Tourist’s Tracking and Geographical Positioning Systems in Tourism

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Efforts to develop commercial applications for tourists, including location-aware mobile information systems or location-aware electronic guidebooks, have been underway since the end of the 1990s (Schilling et al. 2005; Ten Hagen et al. 2005). However, the implementation of the tracking abilities of GPS receivers, mobile phones and recently smartphones for tourism research started in the second half of the first decade of the 2000's and publications in the topic started to appear in 2007.

The Global Positioning System (GPS) offer researchers the opportunity of continuous and intensive high-resolution data collection in time (seconds) and space (meters) for long periods of time; this was never possible before in spatial research. GPS and other tracking technologies are now used in a wide variety of fields aside from tourism, such as environmental health; the medical field, in such subjects as Alzheimer’s disease, physiology, and cardiology.


Acquiring tourist movements in time and space has the potential in providing arrival and departure times, attractions visited, the sequence of attractions visited, as well as walking speed and orientation. Spatio-temporal characteristics of tourist movements are recorded in GPS devices to capture parameters such as sites visited, time of day (when), duration (how long) and sequence (what order). Changes in these characteristics indicate changes in tourist positioning that in turn reflect exhibited tourist behaviour. Scheduling of recreational activities that a tourist plans to undertake at a destination is therefore inextricably embedded within the constraints of space and time. Understanding of mobility of tourist within the limits imposed by space and time will help answering the queries such as ‘what are the typical patterns exhibited by day visitors compared to those visitors on a longer stay?’ and ‘where and when are peak capacities occurring?’


As with any emerging technology, tourism researchers are still experimenting to determine the limits of its application. Much of the research that implemented tracking technologies, up to this date, tends to be rather descriptive and small scale. Some more sophisticated studies have been conducted, but they have mostly been tightly spatially bound, for example, focusing on small historic cities (Modsching et al. 2008; Shoval, 2008; Spek, 2008; Tchetchik et al., 2009), confined attractions like theme parks and zoos (Russo et al., 2010; Pettersson and Zillinger, 2011), natural parks (Arrowsmith and Chhetri, 2003; Harder et al., 2008; Hallo et al., 2012) and small Islands (Xia et al., 2009; Nielsen et al., 2010). Each of these locales has a clearly defined entry and exit point both making the selection of potential participants and the modeling of their movements an easier task. Only few large, complex and multifunctional urban settings like Rome (Calabrese and Ratti, 2006) and Hong Kong have also been investigated successfully as well using GPS (McKercher et al., 2012; Shoval et al., 2012). Recently, we are aware of wide scale GPS based surveys on a national scale.

Estonian group of researchers (Ahas et al. 2007, Ahas et al. 2008) used cellular network information on a national scale to gain insight into the activity of tourists in Estonia. In the first paper, published in 2007, cellular phone data was used to establish spatial patterns of tourists in different seasons. The second paper focused on the flows of tourist movement as can be observed by the records describing the roaming phones in the cellular phone network’s database.

The first and only book written about the implementation of advanced tracking technologies for the research of tourists’ outdoor movements in time-space and their activities was written by Noam Shoval and Michal Isaacson and was published in 2010 by Routledge.

The Future

The implication of the fast and wide introduction of smartphones since about 2005 and onwards has created immense availability of information for their users at any time and any place; this had also implications on the ability of tourists to receive information while touring the destination and change the whole paradigm about tourists' knowledge of destinations (Tussyadiah and Zach, 2012). However, until recently due to the high roaming prices for phones crossing international borders, the use of such data by tourists or researchers where relatively limited, however recently use of local sim cards and attractive international roaming programs made smartphones relevant for tourist in destinations. The advantage of smarphones for tourism research is obvious, in addition to the tracking of the phone, the user can answer online questionnaires about his experiences in a destination.

Notes and References

Ahas, Rein, Anto Aasa, Ular Mark, Taavi Pae, and Ain Kull. 2007. “Seasonal tourism spaces in Estonia: Case study with mobile positioning data.” Tourism Management, 28: 898-910.

Ahas, Rein, Anto Aasa, Antti Roose, Ular Mark, and Siiri Silm. 2008. “Evaluating passive mobile positioning data for tourism surveys: An Estonian case study.” Tourism Management, 29: 469-86.

Arrowsmith Colin. and Prem Chhetri. 2003. Port Campbell National Park: Patterns of Use: A report for the development of visitor typology as input to a generic model of visitor movements and patterns of use. Prepared for Parks Victoria, Melbourne.

Calabrese, Francesco and Carlo Ratti. 2006. “Real Time Rome.” Networks and Communication Studies - NETCOM, 20: 247-58.

Chhetri, Prem, Corcoran, Jonathan C., and Colin Arrowsmith. 2010. “Investigating the Temporal Dynamics of Tourist Movements: An Application of Circular Statistics.” Tourism Analysis, 15: 71-88.

Hallo, Jeffrey C., Adam Beeco, Cari Goetcheus, John McGee, Nancy Gard McGehee and William C. Norman. 2012. “GPS as a Method for Assessing Spatial and Temporal Use Distributions of Nature-Based Tourists.” Journal of Travel Research, 20: 1-16

Harder, Henrik, Peter Bro, Nerius Tradisauskas, Thomas Alexander, and Sick Nielsen. 2008. “Tracking Visitors in public parks – Experiences with GPS in Denmark.” In Urbanism on track: Application of tracking technologies in urbanism, edited by Jeroen van Schaick, and Stefan C. van der Spek, 65-77. Amsterdam: IOS Press BV.

McKercher, Bob, Noam Shoval, Ng. Erica and Amit Birenboim. 2012. “Using GPS Data to Compare First-Time and Repeat Visitors to Hong Kong.” Tourism Geographies, 14: 147-161

Modsching, Marko. 2008. “Using location-based tracking data to analyze the movements of city tourists.” Information Technology & Tourism, 10: 31-42.

Nielsen, Niels. 2010. “Approaches to GPS-survey of tourist movements within a North Sea Island Destination.” Paper presented at the ENTER 2010 Conference, Lugano, Switzerland, February 10-12, 2010.

Pettersson, Robert and Malin Zillinger. 2011. “Time and Space in Event Behaviour: Tracking Visitors by GPS.” Tourism Geographies, 13: 1-20

Russo, Atonio P., Salvador A. Clave, and Noam Shoval. 2010. “Advanced Visitor Tracking Analysis in Practice: Explorations in the PortAventura Theme Park and Insights for a Future Research Agenda.” In Information and Communication Technologies in Tourism, edited by U. Gretzel, R. Law and M. Fuchs, 159-170. Vienna and New York: Springer, 2010.

Schilling, A., Coors, V., and Laakso, K. (2005) 'Dynamic 3D maps for mobile tourism applications. in L. Meng, A. Zipf and T. Reichenbacher (eds) Map-based Mobile Services: Theories, Methods and Implementations, New York: Springer Geosciences, 233-44.

Shoval, Noam. 2008. “Tracking technologies and urban analysis.” Cities, 25: 21-8.

Shoval, Noam and Michal Isaacson. 2007. 'Tracking tourist in the digital age', Annals of Tourism Research, 34: 141-59.

Shoval, Noam and Michal Isaacson. Tourist Mobility and Advanced Tracking Technologies. London and New York: Routledge, 2010.

Shoval, Noam, Bob McKercher, Erica Ng, and Amit Birenboim. 2011. “Hotel Location and Tourist Activity in Cities.” Annals of Tourism Research, 38: 1594-1612

Ten Hagen, K., Modsching, M., and Kramer, R. (2005) A Location Aware Mobile Tourist Guide Selecting and Interpreting Sights and Services by Context Matching. Paper presented at the 2nd Annual International Conference on Mobile and Ubiquitous Systems: Networking and Services, 17-21 July, San Diego, CA.

Van der Spek, Stefan C. “Spatial Metro: Tracking Pedestrians in Historic City Centres.” In Urbanism on Track: Application if Tracking Technologies in Urbanism, edited by Jeroen van Schaick, and Stefan C. van der Spek 79-102. Amsterdam: IOS Press, 2008.

Tchetchik, Anat, Aliza Fleischer, and Noam Shoval. 2009. “Segmentation of Visitors to a Heritage Site Using High Resolution Time-Space Data.” Journal of Travel Research, 48: 216-229.

Tussyadiah, Lis P., and Florian J. Zach. 2012. “The Role of Geo-Based Technology in Place Experiences.” Annals of Tourism Research. 39:780-800.

Xia, Jianhong, Colin Arrowsmith, Mervyn Jackson, and William Cartwright. 2008. “The wayfinding process relationships between decision-making and landmark utility.” Tourism Management, 29: 445-57.

Further Reading

Shoval, Noam and Michal Isaacson. Tourist Mobility and Advanced Tracking Technologies. London and New York: Routledge, 2010.