Enrico Panai, on Tourism Research, AI, Data Privacy and the Future of Tourism

Enrico Panai, Information Interaction Specialist, Information Ethicist and current President of Euro Asia Tourism Studies Association (EATSA), talked to us about his connection with Tourism and Tourism Research, his view on Data Privacy and Artificial Intelligence within the industry and his vision and contribution of and for the future.

Enrico, when did you discover your passion for Tourism and how does your work as a Human Information Interaction Specialist and Information Ethicist inform your research in the subject?

I am a philosopher, and like any genuine philosopher I am curious … very curious. Tourism research is one of my most recent passions. I discovered tourism in three different moments of my life.  First as a citizen of a tourism destination where I immediately had to face the problem of sustainable tourism. Then as a tourist, for pleasure, work or both. Eventually and coincidentally, as a researcher.

For the last few years, I’ve been working actively on how information was created from data and then transformed into knowledge. But in reality, I have been doing this unconsciously throughout my life: during my academic career as a professor in digital humanities in Sardinia, Italy; then since 2007 as an IT (or better an HII) Consultant in Paris, France. In 2017 I was lucky to attend an Executive Education on cybersecurity awareness at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Security and Justice (INHESJ), directly supported by the French Prime Minister. I spent a year attending the beautiful Military School in Paris at the end of Champ-de-Mars, greeted by uniforms from all over the world and riders of the national equestrian society trotting in the dirt track of the Cour Morland. There, I had the opportunity to meet the most influential people in cybersecurity in France, while also reigniting my desire for academic research. I picked up from the beginning, enrolling in a PhD in human geography. Initially, I was supposed to deal with cybersecurity issues in tourism destinations, but actually, my thesis became a work on cyber geo-strategies.

From a philosophical point of view, a tourism destination is a ganglion that concentrates languages, cultures, peoples, data, information and knowledge. In this sense, tourism can be seen as an extraordinary tool for creating culture and building peace. However, in a world where data, information, and knowledge are digital, the dimensions of good and bad also change. Floridi (2012) argued that “those who live by the digit may die by the digit”: therefore, we must do everything to stay alive.  

In short, my thesis argued that tourism destinations are “latent battlefields for future cyber wars”. Therefore, to protect culture and build peace we will need to actively safeguard tourism destinations.    

You are not only a researcher but also the current president of EATSA. How did that come about and are there any research areas or questions which should receive more attention?

Becoming the president of EATSA was a big surprise. I attended the fourth international conference in France and then the fifth in Turkey. In the association, I met a group of helpful and welcoming researchers. Last year in Italy, thanks to a dynamic team of young researchers, I organized the sixth international conference (held online due to the pandemic). In the same period, elections were held and here I am, president of a brilliant association.

For me, a new and involving adventure started. During the last year, we have been able to organise many initiatives to make known our members’ work in Europe and Asia: a scientific journal with a double-blind review, a monthly online meeting with tourism researchers, a series of interviews with senior researchers made by students and in 2021, for the first time, EATSA will be organising an International Tourism Film Festival. All these activities are possible thanks to the passion and unwavering commitment of the organisation’s members. It is, of course, impossible to mention everyone, but I sincerely recognise the quality of their participation.

Researching in tourism is like being a 15th-century explorer. As you move away from known waters you discover a continent full of attractions. To be completely honest, I couldn’t say which area of research should receive more attention, because tourism is maybe the most multidisciplinary discipline on earth, while at the same time the scientifically youngest. There are new sub-sectors that are constantly developing. I am thinking of neurotourism, virtual tourism, the implementation of cultural tourism, sensory tourism, religious tourism, but the list is very long. In short, tourism is still an unexplored planet, and I invite all those who have new ideas and new visions to share them with our association and publish them in our journal.

You are also a ForHumanity fellow. What motivated you to get involved?

The landing at ForHumanity – an organisation that advocates on behalf of Humanity vis a vis artificial intelligence and robotics – was quite natural. I am a philosopher, an information ethicist, so I am naturally inclined to deal with the impact of all the technologies that cope with data. Even my first thesis in the 90s was about the alienation of human rights in global communication technologies. But I am a philosopher who doesn’t like to do only philosophy, or as Robert Pirsig (the author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Lila) used to say, I am a philosopher and not a philosophologist. I love to find solutions, to semantise everyday technologies, to build semantic capital for future generations. For a few years now, the spread of artificial intelligence is daily raising huge ethical issues. Therefore, I feel obliged to intervene in the discussion. At this moment many groups are working on the ethics of artificial intelligence. And I believe that each group will allow for progress, but ForHumanity probably has the most pragmatic and scalable approach. The group is open and bases its philosophy on the diversity of input, multi-stakeholder feedback, and independence. Today, ForHumanity includes more than 250 contributors from all parts of the world. We have groups working on contact tracing in New York, digital colonialism in Africa, children’s digital rights in the UK, and the creation of a GDPR certification scheme for data protection that complies with European Union regulations. In my small way, I am trying to make the hospitality industry understand how important it is to audit the ethical impact of AI in tourism to reinforce travellers trust.

There is a lot of ongoing discussion regarding the importance of AI & Automation in tourism. In your opinion what are the main risks related to the advancement of AI & Automation in general and in tourism in particular?

Artificial intelligence is not a technology we integrate into our world. It is not a new smart washing machine we put in our kitchen. AI, much like and even more than digital communication technologies, generates environments that can influence our behaviour and our lives. However, before talking about the risks, we must realise that artificial intelligence is the only tool we can use to manage the enormous amount of data produced every day by connected technologies. The complexity of the world no longer allows us to craft data, we need more powerful tools. Therefore, we must not reject AI with Neo-Luddism ideas but commit to using it well. We should always keep in mind that, in spite of its name, artificial intelligence is not smart at all, yet it does some operations much better than we do. Now, if we talk about artificial intelligence we must also talk about artificial stupidity. Experts are called in to mitigate possible risks. Similarly, many governmental regulations, such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in the European Union, California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) and Vermont Act 171 of 2018 Data Broker Regulation in the US, Brazilian General Data Protection Law (LGPD), Chile Privacy Bill Initiative, New Zealand Privacy Act, India Personal Data Protection Bill, work to mitigate the risks related to misuse of personal data and strengthen the digital sovereignty of its citizens.

The hospitality market is a sensitive sector. In tourism, precisely because travellers move around with massive amounts of personal and professional data, the focus must be greater. Hence, cybersecurity and ethical issues related to data become central topics. In the future, hospitality must take care of the individual as a whole, both in the physical (offline) and in the virtual (online) dimensions, because daily lives are currently lived in an intermediate dimension, onlife.

It is commonly asserted that the future of the tourism industry should be permeated by higher ethical responsibility. In your opinion, what should tourism look like in 2030?

I don’t like to make long-term predictions. Who in 2010 could have predicted the 2020 pandemic? We can consider risks, but as a philosopher, I want to have a poietic approach, that is, to design and to build a better future. Investing my energies in tourism and information ethics is my way of collaborating in this construction.  

Scroll to Top