This is a piece I wrote for The Economist’s latest “Technology Quarterly” guide (December 2, 2006). You’ll just have to take it on faith that I wrote it, given that there’s no byline.

Hed: Roaming holiday
Dek: Communications : New gizmos that combine audio guides with satellite tracking let tourists explore cities at their own pace

WHEN Melissa Mahan and her husband visited The Netherlands, they felt imprisoned by their tour bus. It forced them to see the city according to a particular route and specific schedule*but going off on their own meant missing out on the information provided by the guide. On their return home to San Diego, California, they started a new company called Tour Coupes. Now, when tourists in San Diego rent one of their small, brightly-coloured three-wheeled vehicles, they are treated to a narration over the stereo system about the places they pass, triggered by Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite technology.

This is just one example of how GPS is being used to provide new services to tourists. “What we really have here is a technology that allows people to forget about the technology,” says Jim Carrier of IntelliTours, a GPS tourism firm which began offering a similar service over a year ago in Montgomery, Alabama. The city is packed with sites associated with two important chapters in American history, the Civil War of the 1860s and the civil-rights movement a century later. Montgomery has a 120-year-old trolley system, called the Lightning Route, which circulates around the downtown area and is mainly used by tourists. On the Lightning Route trolleys, GPS-triggered audio clips point out historical hotspots.

Another GPS-tourism firm is GoCar Rentals, based in San Francisco. It provides open-air vehicles, based on a scooter engine with a fibreglass frame, similar to those used by Tour Coupes. Customers must follow a prescribed route to hear the GPS-triggered information. This limits the scope for exploration, but Nathan Withrington, the firm’s founder, says that people tend to visit the same few sites. “Why not guide them to 10% that they want to see?” he asks.

Other firms, such as CityShow in New York and GPS Tours Canada in Banff, Canada, offer handheld GPS receivers that play audio clips for listening to while walking or driving. In South Africa, Europcar, a car-rental firm, offers a device called the Xplorer. As well as providing commentary on 2,000 points of interest, it can also warns drivers if they exceed the local speed limit.

If such services prove popular, the use of dedicated audio-guide devices could give way to a different approach. Tourist information delivered via mobile phones could be updated in real time and might also incorporate local advertising. So-called “location-based services”, such as the ability to call up a list of nearby banks or pizzerias, have been talked about for years but have never taken off. But aiming such services at tourists makes a lot of sense, since people are more likely to want information when in an unfamiliar foreign country. It could give mobile roaming a whole new meaning.