German tourism industry leaps into the digital age

11 Oct

In this day and age, planning and booking a holiday on the internet has become the norm. So is trawling social media platforms like Instagram and YouTube for vacation inspiration.


As a result, to stay competitive, travel companies and hotel chains must keep up with the digital age and ensure prospective holidaymakers can find and book their offerings online. The German tourism industry, however, has been slow to embrace the digital solutions. When the COVID pandemic hit, however, many were left with no choice but to go digital.

Pandemic kick-starts digitization 

When pandemic-related travel restrictions made it difficult to travel abroad in 2020 and 2021, many Germans opted to spend their vacations within Germany. During the warmer months, German beaches were packed with holidaymakers, and many campsites and hotels were booked out for weeks. On top of that, many companies working in the tourist sector began advertising their services online. "The coronavirus pandemic forced and convinced small companies in particular to embrace digitization," a spokesperson for the Federal Association of the German Tourism Industry (BTW) tells DW.

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Hotels and restaurants introduced a spate of innovations, such as virtual menus, online reservation and booking systems, as well as contact-less check-in options. A 2021 survey by the German Tourism Association (DTV) found that 84% of businesses said the pandemic had spurred digital transformation in the industry.

Tourists visiting Germany's East Frisian Islands can now, for example, use a special app to check-in and out of hotels, or book restaurant tables. Guests wishing to book and pay for a beach chair along Germany's popular North Sea or Baltic Sea coast can do so online. And vacationers heading for spa towns can now buy virtual visitors' cards, entitling them various discounts and free beach access.

While progress has been made in some areas, Germany still lags behinds in others. Take cashless payments, for instance. While card payments are widely accepted in Denmark, Poland and Lithuania, many German businesses still run on cash. When out and about in rural Germany, you are also likely experience poor phone reception, slow internet, and a dearth of public wifi.

Traveling back in time

Overall, however, Germany's tourism sector seems to have awoken from its analog slumber and is embracing the digital age. Almost overnight, many business have begun advertising their services online, investing in mobile-first and social media platforms, and using Instagram as a marketing tool. Some are even developing new gadgets and technologies to pull in new clients.

City marketing agencies in Munich, Bamberg and Wolfenbuttel, for instance, now offer virtual tours to attract prospective tourists. The city of Essen, in Germany's far-west, began running hybrid tours that combine virtual and analog elements in 2021. Visitors don virtual reality goggles, which track their GPS location, showing them what Essen city life was like in the late 19th century. 

Other companies offer similar history tours of Cologne. Sign up with TimeRide Go!, and you can experience certain parts of Cologne as they were decades ago thanks to special virtual reality glasses.

Airbnb, the popular accommodation platform, also offers virtual cooking classes, and online-only tours of famous landmarks, such as India's iconic Taj Mahal palace. Travel agencies are also letting clients explore potential holiday destinations with virtual reality goggles. All this helps attract and retain customers.

Managing visitor flows

Traveling around Germany has become much easier in recent years thanks to new digital technologies. Some are applied to better manage visitor flows and avoid overcrowding of roads, tourist attractions, beaches and so forth.

When masses of German holidaymakers streamed to the North Sea coast in the summer of 2020 and 2021, crowding beaches, authorities found themselves worrying about how to ensure social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

They then tasked a marketing agency with developing a virtual traffic light system indicating how many people are frequenting local beaches at any given time. Laser sensors register the number of beachgoers and vehicles in an area, then translate this information into a simple, color-coded traffic light heuristic accessible online and displayed on local monitors. This way, people at home, and nearby, can pick less frequented beaches to avoid overcrowding.

Challenges remain

Germany's Hotel and Restaurant Association (DEHOGA) says some business still, however, have a hard time integrating digital technologies into their existing infrastructure. Two reasons explain this sluggish uptake, according to industry association DTV: A lack of funds and pronounced staff-shortages. The latter has meant that companies lack employees with the necessary expertise to oversee such changes.

That said, not all services could or should be shifted online. The tourist trade is built, after all, on interpersonal encounters, hospitality, brick-and-mortar hotels and restaurants, great food and friendly smiles. After all, this is what holidays are really all about.


Author Sophie Dissemond

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