Creating An Electronic Marketplace For Tourism
A new initiative to implement open, ontology-based software on 12 European travel websites, creating an electronic market place for tourism is set to allow the travel industry to share information across geographical, linguistic and technological boundaries.
The Tourism Harmonisation Network (THN), a consortium open to public and private organisations set up by the Harmonise project partners with funding from the European Commission s IST programme, is currently in the process of launching the trials.
Harmonise on trial
"We know the technology works. What the trials will show is how the business plan should develop, what barriers there are and what potential there is," explains Manfred Hackl at EC3, who will coordinate the forthcoming trial phase of the project.
The trials, which are due to begin in the first half of this year and run for 18 months, will involve the implementation of Harmonise pilots on the websites of a variety of tourism actors, including national tourism boards in Spain, France, Portugal and Finland, regional tourism organisations in Italy and Austria as well as in the private sector.
The travel industry has been driven peoples desire to see different places and experience different cultures. But this diversity that makes vacations so appealing also represents one of its major problems. Technological differences between businesses, regions and countries have limited their ability to interoperate, cooperate and collaborate - until now.
Unlike other initiatives to increase interoperability, Harmonise does not seek to promote the standardisation of systems. As its name suggests, it harmonises them, allowing individual companies, tourism boards and information providers to retain the diversity of their own proprietary systems but allowing these to interoperate through the Harmonise platform. Being ontology-based, the platform operates as a kind of lingua franca between different systems.
By taking this flexible approach, Harmonise is cheaper and simpler to implement than standardisation, giving it enormous potential for widespread use by travel actors in Europe and beyond - so much so that the THN may eventually take part in the European Commissions proposal for a European Tourism Portal.
"THN at present is a consortium and a concept, it is not yet an organisation with stable management, although our goal is to transform it into a non-profit organisation that could then participate in a European Tourism Portal," Antonella Fresa, who managed the projects research phase, notes. "That will be one of the goals during the trial phase."
The need for interoperability
The problem the software platform solves has been as evident as it has been difficult to overcome. Take for example a soccer fan who wants to travel from his home country to another country where his team is playing away. He wants to fly in, travel from the airport to a hotel near the stadium, obtain tickets for the game and fly home again a day later. For a travel agent or tour operator to arrange the trip, they must contact the airline, the airport taxi service, the soccer stadium and the hotel to obtain the information. If all of these actors were connected via the Harmonise system comprehensive real-time information would be readily available.
That is not to say interoperability systems in travel and tourism are new, but until now they have generally been highly specific. Although the travel industry was one of the first sectors to employ information communication technologies for business-to-business commerce as early as the 1950s, these were - and largely remain - dedicated services for one sub-sector such as airline bookings or hotel reservations.
Given that there are an estimated 1.3 million travel and tourism businesses in Europe - 9 per cent of all European enterprises - and that 95 per cent of them are small or medium-sized and more than 40 per cent have websites, the diversity in both areas of operation and technologies is enormous. To date around one third of all e-commerce is accounted for by the travel and tourism sector, and with greater interoperability at a B2B and B2C level this can only expand.
"The value of the Harmonise system increases parallel to the number of members in the network," Fresa notes, stressing that the consortium is currently focusing on working with the public sector, and especially with key players such as the World Tourism Organisation and the European Travel Commission. Already the THN has expanded from its original seven members during the research and design phase that ended last July to the 14 partners who will carry out the trials.
"There is definitely space and a need for a tourism e-market place in Europe," Fresa says, pointing to demand for travel services from outside of the continent as well as internal demand. In addition, smaller destinations are seeking new methods of promotion, and as Fresa indicates, with an e-market place "it is just as easy to make a small destination as visible as a large one."
Tara Morris | alfa