A tourist in Singapore keeping an eye on the iconic skyline with Marina Bay Sands and the Singapore Flyer.
Iron heart | Moment | Getty Images
After months of travel restrictions for coronaviruses, Singapore is gradually opening its borders again.
As the city-state seeks to save its ailing tourism industry, which contributes around 4% to its economy, it is hoped that artificial intelligence (AI) can help the sector bring visitors back safely.
Official data shows that monthly visitor numbers decreased by 76% between January and July compared to the previous year. In July alone, visitor arrivals fell by more than 99% compared to the previous year.
Although the Southeast Asian nation remains closed to most foreigners, officials are now considering lifting restrictions on select groups of visitors.
Local start-ups like Vouch and Travelstop rely on their AI systems to help the country navigate through new safety standards.
Launched in 2017, Vouch is best known for its AI-enabled digital concierge, programmed to answer guest inquiries, make bookings, and take room service orders. The chatbots that can be seen at leading hotels like Marina Bay Sands and Pan Pacific in Singapore offer pandemic-proof features like the ability to submit health declarations, facilitate contactless ordering of dine-in services and manage crowd control.
The Vouch app is used on a mobile phone.
Handout of vouch
"Interestingly, Covid-19 has actually helped our business significantly," Vouch co-founder Joseph Ling told CNBC.
The company first had to change its in-room restaurant ordering system to accommodate takeaways and deliveries – a feature it offered hotels free of charge during Singapore's partial lockdown.
"Thanks to that, we have built great relationships," said Ling. "When the hotels started planning for the future in June and July, we signed up many of them." He said Vouch is now growing rapidly with "15 percent of the total hotel room inventory in Singapore on board".
Other AI-powered companies are also optimistic about the long-term outlook.
The two-year Travelstop aims to simplify business travel with its serverless SaaS platform, which will accelerate the booking process, automate expense reporting and provide cost-saving insights.
"Although business travel revenue has declined, we've seen a significant decline in our expense management platform over the past few months as companies now accelerate digitization of workflows and processes to support work from the home culture," said Travelstop Co-Founder Prashant Kirtane .
Travel: a changing industry
Persistent border restrictions and reduced consumer appetite for international flights have transformed travel as an industry. The two entrepreneurs believe that machine learning and AI will transform travel as an experience.
"The business models of traditional corporate travel management companies haven't evolved in decades," said Kirtane. "Existing tools have not kept up with the modern business traveler and are generally not affordable for small and medium-sized businesses."
"Hotels used to feel more technologically advanced than our properties, but as IoT (Internet of Things), AI and consumer tech companies take the lead, the tech gradient has reversed – hotels now feel less technical than our own Houses, "said Ling of Vouch. The Internet of Things is the idea of a network of devices that are all connected to the Internet and at least conceptually able to work together.
Before the pandemic, AI and other forms of machine learning were just beginning to infiltrate the travel sector. Your biggest advantage is the ability to personalize experiences and optimize services based on customer data.
The Singaporean start-up Fooyo, for example, creates tailor-made route planners that include real-time crowd monitoring for attractions and events. The app, which was created for the Chinese city of Chongqing, also includes an AI audio guide that provides visitors with information based on their GPS location.
As the economy begins to recover from the pandemic, AI-powered systems could become particularly useful.
For example, "with people being more cautious about standing in long lines and waiting in crowded rooms, more AI processes would be beneficial for safe distancing," said James Walton, leader in transportation, hospitality and services at Deloitte Southeast Asia . He cited the example of remote check-ins and check-outs in hotels.
A piece for investors?
Investors are paying attention to this fast growing sector. Travelstop raised $ 3 million in Pre-Series A funding last year led by Silicon Valley venture capital firm Accel, in addition to the $ 1.2 million it received in one from SeedPlus in Singapore-led starting round in 2019.
Kirtane said the company intends to complete a new fundraising round in 2021. Vouch has now raised around $ 250,000 in angel investments to date and will seek further funding to expand into Thailand and Malaysia.
And investments in new technologies continue. In 2017, the country's Tourism Authority and the Singapore Hotel Association launched a crowdsource technology program for hotels. One of the winners was a wireless system that automatically adjusts air conditioning systems for energy efficiency.
Late last year officials announced an accelerator program for tourism-focused tech startups.
Technological innovation "can also raise investor awareness, fueling investment in the country," said Walton.
The labor crisis
Singapore has long faced a severe labor crisis stemming from government-imposed taxes and quotas on foreign workers – factors that have contributed to wage increases. For employers, "the use of technology and AI in areas like hotel operations will in some ways ease those pressures," said Walton.
Ling of Vouch repeated these feelings. Hiring hotels in Singapore is difficult as most locals don't want to work in the hospitality industry, he explained. As a result, back office workers are predominantly foreigners, and hotels often lack adequate front-end staff due to foreign labor quotas, Ling said. Given that many facilities are reducing staff numbers after Covid-19, work issues are still of critical importance, he said.
While AI can improve overall efficiency with fewer manpower, it can also lead to job losses – an undesirable development at a time when people are already concerned about job security.
"Would this mean reducing the foreign workforce and saving jobs for Singaporeans? Will adoption (AI) replace jobs or would it allow Singaporeans more high-level jobs?" Asked Walton.
It remains to be seen how the government can rectify this situation.