Why I’m Optimistic About the Future of Travel

Our plans might be on pause for now, but the common humanity and interconnectedness of travel will return once again.

Image by Jennifer Kampani
Image by Jennifer Kampani

Travel is the physical articulation of storytelling. A trip is an arc that bends towards narrative, beginning, middle, end; a hero’s journey that compresses a life span of experiences into a rip in time. One reason we love to travel is that it puts us as protagonists in the play of passage, it validates us, it gives us platform in a turning world.

The grim visitor that estivated us at home for so many months has squelched these stories, collapsed our world, and infected us with the melancholy of stasis. But, as the curtains of darkness begin to lift, the fauve colors of travel again seem possible. The world broke, yet the pieces are re-assembling. We remain prisoners of hope, splashed with an airline amenity kit after-shave of optimism.

So, what will travel be in the months ahead? Will it revert to its former energetic in which over tourism seemed the plague; or will it change in some fundamental ways?

Some say travel harbors dark weather for a long time to come. Phocuswright, the travel-market research firm, estimates gross travel bookings in the U.S., including hotels, air tickets and car rentals, are expected to be below 2019 levels into 2024. Others see travel mired in the darkness of the hadal zone permanently.

On the sunnier side, some prognosticators are Panglossian: with this singular opportunity, we will terraform a new and better planet of tourism. Dr. Marty Makary, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and Bloomberg School of Public Health, in a recent Wall Street Journey op-ed predicts herd immunity by April.

Of course, no forecast is wholly true, especially this one. 

Complementarity is the concept that a single prediction, when considered from different perspectives, seems to have very different or even contradictory properties. In other words, if you don’t know where you are going, any road can get you there.

Consider first the mask. It will likely be de rigueur wear while traveling for some time to come, maybe decades, maybe in perpetuity. The modern necktie is an analogue. In the 17th century Croatian mercenaries serving in the French army wore a length of cloth around their necks to protect the throat. The French called it a cravat, thought it fashionable, and adopted the style, which eventually became the tie that binds Western businessmen together. With mutations and strains of Corona spreading like fire in a silk warehouse, it seems mask wearing will be vogue for a long horizon.

If you’re nursing an open wound that is slowly stitching itself closed, inch by inch, you won’t want to risk a re-opening. The safe bet is domestic travel, to destinations and sites within driving distance. Major tour companies, such as MTSobek, which has been conducting primarily overseas adventures for over 50 years, are re-tooling and offering up rafts of trips to national parks and U.S. wilderness areas. OTAs (Online Travel Agencies) such as Trivago, are geo-fencing marketing, to target potential travelers within a certain radius, inciting them to explore their backyards.

 In many cases, the pioneers are “adventure travelers,” those who favor experience over comfort, bikes over buses, wilderness over walls. Makes sense, as RNA viral transmissions are significantly less likely in the outdoors, and human-powered outings are typically in small groups, off the beaten path, and often with pods of family and friends. As with last summer, the coming vacation season will see more Airbnbs than chain hotel stays; more hiking, rafting, camping and glamping than city tours; more safaris less than a day’s drive from home rather than in the sub-Sahara. The liminal spaces beyond concrete and pavement will be explored.

For those who can afford it, private jet travel will enjoy lift for some time. Manifest, the exclusive lifestyle and travel club that custom-crafts getaways by private jet within the U.S., reports unprecedented demand. Why risk exposure in crowded airports and planes filled with strangers if you can wing away in style and limit contact with strangers?

Winds that were drafting before the pandemic found acceleration during the year the earth stood still. Indoor movie theaters were on the decline in 2019…home theaters and streaming were starting to pound nails into the caskets. Except as boutique offerings, cinemas won’t survive the Covid opera, even with Reddit and Robinhood support. 

Cruises are different. On ascension before the plague, they were gutted with the outbreaks. They will return, however, with ships reconfigured for social distancing and heightened health safety protocols. River cruises, such as Uniworld, will return first, as they are smaller in passenger capacity; cabins are larger; meals are sit-down rather than buffet, the fresh air more accessible; and since they navigate alongside land, it is generally easier and quicker to reach a clinic or hospital if needed. 

Next year the price of travel is going up. In the short term, hotels and airlines, desperate for customers, are pricing below market to attract bodies and generate cash flow. But, with the added expenses of more frequent and thorough cleanings; staff training and testing; limited restaurant capacity, and with a tidal wave of hotel bankruptcies worldwide, the hotels that do remain open will raise prices to survive. Same with airlines, though with added challenges. Bill Gates predicts over 50% of business travel will go away permanently, as during the lock-downs businesses discovered the cost-savings and merits of Zoom. That’s bad news for the leisure traveler, as business class has been the primary profit center for most airlines, and those profits subsidized the low pricing in the back of the plane. 

But there is good news for the planet. With fewer travelers, the earth has found some healing. Carbon emissions are down; the air is cleaner. In the Kathmandu Valley, Everest can be seen for the first time in a generation. In Delhi, the stars are visible at night. 

Despite prognoses of “Revenge Travel,” hordes flocking to their bucket lists to make up for lost time, that won’t happen, as the new traveler is more cautious and concerned about crowds, about carbon footprints, about well-being, diversity, and about costs. It turns out regenerative travel is the best revenge.

The best surprise is no surprise epistemology that fueled chain hotels and tour operators for decades is coming to an end. Companies such as KindTraveler, a socially conscious hotel booking platform, are accommodating travelers’ growing awareness by offering hotels and experiences that give back to the local community and charities.  MaCher, a Class-B Corp based in Venice, California, partners with travel brands in designing thoughtful, responsibly sourced swag for clients, such bags made from pineapple skins rather than plastic baggage tags; options to donate to sustainability advocates rather than points. 

Organizations such as the Washington, D.C.-based CREST (Center for Responsible Travel) are becoming more vital in the travel calculus, helping travelers and travel providers minimize tourism’s negative impacts on the environment and maximize positive contributions to local communities. In the new travel paradigm, starting to find steam now, this takes on greater resonance and meaning.  

A seismic change, though, is how we will find and book travel. Storytelling is built into the human plan. According to Business Insider over a billion people worldwide view digital stories each day. And stories well told transport us to new and different realms, inspire us to explore. The moving picture Out of Africa provoked a spike in trips to Kenya; Eat, Pray, Love to Bali, Italy, and India. The picture book A Day in the Life of Australia animated discovery of the continent. And now digital storytelling is persuading the world to travel. 

Travel agents suffered a wave of disruption with the advent of Expedia and Travelocity; now travelers are bypassing the on-line agencies for travel stories created by fellow travelers, stories that are authentic and trustworthy, not motivated by commissions, and that lead to booking options. Steller, the world’s largest travel storytelling platform, has created a set of unique tools and themes that allow travelers anywhere, at any time, to create, powerful evergreen digital stories that feature video, stills, music, geo-location, tips, and paths to booking. More and more, travelers are turning to the community of fellow travelers to provide not brochureware, but the real stories, echt accounts, that can be shared with friends and family and across the interweave of social channels.

It has been a year of living dormantly. But we must not forget what we did not see. Travel will be less caffeinated for a while, but the beautiful brew of movement will be released, and we will once again be mobile and exposed to our common humanity, the interconnectedness of all things, and the aurorean light of voyage.

When it comes to travel, it is always darkness before delight.

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