How Malaga is using ‘smart tourism’ to rebound from Covid

Eugene Yiga
·4-min read
<p>Malaga is the gateway to the Costa del Sol region</p> (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Malaga is the gateway to the Costa del Sol region

(Getty Images/iStockphoto)

With a population of about 1.1 million people, Malaga is Spain’s sixth largest city and a major economic leader in the southern part of Andalucia. But the city isn’t just a transportation hub; it’s also a destination in itself.

The past few decades have seen major transformations to make it more pedestrian friendly. These have made it a popular urban destination and even led to a tremendous rise in tourism, with close to 3 million visitors in 2019.

“To handle this growth, we needed to be smart and use technology to our advantage,” says Marc Sanderson, director of international economic development for the City of Malaga.

“Luckily, Malaga is located in an innovative ecosystem we call Malaga Valley. Many technology companies (from Spain and abroad) work here – there’s a concentration at the Malaga Tech Park, just 15km outside the city. The presence of these major companies allowed us to start implementing solutions many years ago; not only for tourism but also for sustainability and the environment.”

Now the city – along with Gothenburg in Sweden – has been selected as co-winner of the 2020 European Capital of Smart Tourism competition. The award has verified the city’s strategic plan, proving that its initiatives are good for both tourists and citizens, all the while providing a solid basis for a travel restart in the wake of Covid-19.

Apps and hacks

Malaga’s solutions have spanned electric mobility, water conservation, renewable energy generation and apps for tourists. One example is the bus system – visitors can find out where the nearest bus stop is, which buses go there and when the next one will arrive, all using augmented reality tech on their smartphone. Now, in the midst of a global pandemic, these tools are proving even more valuable.

“Spain was one of the hardest hit countries,” Sanderson says. “We went into full lockdown and tourism was devastated. The city was quick to respond with different solutions about how to move forward. We created a website where people could get the latest information and data about what was going on in the city and to reassure them that it was OK to come back. We also worked closely with the airport and the train station to create a safe corridor for arriving tourists, whether they were using municipal buses or taxis, all the way to their hotels.”

Malaga also organised a contest and hackathon to gather ideas from entrepreneurs and technology companies in the city. The winner of the competition was a smart tour guide that consolidated different audio guides within the city so that people no longer had to rent them out individually. The winner of the hackathon was a co-living tool that allowed people to rent out spaces over a longer period of time on a single platform.

Malaga is feeding the city’s data to create tech that helps people navigate the cityGetty Images/iStockphoto
Malaga is feeding the city’s data to create tech that helps people navigate the cityGetty Images/iStockphoto

“The basis for the hackathon was on open data, which is key in the recovery,” Sanderson says. “Malaga has lots of datasets that we’re able to work from. One of the things we’ve created on top of those datasets is our chatbot, which tourists can use from any of their devices to ask questions and get information. It accesses all the open data we have within our system. This is a simplified way that technology can put information into people’s hands.”

Life’s a beach

Another app involves beaches, many of which closed several times during the summer because overcrowding made it impossible to maintain the required social distancing. The provincial government asked the University of Malaga’s Chair of Coastal and Marine Sciences and the EDANYA big data analysis research group to find a solution, which came in the form of the AforoCostadDelSol.es website and mobile app. It ended up doing far more than merely tackling visitor numbers.

“This application uses predictive algorithms based on artificial intelligence with data it receives from sensors and municipal beach workers,” Sanderson says. “It displays, in hourly intervals, the current occupancy rate, air temperature, water temperature, wind speed and direction, the currents, wave height, direction and period, as well as the presence of seaweed or jellyfish for each beach along the Malaga coastline.”

Apps have been used for crowd control on the beach in MalagaGetty Images/iStockphoto
Apps have been used for crowd control on the beach in MalagaGetty Images/iStockphoto

In August, Malaga took another forward-thinking step, entering into an agreement with the World Tourism Organisation to be one of the pilot cities for a digital passport. The hope is that providing up-to-date information will make contact tracing easier and perhaps even do away with the mandatory quarantines many travellers currently face.

The next project on the horizon? An interactive virtual reality game, similar to Pokémon Go, which would allow people to explore the city and discover new and constantly updated things.

“We all know that this is a difficult time for the industry and that we have to work together,” Sanderson says. “Individuals need correct information, and cities and governments have the opportunity to provide that. This will help redefine the public private partnerships and relationships.

"In the past, some of the larger providers were controlling and selling data but we now have an opportunity to look at more data sharing across the industry.

“Hopefully, that will benefit the tourists, the cities, and the companies involved.”

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