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Rio de Janeiro is adding something new into its trademark black-and-white mosaic pavements: QR codes. By mixing technology with tradition, the Brazilian city is hoping to bring its tourism sector into the 21st Century.

Quick Response, or QR, codes are a type of barcode loaded with information that, when scanned with a phone or other device, can open a web page, social media site or video (users first need to download an app, available for iPhone, iPad and Android).

According to the Associated Press, Brazil plans to install about 30 QR codes at beaches, vistas and historic sites across the city, enabling Rio’s roughly two million foreign visitors each year to learn about the city as they stroll around. When they scan the codes, they’ll access a website with information about the site, including maps, history and highlights in Portuguese, Spanish and English.

The first QR code was installed on 25 January at Arpoador, the massive boulder anchoring the end of Ipanema beach. When scanned, the black-and-white QR code – embedded into the already existing mosaics of waves, fish and plants – gives the user information about the beach and rock. Did you know that the boulder is named for the fishermen who once harpooned whales there (arpoador is Portuguese for harpoon-thrower), or that the beach is a favourite surfing spot due to its perfect waves, hence its nickname, “Praia do Diablo”, or Devil’s Beach.

Of course, this is just one of the many ways the travel industry has begun to employ the QR code to make travel sites and services more tech-friendly. Hotels, airlines, and tourism boards have all attempted to incorporate the codes into their offerings, with creative results.

Hotel de Londres in San Sebastian, Spain, the Signature Hotels in Jeddah and Medina, Saudi Arabia, and HTEL Serviced Apartments in Amsterdam are among the growing number of hotels currently posting QR codes at concierge desks, in lifts and on hotel room information cards to assist guests with tips on where to dine or what to do during their stay.

European carrier CityJet made the QR craze into a game in 2012 by hiding 18 codes in airports across its network (in London City Airport, Milan Linate and Paris Orly, among others) and encouraging travellers to find and scan them for a chance to win a range of prizes, including a trip to Dublin to test the airline’s full-motion flight simulator.

And Taiwan topped it all when it organised 1,369 locals outside Taipei City Hall on 2 December 2012 to form the world’s biggest human QR code. The event was designed to promote tourism to Taiwan and encourage would-be visitors to check out the Taiwan tourism website.

Despite the creative use of QR codes, however, it’s not clear whether the codes are catching on. For starters, tourists simply may not know what QR codes are or that they are meant to be scanned with smartphones. Furthermore, many foreign travellers will not have data coverage overseas – and then of course, there are those tourists who simply don’t own smartphones.

Even among smartphone users, data shows that QR code usage is low. According to comScore, which conducts research on the digital world, only 6.2% of the US mobile audience scanned QR codes in June 2011, which suggests that the general public is not yet aware of, or interested in, QR codes.

Which is why, said Tnooz travel tech blogger Nick Vivion, “at the moment… there is simply just not much evidence of widespread consumer acceptance of [QR codes] to justify its integration so visibly in a city like Rio”.

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