Tourism is undergoing major changes in the advent of social media networks and other forms of digital technology. This has affected a number of tourism related processes including marketing, destination making, travel experiences and visitor feedback but also various tourism subsectors, namely hospitality, transportation and tour operators. An already substantial and growing body of research has investigated these developments, both regarding tourism processes (Munar 2011, Tham et. al. 2013, Mkono & Tribe, 2017) and industry subsectors (Leung et al. 2013, Munar & Jacobsen, 2014, Gretzel & Fesenmaier 2009, Hvass & Munar, 2012). However, largely overlooked are the effects of these changes on the urban fabric and its social structure, in particular questions concerning inequality.
Digital technologies are widely perceived as a vehicle to foster economic upliftment. Advocacy for new digital platforms and devices often includes claims that they allow for a wider distribution of the benefits of tourism (Martin 2016, Cheng 2016). There is plenty of evidence that tourism, helped by digital technologies, has dispersed into urban spaces/places which have not previously been associated much with the tourist gaze (Maitland & Newman 2009). In this situation, even social inequality, and poverty as such, can become a tourist attraction and at times subject to commodification processes, as research on slum tourism has shown (Burgold et al. 2013, Freire-Medeiros 2013, Frenzel et al. 2015, Frenzel 2016, Whyte 2017).
But claims that digitally enhanced tourism is able to address issues of inequality remain contested as resistance and protest against noise, overcrowding and tourism-related gentrification has become an issue across various cities (Colomb/Novy 2017). They also remain largely untested empirically.
Against this backdrop we aim to bring together two aspects of tourism studies which have been treated rather isolated from one another but need to be addressed in their complex interrelations: the influence of digital technologies on tourism and the question of tourism and urban inequality. The panel seeks to examine a broad range of studies that deal with issues of urban inequality in regard to the application of digital technologies in the tourism sector. The research questions guiding papers for this session emerge from three interconnected dimensions (1) Narratives and representations; (2) Media infrastructures and the power of algorithms; and (3) Political economy and material effects.
Narratives and Representation
Some insinuations have been made in terms of the potential of social media to reduce inequality, due to its accessibility and the free or low-cost nature of its use. Social media may enable marginalised urban citizens to amplify their voice in urban conflicts. (Martin 2016, Xenos, Vromen & Loader 2014). Tourists can be catalyst in these processes by providing an audience and prompting the need and the economic incentive to create local stories about places. More generally speaking, tourism has been shown to put places otherwise marginalised on maps from which they were previously hidden (Steinbrink et al 2014), however such processes may have problematic consequences (Holst 2016). We seek to understand better how digital technologies can assist in putting certain, either unknown or stigmatized, areas “on the map” and thus increase their visibility as a destination in terms of tourism offerings (Cheng 2016)
Media infrastructures and the power of algorithms
While there is evidence for a wider expansion of digital infrastructures into neglected neighborhoods, the quality, speed and spread of media infrastructures often remains reflective of the relative wealth of an area. How do digital infrastructure projects affect tourism’s ability to alleviate poverty? And even if infrastructural limits are overcome, researchers are increasingly sceptical about claims regarding the platform economy’s promise of equality (Baka 2015). Algorythmic management and rationality is far from neutral (Jeacle and Carter 2011). Do the algorythmic rationales and software principles of digitally enhanced tourism work as empowering the urban poor? And are platforms really “equal” when tour operators with larger capital seem to have advantages in terms of social media management and also the manipulation of algorithms?
Political Economy and material effects
Key sharing economy actors of urban tourism like AirBnB claim that their endevor has poverty alleviating aspects. Thus struggling families may increase their revenue by temporarily renting out vacant rooms or housing. The evidence for this is scarce and often contradicting claims are made, e.g. that Airbnb drives up local rents and has displacement effects (Lee 2016, Sans & Domínguez. 2016). In addition, some research has demonstrated that the sharing economy is displacing traditional tourism economies with significant consequences for local operators that rely on this market (Fang, Ye & Law, 2015). Moreover leakages need to be re-considered as every AirBnB transaction moves locally generated money to California.
We invite papers from a variety of disciplines and with both qualitative and quantitative approaches. We also note that digital technologies have opened new methodological possibilities, in particular for social science and big data uses. We encourage contributions that make use of these new technologies, as well as reflect on the methodological implications of the new availability (or limits there of) of large scale data sets in digital form.