Traveler information systems, such as websites and phone systems that provide information on traffic congestion, incidents and weather, have also been implemented in tourist destinations, such as National Parks and their surrounding communities. The objective of this study was to examine four tourism areas in the United States in detail and to investigate how the traveler information systems serving those areas have addressed and impacted tourists and the tourism environment. Case studies were conducted on four sites:
- Acadia National Park and Bar Harbor, Maine
- Branson, Missouri
- I-81 Corridor in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia
- Salt Lake City, Utah
The analysis of each of the four study sites included review of available data pertaining to:
- The design and operation of the system. Focus was on tourism content and orientation toward tourists in the systems’ user interfaces, such as using tourism landmarks in addition to or instead of place names or roadway designations that are less familiar to non-locals.
- User awareness and system usage data, such as historic data on web site sessions and telephone call volumes.
- Customer satisfaction surveys or focus groups.
- Interviews with stakeholders associated with each of the four study sites.
Findings from Branson, Missouri
In Branson, Missouri, the main tourist season lasts for approximately 9 months and causes severe traffic congestion in the area. Highway 76 appears to be the only obvious east-west route through the area and most logical way to access most of the attractions and therefore suffers from major traffic congestion and delays. Under low-volume free-flow traffic conditions, the approximately 5-mile trip along the length of Highway 76 from US 65 in the east to the western end of the Highway 76 development strip will take no more than 5 minutes. But according to local travelers interviewed for this study, the same trip can take over an hour during peak traffic conditions. Thus, traffic congestion on Highway 76 was the primary motivation for implementing a traveler information system. There are three major traveler information systems in the Branson area, each of which is described below:
- A multi-faceted, publicly-operated traveler information system, the "Branson TRIP" (Travel and Recreation Information Program);
- A low-tech, publicly operated color-coded alternate route identification system;
- Maps and other information provided through a multitude of privately operated "visitor centers."
The TRIP system became operational in 1998 and contained the following characteristics:
- Two, later increased to six, closed-circuit television (CCTV) traffic surveillance cameras intended for use by the Police Department for monitoring traffic conditions and as a primary source of traffic congestion information to be provided to travelers via the Internet.
- A network of inductive loop traffic detectors imbedded in roadways which feed the system with real-time traffic density and volume information.
- Two dynamic message signs (DMS), both located on US 65, one to the north of the Highway 76 interchange and one to the south.
- A highway advisory radio (HAR) system that provides an AM radio message on traffic conditions and special events.
- An interactive voice response (IVR) telephone system that provides automated information on traffic conditions for various zonal origin-destination pairs in the City of Branson
- An Internet website (www.bransonstripusa.com) that was intended to include a real-time color-coded traffic congestion map, icons and text reports on incidents, and information on various local attractions, lodging and restaurants. The private TRIP partner, an ITS consulting firm, was charged with maintaining the tourism/traveler services content on the website.
- Traveler information kiosks deployed in hotel lobbies and private "visitor centers" that allow users to access the TRIP Internet website. Placement of the kiosks in the private facilities was the responsibility of the TRIP private partner.
- A central incident database housed on a computer server located at the City of Branson Police Department and intended to be monitored and updated by Police Department Dispatch staff.
However, not all of the plans for the system were realized during the original deployment. In the course of this study it was also discovered that a number of the TRIP components that were originally deployed are no longer operational, or not operating as intended. The reasons for these difficulties include technical, funding, and institutional issues.
Although not representative of current conditions, the 1998 TRIP evaluation tourist survey results provide an indication of customer satisfaction when TRIP was essentially fully functional. Highlights of the survey results consist of the following:
- The most visible and most utilized user interfaces were those that could be used passively (i.e., didn't require users to make a call or visit a website) and featured physical roadway infrastructure or markings: dynamic message signs (61 percent aware and 30 percent using) and the color-coded alternate route system (77 percent aware and 55 percent using).
- Most TRIP users found the information to be of high quality: between 50 and 80 percent of tourists felt that the information provided by TRIP was accurate, understandable and easy to obtain.
- For all user interfaces except radio, which included HAR and all commercial radio broadcasts, between 50 and 65 percent of respondents indicated that the information saved them time. Approximately 43 percent of radio users indicated this impact.
- Except for the phone system, between 10 and 60 percent of respondents reported that with TRIP information they confirmed their route, changed their route, changed the attractions they visited, or chose an attraction of which they were not previously aware. TRIP usage had the greatest impact (between 35 and 60 percent of respondents) in confirming that the correct route was taken and in choosing attractions not previously known.
- Between 20 percent (phone system) and 63 percent (dynamic message signs) of TRIP users indicated that the information helped them to avoid traffic congestion.
In addition, to the customer survey, interviews with key stakeholders, revealed the following:
- TRIP traveler information is valuable. Despite various concerns and frustrations regarding the way that TRIP was implemented and has been operated, all of the key informants, including representatives of the tourism business community, believed that the real-time traffic condition information available through TRIP—especially the color-coded congestion map—was inherently valuable. They felt that both residents and visitors are interested in information that would allow them to avoid severe traffic congestion on Highway 76.
- TRIP provides other useful data. The City Engineering Department representatives indicated that the comprehensive traffic count data provided by TRIP was a real asset for planning and analysis.
However, the stakeholders also felt that:
- TRIP is not heavily promoted and is not very visible.
- There is a notable lack of adequate marketing. There is no local entity that is motivated to operate and monitor the effectiveness of the system, and has adequate funding to do so.
- Tourism stakeholders are sensitive to negative traffic image. Although not a common theme, a couple of interview subjects noted that the City of Branson is concerned about potentially "scaring off" tourists by providing information on traffic congestion.