The cross border area, where the activities of the THEMA project will be located, is characterized by unique and diverse cultural heritage that could form the basis for tourism development. However, despite the numerous and rich natural and cultural resources and the various policies, the cross border area lacks an organized management plan for the development of thematic tourist products (i.e. eco-tourism, religious tourism, etc.) and hence the main tourist product remains “sun, sea & sand” tourism. In addition, in the cross border area, the recent economic crisis in Greece, drove the local economy into a recession on the Greek part and slowed down growth rates on the Albanian part. As the Albanian government has recognized that the country is a promising tourism destination (based on an increase in international arrivals) and that tourism is “a key area” for economic development, the need for tourism research and reliable data for developing tourism strategy has been realized. Thus, this leads to a significant opportunity to promote the thematic tourism in the cross-border, especially by creating a visitor profile to use when developing marketing and understanding the tourism impacts on local, regional and national economies was needed. In addition, Ioannina accounts for 20% of the Gross value added (GVA) produced in the cross border area in the tourism industry, while the Albanian part accounts only for 7% of the GVA.
Thus, there is a significant opportunity for growth and developing through thematic tourism in the area of interest and THEMA targets this need. In order to address these challenges, the THEMA project delivers a solution using new technologies for creating and promoting thematic touristic packages as well as empowering users to exploit and benefit through those packages. Thus, cultural and other alternative forms of tourism will be promoted in both parts of the Greece-Albania cross border area, while the ultimate goal is to increase mobility in the participating regions for thematic tourism purposes and increase the number of tourists and their visits in the area. The THEMA project creates innovation in three levels: (i) at a technological level, by incorporating a new form of Bluetooth-based location sensors to mark the thematic routes and provide, unobtrusively, information and navigation to users. (ii) At a content level, by exploiting existing routes and carefully enrich them with information and categorizing them into cross-border thematic touristic packages, while providing open access to that content to tour agents and tour operators. (iii) At a social level, by incorporating advanced functionalities to promote socialization, cooperation between users and user empowerment. These functionalities include: (a) initiate and maintain the (hashtag) #THEMA in twitter and Instagram, where users could upload photos from their routes and comment on other users’ photos and posts, (b) invite or challenge another user in cooperative exploration of a walking or a cycling route by forming teams of “walking buddies” and “cycling buddies”, (c) include advanced gamification methods by forming and maintaining a leaderboard, providing badges and virtual or physical rewards to users for undertaking a route or a thematic package.
The end users of THEMA solution are tourists that could benefit from the solution in multiple ways: (i) explore, not only one region in one country, but the natural, cultural and historical resources and heritage in the cross-border area through carefully designed thematic packages, (ii) accept the THEMA challenges and benefit from the physical rewarding that could involve a free guidance to a route, a discount to a hotel or a restaurant in the area of interest, (iii) socialize through the THEMA mobile collaboration functionalities and meet online with locals or tourists that visited the area to exchange experiences.
However, the beneficiaries of the THEMA solution include, also tour operators and tour agents as well as tourism professionals in general. They could benefit from the open data policy that the THEMA project incorporates. The tourism professionals could exploit the designed and published routes and thematic packages and combine them with additional services (i.e. hotel room, transport, etc.) to offer a complete touristic package. Finally, local authorities (i.e. Municipality and Prefecture) will benefit from the increase in tourism domain in their area.