Andres Oppenheimer

Rise in tourism will create millions of new jobs, as robots kill many others

AP

Many people wonder how we’re going to solve the problem of massive unemployment in the coming years as tens of millions of jobs are replaced by increasingly intelligent robots and computer programs. Here’s one possible solution: the tourism industry.

That’s the first thing that came to mind when I read a new report prepared by the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) for the recent G-20 summit of the world’s largest economies in Argentina.

According to the report, the travel and tourism industry will generate 61 million net new jobs in the world’s twenty largest economies over the next ten years. Worldwide, the figure is expected to reach 100 million net new jobs over the same period.

Tourism jobs will grow because the number of domestic and international travelers will skyrocket by 500 million over the next twelve years, to 1.8 billion, the report says.

Among other reasons, there will be tens of millions of new Chinese tourists, as China’s middle-class continues to grow. Also, Millennials are much more eager to travel than their parents and grandparents.

“In the past, people would save money to buy a house or a car before they spent it on travel. Not anymore,” WTTC president Gloria Guevara told me. “Millenials prefer to travel, and to use Uber instead of buying a car.”

But won’t robots replace millions of workers in the travel and hospitality industries?, I asked Guevara.

I mentioned to her that during a trip to Japan last year, I stayed in a hotel where all the concierges were robots. A robotic concierge asked me to put my passport in a photocopier on the front desk, gave me an electronic tablet to sign my check-in, and directed me with his hand to another machine next to him where I inserted my credit card and took my room key.

Guevara responded that the check-in procedure in most hotels will be robotized, but other functions won’t.

Growing numbers of hotels are already using biometrics for face recognition to allow you to go directly to your room, without even interacting with a robotic concierge. Once you get to your room, you can unlock the door with your cellular phone, she said.

“But countries will need people to give advice to travelers and promote experiences,” Guevara said. “Hotels will need humans to interact with travelers and recommend them what to do.”

These travel consultants will have to have a good education and be experts in one or more of several niche areas such as medical tourism, spiritual tourism, gastronomic tourism and many kinds of sports and adventure tourism.

Skeptics also speculate that virtual reality and augmented reality will hurt the tourism industry, since some people may prefer to see Rome’s Coliseum sitting in their couches with their virtual reality headsets, rather than traveling to Italy to see the real thing.

But travel industry gurus predict that people will want to visit the Coliseum in person and use their augmented reality glasses there to see images of how gladiators fought at that very place in ancient times.

The WTTC report says that not all countries and cities will be able to take full advantage of the expected rise in world travel. To be competitive, they will have to develop new tourism destinations and niche activities, and improve their tourism infrastructure by among other things adopting facial recognition technology, it says.

For instance, some flights from Los Angeles to London have already managed to cut waiting time at the airport from 45 minutes to 20 minutes, thanks to facial recognition devices. By comparison, virtually all Latin American countries are way behind in the use of these technologies, and their cumbersome migration procedures may scare away many travelers, WTTC experts say.

The good news is that, in an age in which more and more factory and office jobs will be performed by robots, the rise of worldwide tourism will require growing numbers of humans to give travelers a warm welcome and offer them personal advice. At least in this area, technology will not be a net job killer - as long as countries and cities start investing now to attract the coming waves of world travelers.

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