“Ultimately, travel is about home. How we are going to come back and see our own home differently from what you saw when you left.” – Ilan Stavans
Is modern-day travel broken? According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization, we’re traveling in record numbers, but are we doing it right? And what does the future of travel hold? I recently had the honor and privilege of hosting discussions in London and New York to explore this very topic with some of the brightest and most enlightened minds in travel.
Is travel broken? The short answer: Yes. But not in the way you think. On my flight back home, I couldn’t help but reflect on and replay both events in my head, soon realizing a lot of what we discussed could be grouped into six buckets or themes, if you will. I felt compelled to share them here, along with some of my favorite quotes.
Travel has been replaced by tourism. We’ve been crippled by our inability to make a journey, defaulting instead to prescribed schedules and bucket lists. Author, essayist and Amherst College professor, Ilan Stavans, explained the world is only getting smaller and smaller, and what has truly become foreign is the traveler, not the place. Yet, he says, in the age of mass travel, we continue to do so in a mechanical way, leaning too heavily on tourist packages and guidebooks. “We go there to take a selfie, which is a contract with ourselves that we were there.” Ilan suggests taking a look back at what made our ancestors travel and their hope for an “epic journey” that led them to a different place. This will help provide a distinction between traveler and tourist. “We can continue to go to touristy places, but as travelers, not tourists,” he added. Condé Nast Traveller’s Michele Jana Chan said “It’s not enough to see a display of local dancing that’s obviously put on for tourists. We want to see how real people live, especially if their lives are completely different to our own.”
Transformation while traveling is lost. Travel is no longer an awakening. We continue to distance ourselves from the places we visit. While surface actions, perhaps in the form of selfies, prove we were there, they do not serve as proof that we’ve been changed. “As we arrive to another place that looks like the place that we have already seen, we no longer are affected and transformed inside,” said Ilan. In agreement, co-president and editorial director for Frommer Media LLC, Pauline Frommer, added “Hostels used to be a place where young people met and had conversations. And now they’re just having conversations with friends back home. We put our devices between us and the place.” On this topic, winner of the 2016 National Geographic Traveller Photo Competition, Sue O’Connell, said “We yearn to get back to authenticity, but it’s hard to find anything really authentic.”
The booking process is broken and joyless. The process of booking and planning travel is broken, disjointed, and an overall joyless experience. “All of us when we travel, we are complaining all the time,” joked Ilan. “Well, we’re complaining about the process,” chimed in CBS News travel editor, Peter Greenberg. “There are 47 different opportunities for somebody to beat us up, from point A to point B.” Personally, I think it’s going to get better and easier, given more and more travel companies are data companies and the more they get to know their customers better, the more they can offer personalized and customized experiences. Author and New York University professor, Arun Sundararajan, seemed to agree with me, adding “At a certain point, you can go from the technology of it, or the process of it, into the experience of it, and then you can get lost.”
Our natural instinct to wander and wonder is suppressed in an effort to stay on schedule. Getting there and getting around has become bigger and more pressing than being there and being open to going off script. “One aspect that is lost in today’s travel is the capacity to get lost,” said Ilan. “Not to say that you shouldn’t go to the Louvre, but you should also go behind the Louvre and see what’s there, and realize that you might not understand fully what is happening. And that feeling of discomfort would relate us more to what actual travel is.” In agreement, Peter added, “Your most memorable experiences traveling are when your plan didn’t work.”
Generational shifts in travel forcing industry’s hand. Worth noting are the generational shifts in travel, which are forcing the industry’s hand (in a good way) to rethink the old way of doing things. With the potential to work remotely, millennials, for instance, can live anywhere they choose as long as they’re connected. And that feeling goes beyond digital. Jonathan Thompson, named travel writer of the year by the British Guild of Travel Writers, said “They want to culturally plug into a new place. Real travel is about immersion.” As it relates to millennials, I like to call it the “access economy” whereby status today comes from being in the know, from experiencing and sharing something your friends haven’t seen before. Whereas assets weigh you down, access represents freedom to find your own adventure. BBC World Affairs editor, John Simpson, was quick to point out travel isn’t just in the hands of the youth (and rightfully so). That there’s also a shift towards “grey gap years” as older people enjoy adventurous extended holidays. “Life is far more open; there are far more possibilities now,” said John. “There’s a real feeling of wanting to make the most of every year. If I retire, I’d holiday somewhere benign – an interesting, complicated city like Ulan Bator,” he joked. “And if I catch malaria at age 73, at least I’ve had a good crack at life.”
Community is the linchpin to bringing back meaningful travel. The future of travel is not about looking ahead but within, and finding a way to connect travelers with community. Now on this point, I couldn’t agree more. The human connection that comes from travel is perhaps the most enlightened element. I’ve always believed this. Ilan added “I wonder if we’ve reached a point of saturation as a civilization, as a society, mostly Westerners, that are looking for different ways to relate to the local place, to relate to oneself, and to find discovery in a way that is different from what we’ve been experiencing.” To underscore the point, Arun expanded “I think a lot of what travel is going to be is going to expand dramatically. The idea that we’re scared to get lost is going to change once the process of getting lost becomes a little safer. You can wander the streets but someone who sort of knows the streets will wander with you, so you can get that sort of balance between authenticity and safety. And I think a huge amount of the expansion in travel is going to come from creating markets that will make that stuff happen. ” Travel presenter, writer and motorcycle aficionado, Charley Boorman, said “Only when friends stayed with my family in London did I realize I’d barely seen the city myself. It’s easy to forget what is on your doorstep.”
It’s quite clear we know (or at least intuitively feel) where the pain points and opportunities are as it relates to the next chapter in travel, so where do we go from here? Tune in next week.
*If you want to read more about the discussion we had in London, check out the report we just released here.