Irem Onder Neuhofer’s trusty orange suitcase may have sat idle during the pandemic, but her mind has been busy. If you’re someone who studies travel, as Neuhofer does, the last few years have been turbulent. The Covid-19 pandemic upended the industry and, with new variants sweeping the globe, kept even a “new normal” in flux. Neuhofer, an associate professor of hospitality and tourism management at Isenberg, examines the intersections between technology and tourism. She’s investigated how social media drives travel demand, how the sharing economy has changed supply, and how emerging trends, such as blockchain technology—now mostly associated with cryptocurrency—may become the standard operating platform for the industry and may change how online transactions are handled.
Fittingly, for someone who studies travel, Neuhofer has seen much of the world. She grew up in Istanbul, where she studied economics; came to the U.S. for a master’s degree in information technology; and completed her PhD in travel and tourism management at Clemson University. She has visited every European country, seen much of Asia, had her passport stamped in New Zealand and Costa Rica, and been all over the U.S. She spent more than a decade in Vienna, teaching at Modul University. Post pandemic, she’d like to visit Japan.
“Normally, I’m always going somewhere. It was very difficult to stay put for these last two years,” she says.
But in the meantime, she’s training to be a volunteer firefighter in Amherst and taking mental journeys, imagining how the travel industry might change. The industry needs to reckon not only with contagious diseases, but also with crowds. Pre-pandemic, the world’s top destinations were in crisis. Cheap flights and social-media popularity meant iconic destinations such as Florence, Barcelona, Amsterdam, and—most famously—Venice, were often swamped with visitors. (In Venice, a city of 55,000 residents, as many as 120,000 tourists would arrive each day in peak season. In March of 2021, after trying measures such as entry turnstiles and taxes on day trippers, Venice banned larger cruise ships from docking in the lagoon.)
Neuhofer believes that high-demand global destinations will increasingly use booking and forecasting technology to manage crowds. Similar to a Waze app for visitors, Neuhofer imagines cities developing “a multi-pass electronic ticket that shows how crowded a place is at a given time, so that people can be prompted to go onto the next museum, a nearby café, or another option.” With fewer peaks and valleys in visitors, venues would be better able to manage security, cleaning, and staffing.
In contrast, lesser-known destinations that want to reap the benefits of tourism can use social media to raise their profile.
Tourism creates jobs, and can prompt infrastructure investment and conservation from central governments, she says. For instance, if a village can track how many visitors travel to its mosque or historic ruin, it may be possible for planners to make a case for funding public transportation, public toilets, bike paths, or other amenities. Neuhofer’s 2021 paper “An exploratory analysis of geotagged photos from Instagram for residents of and visitors to Vienna,” published in the Journal of Hospitality & Tourism Research, offers takeaways for how destinations that want to raise their profile might go about it. Neuhofer and colleague Ulrich Gunter from Modul University examined 627,632 geotagged photos for the most visited sites in Vienna and determined the best way to predict tourism interest in a site (versus local usage) was to look at the number of likes and comments, not the sheer number of photos. Simply posting a site many times “does not automatically generate engagement,” they concluded. In other words, places wanting to increase tourism need to find ways to build dialogue with prospective visitors.
Neuhofer is researching what kinds of experiences travel might serve up next, including NFTs (non-fungible tokens), which have become hot in digital art and may have a role to play in virtual travel experiences.
“They may belong to the hospitality experience eventually,” she says. “So many possibilities. A lot of change is coming.”