to be exposed to some level of automation – estimates by Goldman Sachs suggest this is true of roughly two-thirds of existing jobs in Europe and the U.S. Their research also points out that generative AI could take over as much as a quarter of current work. However, worker displacement following technological innovation is typically offset by the creation of new jobs – new occupations that account for the majority of subsequent long-term employment growth. World Economic Forum research suggests this will once again be the case with AI which they project will potentially take away 85 million jobs globally by 2025 but – and this is the important figure – it will generate 97 million new positions in areas such as big data, machine learning, information security and digital marketing. As I see it, we need to make sure Oman’s young travel and tourism professionals – and those aspiring to join the industry – are ready for the jobs of the future, ready to seize new opportunities, ready to achieve their own personal ambitions as they contribute to the growth of Oman’s economy. And generative AI is a tool that can play its part in this, equipping our youth for emerging occupations, reskilling and upskilling of our existing workforce and supporting our entrepreneurs.

How Artificial Intelligence Is Becoming A Gamechanger In The Travel & Tourism Sector In Oman

Q) Could you share some examples of this?

Well, for instance, ChatGPT can help with learning the all-important and in-demand skill of coding, helping build the ecosystem of websites, mobile apps, customer relationship management systems, VR systems and so forth that will drive Oman’s travel and tourism industry going forward. And this readily available tool can also support others in more customer-facing tourism occupations to hone their communication skills, interact better with clients they already have, reach out to new markets and grow their businesses. It can help SMEs and entrepreneurs create business plans and presentations as they strategize their next steps.

My point is this, AI is not simply about transferring tasks from humans to machines. It is a tool we can use to empower talent, improve our workforce, enhance skills and capabilities, achieve higher productivity and efficiency levels – AI can generate jobs not reduce demand for talent. Its integration into travel and tourism businesses can spark innovation, push the creation of novel systems and operational models – opening up transformative prospects for companies not shutting them down.

Q) How can smaller tourism companies leverage AI?

AI has indisputably introduced new competitive dynamics into the travel and tourism industry. While larger entities might have access to greater resources and more advanced tools, SMEs are often better positioned to adapt and innovate more quickly, integrating AI-driven tools and combining them with genuine human interaction for a more personal and original touch. Smaller businesses can also target niche markets or offer more specialised experiences that larger companies might overlook. This can provide a unique selling proposition and offer a distinct advantage in a market that is constantly seeking that extra special something.

Q) With the establishment of Oman’s Net-Zero targets in mind, are there applications of AI in the tourism sector that contribute to sustainable travel? If so, how?

Sustainability is very important to us at the Ministry of Heritage & Tourism and we are highly focused on playing our part in helping Oman achieve its Net- Zero targets. In this regard, as far as AI is concerned, it can absolutely help hotels optimise their resource consumption by tracking and managing energy consumption, for instance. Another example is the use of AI predictive analysis by hotels and restaurants to forecast demand more accurately. By understanding patterns of consumption, they can order and prepare the right amount of food, thereby reducing food waste and, in the process, reduce costs.

For tourists themselves, AI-powered tools can analyse their itinerary and calculate the carbon footprint of their journey, helping them make more informed decisions or offset their carbon emissions. These are just a small selection of examples but the possibilities are many.

Q) In the years ahead, do you think tourists might select a virtual or augmented reality experience over a holiday or trip? Is this the future of tourism?

I think the creation of these AI tools is an interesting aspect of travel and tourism for entrepreneurs to explore and there are certainly businesses to be built here but while VR and AR can simulate many aspects of travel, they cannot replicate the full authentic experience, the personal interactions, cultural connections and so forth.

For me, the real value of this catalytic technology, whether it is in production, transactions or interactions, is as an enabler – the potential it holds to open up possibilities for businesses of all sizes, entrepreneurs and established companies alike. And as under the wise leadership and guidance of His Majesty Sultan Haitham bin Tarik, we work towards the goals of Oman Vision 2040, AI will undoubtedly play a part in helping tourism reach its targets of generating US$22.5 billion per annum, contributing 6% to GDP, creating 535,000 jobs and adding 80,000 hospitality keys to our inventory by 2040.

I am confident in the strength of Oman’s travel and tourism industry, in our nation’s exceptional and unique offer as a destination – its astounding natural beauty and vibrant culture that attracts, and will continue to attract, tourists from around the globe. I am confident too in the talents and skills of our ambitious youth. In fact, I greatly look forward to seeing how the full deployment of AI technology will reinforce Oman’s offer, how it will open up new opportunities, drive growth and enhance the life of our people and create opportunities for generations to come.