‘I apologise for the confusion’: travel firm Tui launches AI tour guide

Holidaymakers typically rely on experienced tour guides and local companies to recommend excursions to medieval castles and spectacular waterfalls, but the world’s biggest tour operator has said it will entrust the service to artificial intelligence instead.

The German travel company Tui has started using ChatGPT in its app to provide holiday recommendations, in the latest sign of traditional businesses racing to harness AI.

ChatGPT was released in November by the startup OpenAI, and became the fastest-growing consumer app ever as users flocked to try it out. The rapidly improving technology can produce comprehensible language and even photos and videos by crunching through and synthesising huge amounts of data.

Tui’s feature has been released to half of UK app users, with the aim of introducing it to all “in the next weeks”, a spokesperson said.

The company said its new chatbot would provide “informative responses about holiday destinations and personalised recommendations for excursions, activities and attraction tickets”. It is also exploring using the technology in post-holiday customer communication, language translation of its content, and in coding.

The prospect of generative AI chatbots that can comb through huge amounts of data in seconds has led to predictions of job cuts as humans become too expensive. Tui employed 61,000 people at the end of September, and it has previously cut thousands of jobs when the business was threatened by the coronavirus pandemic.

TUI ChatGPT apologises. Photograph: Jasper Jolly

Tui says the use of generative AI would not replace humans. A spokesperson pointed to an example of call centre workers in the Netherlands that used ChatGPT to search for information more quickly, reducing waiting times on phones.

“Gen AI is rapidly replacing tasks but not jobs,” said Pieter Jordaan, the travel group’s chief information officer, in an interview with German media. “We see it being used additive to existing jobs. However, humans using Gen AI will far outperform humans without the help of Gen AI.”

Job losses to chatbots may not be imminent – at least if a test of Tui’s app is anything to go by. The Guardian was able to access the chatbot on the second attempt at downloading the app, but a test of the service highlighted its “experimental” nature, as the bot struggled with a basic conversation.

It was able to handle a request for “best destinations in France”, offering Paris, Nice, Bordeaux, Lyon and the French Alps as options (along with three links to Tui holidays) and asking the user’s preferred city. However, it was then unable to understand “paris” or “Paris”. “I apologise for the confusion, but I am an AI travel assistant and do not have personal preferences,” it said.

Only after the Guardian changed the response to “I am interested in Paris” was the app finally able to understand and offer recommendations – albeit hardly for sites off the beaten track: its tips were to visit the Louvre, Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower, three of the most visited tourist sites in the world.

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Sebastian Ebel, TUI Group’s chief executive, said ChatGPT would “help to simplify processes and services for customers or make information more easily available”.

The company also sought to address growing privacy concerns over personal data being used to train AI systems, saying that “no customer data is being shared at any time”.

Company executives jumped on the AI bandwagon shortly after ChatGPT’s launch. The number of mentions of “generative AI” in company calls and regulatory filings surged from 214 in November 2022 to 842 by May 2023, according to the data company AlphaSense.

Companies that are aiming to push generative AI into products range from Microsoft, a backer of OpenAI that has integrated ChatGPT into its Bing search engine, to the greetings cards website Moonpig. On Thursday, the charitable donations platform JustGiving said it would offer ChatGPT to help fundraisers write their stories on its website.

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Jasper Jolly