Tourism gains new insight from mobile phone data

by One magazine

Behavioural insights enable better promotion and organisation

Where do tourists come from, how long do they stay and where do they go next? Westtoer, and Toerisme Vlaanderen have recorded and charted data by tracing tourists' phones during three pilot projects based/(or: centered) around mobile location services. 

"Information about where tourists stay, which locations they visit, exactly where they come from, etc. is very useful for the tourist sector, to learn to recognize patterns in their behavior," says Jan Sonck, Head of Enterprise Innovation at Proximus. Mobile locations services can offer a solution here. This is a form of big data analysis, through which the telecoms provider anonymously aggregates the call detail records for calls and texts via mobile phones before analyzing them. "This allows hotspots to be detected within cities," Sonck explained. "From the data analysis, you can deduce, for example, the routes people follow and where they spend time."

"Information about where tourists stay, which locations they visit, exactly where they come from, etc. is very useful for the tourist sector, to learn to recognize patterns in their behavior,"


Counting cars

Use of mobile location services played an essential role in a recent pilot project by Westtoer, the autonomous West Flanders provincial company that supports the tourist sector. "We work around five destinations," says Magda Monballyu, Director of the Westtoer Knowledge Development Department, “Bruges, the area surrounding Bruges, the coast, the Westhoek and the Lys region.” Westtoer estimated the number of annual daily tourists on the coast at 16.4 million, but had to admit to a lack of certainty surrounding these figures.

In cooperation with the Agency for Roads and Traffic and rail operator NMBS, Westtoer carried out regular counts. Monballyu: We counted the number of cars on the roads to the coast and the number of train tickets with destinations on the coast, for example. On the basis of a model to isolate the daily tourism from commuter traffic and residential tourist traffic, the daily tourism was systematically estimated. The result of the measurements remained a hypothesis within a model. "However, it took a long time to process this data," said Monballyu, "and roadworks and diversions often distorted the picture."

Concrete information

Westtoer was looking for a way to achieve fast monitoring, with a more accurate and up-to-date result. In cooperation with Proximus, the company set up a pilot project based on the analysis of mobile phone data to continually estimate the daily flow of tourists to the coast. Magda Monballyu: "Of course we always work with aggregated and anonymized data. The information on the Proximus customers observed formed the basis for an extrapolation to the total number present. Through analysis of the call locations, we could also obtain information on where people probably lived– or, in the case of foreigners, their nationality." At a macro level, the existing measurements by Westtoer and the Proximus analysis appear similar. There was only around one per cent of difference between the figures. "At the municipal level, further work needs to be carried out to refine the analysis on the basis of the network data. In the future we may continue to use the two methods side by side, in order to further improve our insight into daily tourism and residential tourism, and therefore provide concrete information to government departments, municipal authorities, events organizers and other stakeholders on the coast."


Better promotion

Brussels is one of the most popular tourist destinations in our country, with around 5.1 million daily tourists and 1.5 million residential tourists every year. Tourism in Brussels is worth almost one billion euros annually. The capital city is promoted as a destination by "Our objective consists in attracting more visitors to Brussels," says Frédéric Cornet, Research & Development Manager at "We want to improve promotion of the city, be able to measure the success of events and provide better support to our business partners. To do this, we first need to gain insight into the visitors. What we want to know is very simple: what do visitors come to Brussels for?"

Mapping this is easier said than done. It's always busy in Brussels. 1.2 million people live in the region. And 350,000 people come to Brussels from outside the region to work every day. "There are various ways of measuring tourist activity," said  Cornet. "You can conduct a survey. This generates a lot of good information, but it is also labor-intensive and expensive. You can study social-media heat maps but that doesn't always provide useful information. Most tourists tweet from Central Station, but that doesn't mean that the location is a top tourist spot."

"The reports contain very important information for various stakeholders, including the city itself, but also event organizers"

Useful policy information

Use of mobile location services offered a solution. Proximus and launched a project to analyze mobile phone data at ten tourist locations in Brussels, such as the Grand’ Place or the Atomium. Of course, the analysis is carried out completely anonymously here too and Proximus only provides aggregated information to Cornet: "The project allows us to count the number of national and international visitors at the ten locations, without counting the functional traffic – residents and people who work in Brussels." Now also knows how long a visit to the location lasts on average and where visitors stay.

"It's been a highly educational project," said Cornet. "The reports contain very important information for various stakeholders, including the city itself, but also event organizers." The information should allow Brussels to better manage the stream of tourists, so that the visitors can be spread better across the different hotspots. Event organizers can use the analysis to improve their services. When they have access to correct visitor numbers, they can provide the necessary facilities, such as catering and sanitary provisions, in the right locations.


Measuring effects

Toerisme Vlaanderen aims to put Flanders (and Brussels) on the map as a top tourist location by 2020. The organization develops the destination, creates worldwide promotion and wishes to make a holiday in Flanders possible for everyone. The economic impact of tourism is important for the region. The tourist sector in Flanders provides 235,000 jobs. But, of course, this isn't the only factor. "The period between 2014 and 2018 also has a high symbolic value," says Vicky Steylaerts, Researcher at Toerisme Vlaanderen. "We have adapted our communication to fit around the commemoration of the First World War in the various markets." Partly to measure the effect of this communication – and the success of the events in general – Toerisme Vlaanderen and Proximus launched a project centered around the monitoring of eight events.

Proximus started a process based on the analysis of mobile phone data. Steylaerts: "That way we were able to work out which municipalities the visitors to the events came from. For international tourists, we only know the nationality. We obtained an insight into the time they spent at the location and where they went next." The measurement during the pontoon bridge event in Antwerp showed that a total of 81,433 unique visitors visited the bridge, not including the residents of the area in which the event took place. Toerisme Vlaanderen also counted 4,000 more international visitors at the event than on an ordinary weekend.

Unique monitoring of public events

The figures provided further insight. "It's useful both for us and for the city to know how many people were there and where they came from," Steylaerts continued. "They are figures that will help us to adjust our marketing campaigns abroad in the longer term." In this particular case, use of mobile location services offered a unique way to carry out monitoring of the audience at a major public event. "The advantage is that you have access to the correct figures almost immediately. This showed, for example, that the organizers had underestimated the number of visitors to the events in almost every case."

Business benefits

- Collecting quick, concrete, up-to-date information 

- Insight into visitor data, useful for carrying out promotional work and improving services 

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