Le robot Mario au salon ITB de Berlin, le 10 mars 2016

The world of tourism populated by robots at the ITB exhibition in Berlin

Berlin (AFP) – A robot welcomes you, another hands you the card of your room, a third gives you the password of the wifi. At the ITB exhibition in Berlin, humanoids make a remarkable entry into the world of tourism.

At the entrance of the Berlin Exhibition center, ChihiraKanae welcomes visitors to the world’s largest tourism fair, in English, German, Chinese and Japanese.

This is the first time that this humanoid robot, with the features of a young woman of 26 years, makes the trip to Europe. For three months, his “sister” has been welcoming in a shopping center in Tokyo, but Toshiba, its creator sees a great future for its robot in tourism.

Mario has already found a job. At the Marriott hotel in Ghent, Belgium, he has been welcoming guests since June, in 19 languages, presenting buffet dishes, singing and dancing. On the other hand, he does not pretend to look like a human: white with red stripes, he has speakers as ears and has only six fingers.

His presence “makes a smile appear on everyone’s face. It is a good way for people to remember our hotel”, explains Roger Langhout, the general manager.

“We are only at the beginning of robots in our industry,” he predicts, referring to “assistance”, but not the replacement of humans.

– Servers or guides –

However, according to Carl Benedikt Frey, of the University of Oxford, “in tourism, a large panel of jobs are likely to be automated”, whether it is the waiter, the tour guide or the driver. Enough to worry a sector that is a big provider of jobs.

“If customers like the robot-receptionist, then it will spread quickly. Otherwise no,” he emphasizes, recalling that automatic checkouts have not supplanted human beings in supermarkets.

According to a survey conducted for Travelzoo among 6,000 travelers, almost two thirds of people say they are comfortable with the use of robots in tourism, with the Chinese being the most enthusiastic when French and Germans are more reluctant.

Taleb Rifai, Secretary General of the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), urges “no limits to the use of technology in hotels and tourist facilities”.

“Our sector is well behind (…) We were able to send a man to the Moon long before we thought of putting wheels on a suitcase,” he illustrates.

If there is one train that the tourism industry does not intend to miss, it is that of virtual reality, the technology with “perhaps the greatest potential” in the field of travel, according to the German high-tech association Bitkom.

– Pre-visit your room –

Suddenly you are no longer in Berlin, but at a table on the terrace. On the left, you see elephants in the distance in front of the sunset, on the right a waiter brings brightly colored cocktails.

The Cinnamon hotel chain, in the Maldives – the country to honor the ITB 2016 -, and Sri Lanka, uses a virtual reality headset to allow to “get closer to the product,” says marketing director Dileep Mudadeniya.

At the Bavarian stand, young women in traditional dress also offer to put on the imposing helmet to discover the bucolic landscapes of this region of southern Germany.

Gradually, travel agencies equip themselves. The British Thomas Cook was one of the first to allow its customers to have, for example, a glimpse of a helicopter tour over Manhattan.

For Professor Armin Brysch, from the University of Applied Sciences in Kempten (southwest Germany), this is nothing like yet another technological gadget, which will be hunted by another shortly.

“It’s a new quality of experience. If you look at the different cabins of a cruise ship, I’m sure you opt for a different cabin category than on catalog,” he explains to AFP.

But this is “never” going to replace travel for real, says Taleb Rifai. “I hope,” he adds.

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