The Best Way to Predict the Future of Travel Is to Create It

As we go out and redefine how we experience the world, let's move toward a new awareness and understanding of travel.

Image: Richard Bangs
Image: Richard Bangs

When it comes to the travel industry, there will be no recovery. There will be evolution.

Things will never be as they were. 

As Charles Darwin said, the fittest win out at the expense of their rivals because they succeed in adapting themselves best to their environment. This, then, is our Galapagos, an inflection point for adaptation in the travel sphere. 

The global pandemic has beaten and bloodied few sectors as hard as travel. The numbers are gory: up to 75.2 million jobs lost worldwide in 2020. China, where the virus originated but was relatively quickly brought under control, may shed 25.6 million jobs. And in Italy, the European country hit earliest and hardest by the virus, may be responsible for the loss of one million travel-related jobs. The outlook in the U.S. and other parts of the world is murkier, where reignition has been a story of fits and starts, premature re-openings and the imposition of new shutdowns. The job body count is high, and growing still.

 Nonetheless, it’s never too early to think about how we adapt once we get back on our feet, and into trains, planes, cruises, museums and events. Looking for the upside is not to downplay the crisis (we’ve seen what that produces), but an attempt to come to terms with the new reality.  And to advance the good narrative when forward motion is imminent. Indeed, the pause forced on the travel industry may jump start a post-pandemic navigation of the world that will benefit a range of destinations and tourist locales, including those where locals and tourism authorities alike have been distressed by “overtourism.”  We may find new motivation in a “regenerative travel” that is sustainability on steroids — not just minimizing harm but undoing damage that’s already been done.  And in moving forward let us look to direct visitation and foreign exchange to places that need it more than the familiar first and second rounds of the “less-visited” and “hidden gems” integral to adventure travel for a generation. 

While the tech sector has achieved in months what might have taken years, travel, being entirely dependent on our actual being in the world, not in a zoom room or a travel simulator, is where the existential, experiential reality of compulsive travelers, as many of us are, takes shape. There is just no substitute for the sense of place travel evokes, nor for our actual presence in these places, immersing ourselves in the landscapes and cultures that captivate our imaginations, spark our spirits and enrich our lives.  For while tech has accommodated working remotely, travel can’t be phoned in. Which is precisely why we love — and need — it. 

The irreplaceable and regenerative gift of travel is emerging first in domestic adventures, hiking, biking and rafting trips accessible without the plane ride. I confess I took several this summer, hiking in Arizona and Yosemite, trundling by sleeper car on Amtrak from Los Angeles to Seattle, and kayaking and rafting in the Pacific Northwest, discovering that we love where we live. If we ever took our own backyards for granted, we may never again. The pent-up demand to undertake mindful wanderings, far and near, is even greater now than after 9/11. 

It’s time to seed the ground not just for a safe tourism evolution, but for a new awareness and understanding of travel. 

Just as nothing can take the place of the person-to-person, face-to-face interactions that define our lives in the real world, there is no substitute for the can’t-be-commodified essence that animates the transformative nature of travel; the two (social interaction and travel) overlapping as we venture out into the world — into new spaces, foods, cultural discoveries and living contacts that broaden the mind— for the adventure of wonder that travel is.  A broad, reality- based tourism reimagining may take us further beyond the passive sightseeing the industry began to eclipse with more adventurous offerings as far back as small ship expedition cruising that made landings by zodiacs where no port facilities existed. The next incarnation of this is well on the way — and established destinations will find new tours and modalities that open their cultural treasures and overlooked riches in ways that were in sleep mode before the pandemic. 

So, here’s an odd paradox that epitomizes the moment we’re in. 

Social media connects us but when indulged in excess can actually heighten our sense of isolation. Travel is one of the great antidotes to isolation and seclusion. It opens us and societies up, transports and beams us aboard an almost out-of-body experience in ways posting on FB and Twitter never will. That’s not to say the online community is not real. Or lacking in inspiration and influence.  Quite the opposite, when the two go hand in hand.  When it’s not one or the other but a pendulum swing that offers the fresh balance and perspective of both. That contributes greatly to our own and to society’s health and wellness. 

So now and as the pandemic is brought more fully under control, our embracing of once-distant horizons counts. Not being flat-footed. One of the most nimble, compelling tools for destination marketing organizations (DMOs) and their partners may be the kind of authentic, granular, up close and personal storytelling enabled by social media platforms, allowing travel influencers to share their personal experiences with audiences they’ve cultivated, not paid for — and in being intrepid (not reckless) explorers of the new normal, using text, photos, videos and music, their tales of “the new world ” may trigger insights into how suppliers, airlines, accommodations, tour operators and tourism boards, are actually enacting the comprehensive protocols, the launching of new tours and experiential frameworks (involving “physical distancing” in families or friends in small groups, not “social distancing,” which seems psychologically aloof), that will pave the way to a tourism evolution that works. These will be stories shared by an advance guard of social media influencers exploring tourism’s terra incognita, putting pins in the new map. 

Stories from the front lines of well-timed and managed re-openings, unfolding around the world  in real time, told with candor and credibility, may accelerate the early days of a robust tourism dynamic — facilitating an early step before a reshaping that depends on the arrival of a safe and effective vaccine. While ultimate timing and outcomes are not yet known, the trailblazing of solutions is in the works. We can be prepared for this horizon — on our toes, ready to open novel doors.  As we go out and redefine how we experience the world — with our senses re-attuned, our situational awareness re-engaged — perhaps as never before.  Let it bring awakenings and inventions — the way we travelers and suppliers have always risen to the greatest challenges. For like tech and tech in travel, the travel industry is nothing if not avid to pioneer, and primed to evolve to a higher kind of wandering star.

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