NEXT generation mobile networks could open up new growth opportunities for Scotland’s tourism industry after the Covid-19 crisis, according to The Scotland 5G Centre.

Announced by the Scottish Government last September as part of a new strategy to capitalise on the economic and societal potential of fifth generation – ‘5G’ – mobile networks, the centre said it was important for companies to understand the “enormous potential” that these networks offered.

“One of the biggest areas of opportunity will be around the use of immersive content,” said Malachy Devlin, the centre’s interim operations director. “In England, for example, 5G has been trialled to allow visitors of the Roman Baths to experience historic reconstructions on a mobile augmented reality app using 360-degree video.

“We are already looking at how this new form of smart tourism can be used in Scotland.”

The impact of coronavirus made innovation particularly critical, given the industry’s size, Mr Devlin said. Latest figures show visitor expenditure contributed an estimated £6 billion – 4.5% – to Scotland’s GDP, with tourism-related industries employing 207,000 people in 2016.

“Such a level of economic contribution, and the potential impact on this from Covid-19, underlines the imperative behind continued innovation and investment in Scottish tourism – both at an individual business and macro level,” Mr Devlin said. “While tourism operators should look at the 5G technology coming available to them and see how they can use the new capabilities to benefit their companies and customers, they need to know that a high quality and reliable, nationwide infrastructure is in place to underpin their efforts.”

5G networks were currently being rolled out and would become more ubiquitous with time, Mr Devlin said. He added that 5G RuralFirst, a project led by Cisco, the University of Strathclyde and other partners, was developing rural testbeds and trials for 5G wireless and mobile connectivity. This was based in the Orkney Islands and linked with a new Scotland 5G Centre testbed in the Loch Lomond & Trossachs National Park.

“The initiatives include exploring how 5G can provide connectivity to visitors, such as delivering virtual reality content at tourist and heritage sites across the country,” he said.

Potential applications in cities include using 5G to connect networks of smart devices that talk to each other and to humans as part of the so-called Internet of Things. Sensors placed throughout urban areas, for example, could be used to collect data such as the flow of people through attractions, events, and even entire cities.

“Councils or tourist sites could create their own private 5G networks, guaranteeing service and bandwidth, to check their cities or venues are running smoothly and efficiently,” Mr Devlin suggested. “As an example, an integrated network of sensors could provide visitors with directions to vacant car parking spaces that would enable event organisers to monitor congestion and improve safety. Imagine how useful this would be during events such as the Edinburgh Fringe Festival or large football matches.”

Further down the line, Mr Devlin said 5G could also be a boon for tourism by enabling live translations through pop-up networks enabling high-definition coverage and event production at a fraction of the cost required today.

“Tour guides could communicate with visitors through a system which translates their speech into multiple languages in real-time, through earphones synced to Smart Glasses or other devices – they would not have to struggle with even the broadest Scottish vernacular,” he explained.

5G technology has transformative potential at a time when Scottish tourism has seldom needed it more, Mr Devlin said. As well as bringing more engaging and rewarding experiences for visitors and ‘staycationers’, it could deliver serious financial benefits for local people and businesses alike.

“Tourism is extremely important to Scotland – but, to maintain and protect what has been achieved over the past decade or so, we need to embrace new ways of thinking and the next wave of technology that will be enabled by 5G,” he said.

“That may start with immersive content, but it will certainly be much more than that. We can’t afford for others to steal a march on us – the time to explore the possibilities of 5G is now.”