Wires and buyers and scares -- oh my!

Wanderlust editor Don George reviews the year's three main travel themes.

Published December 24, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

It's the travel editor's custom at this time of year to look back sagely on the events of the preceding 12 months, offer authoritative analyses of the year in travel and pen ponderous predictions about the world to come. But I find that I have more questions than answers right now, so rather than analyses and predictions, I'm going to present some of the most pressing questions that confound me as we approach 1998, based on the three most significant themes that emerged in the travel industry this year.

THE TERRORISM DILEMMA: The threat of terrorism has been a constant in the travel world for many years, of course, but that threat was unforgettably smeared across the popular consciousness in November, when 58 tourists were massacred at Luxor, Egypt. Travel to Egypt plummeted immediately and has not yet recovered. And tremors were again sent throughout the travel world.

Incidents such as these make all travelers pause. No matter where we're planning to go, we wonder: Is it safe? Some of us cancel our plans. And the ripple effects -- on airline flight attendants, hotel bellhops, restaurant chefs, ticket takers at tourist sites, performers at cultural events and more -- can be enormous.

What can we do about terrorism? While airlines and airports can strengthen their security measures and nations can redouble their surveillance and prosecution efforts, there is no way of absolutely preventing terrorism of this kind. So the questions arise: Where is it safe to travel? Is Luxor more dangerous than London, or Manhattan, or Oklahoma City? Is any place absolutely safe?

Statistically, you are more likely to get run over by a car in the city where you work than you are to be killed in a terrorist incident abroad. But the perception -- the sense of vulnerability and terror that attaches to unfamiliar places -- remains. How can we, as world travelers and world citizens, respond? Or, to put the issue in a different light, if tourism falters in Egypt, that country teeters closer toward chaos. Is it our responsibility, then, to travel to Egypt? At what risk?

THE WIRED WORLD: It seems like wherever you go these days, there's CNN on the hotel tube and an Internet cafe at the end of the block -- not to mention the Internet hook-up next to your bed. Everyone's got a beeper and a cell phone and a laptop -- the world is so instantaneously interconnected that it's harder and harder to get away. Is this just me, or do you feel it too?

Sometimes I don't want to be so accessible and access-able -- but then there's the ever-present seduction of CNN and the impulse to just quickly check your e-mail and voice mail. These days you have to work hard to disconnect yourself -- but isn't disconnection, relaxation, what a vacation is supposed to be all about?

So I wonder: Does travel serve the same salutary purpose it once did? Or is the role of travel in our lives simply evolving -- just as the Grand Tour has been replaced by the Long Weekend, is snuggling under the palapa giving way to cell phoning on the chaise lounge?

THE AGE OF E-COMMERCE: This year, for the first time, consumers in significant numbers made all manner of travel arrangements, from airline and hotel bookings to rental car reservations, over the Internet. According to a survey conducted by Jupiter Communications for the Travel Industry Association of America, online travel revenues skyrocketed threefold from $276 million in 1996 to $827 million this year. By 2000, TIA predicts, the size of the online travel industry will reach $4.7 billion, and $8.9 billion by 2002. And a second TIA study found that the percentage of Americans using online services to make their travel plans or reservations jumped from 11 percent last year to 28 percent this year -- which translates to 13.8 million people.

What does this movement mean for travelers? What does it mean for travel agents? Are travel agents going to become a niche industry -- specialists who get paid upfront for their expertise and service? Are travelers going to become more and more savvy, navigating their way nimbly through airline and hotel reservation systems, determining on their own that rerouting through Duluth or extending their stay one more night in Paris will save them hundreds of dollars? And what will airlines and hotels and tour operators do to attract these new savvy travelers? Will video tours and online-only discounts soon become standard fare? Will the Internet become the preferred booking medium?

Those are my end-of-year questions. What do you think? Send your thoughts to dgeorge@salonmagazine.com.

I e-mailed the same invitation to a selection of other travel editors and industry colleagues around the country. Here's how some responded.

Suzanne Cook, senior vice president of research for the Travel Industry Association of America, wrote: "1997 was a year of great growth -- and profitability -- in travel and tourism virtually throughout the world (there were, of course, exceptions). This reflects the convergence of a number of factors, including healthy economies in most developed nations (with the obvious exception of Asian countries late in the year), confident consumers, positive demographic trends, the absence of conflict in most areas of the world, few natural disasters and the increasing popularity of travel as a leisure activity.

"I do not agree with terrorism as a dominant theme. While it certainly had a very negative effect in Egypt and perhaps a lesser one in some other countries, I do not think it had, or will have (unless there are other major events), a significant impact on travel worldwide in 1998."

On the other hand, Richard Weiss, president and CEO of the adventure travel company Mountain Travel, acknowledged that terrorism has a major impact on tour companies such as his: "Americans are very sensitive to safety. That's why, during the Gulf War, companies like ours suffered tremendously. International travel to Europe and Asia was shut down for several months. Many companies went bankrupt. Now, one of the things we always do is have backup trips in our filing cabinets ready to go when some part of the world is hit with a natural disaster or terrorism, or when people decide they want to boycott certain countries for political or human rights reasons."

But Weiss agreed with Cook's comments about robust growth: "Business is booming. This year will be better for us than the previous five years combined in terms of the number of people traveling."

And this year the company has noticed some definite trends, Weiss said. "First, as the baby boomer generation ages, people are looking for slightly softer trips and slightly shorter trips. Ten years ago, Mountain Travel had a dozen trips that were between 25 days and a month in length. And they always ran full. Now we would be lucky to sell one trip a year like that. People are taking just as many days off, but they're taking them in shorter and more frequent blocks. So we are trying to squeeze a lot of exotic locations into the two- to two-and-a-half-week mold.

"Also, our customers want to do something more exotic than lie on a beach with their time off -- something that has a cultural and natural history component, that is the polar opposite of what they do in their day-to-day lives. Adventure cruising is one example. People are cruising to exotic locations like the Galapagos Islands and Antarctica in record numbers -- we have no vacancies on our Antarctica trips.

"And there's a lot of new wealth around -- with the Wall Street surge and the high-tech boom and the like -- so correspondingly, adventure travel has a new clientele; it's moving more into the mainstream. People realize that they can go to exotic places and still be safe and comfortable; for example, there are many more family safaris and family white-water rafting trips now. There's also been a heightened awareness of environmentally endangered areas -- people are going places because they think they might not have another chance to see them."

The travel editors I polled also concurred on the theme of robust growth, although from a different perspective.

Rich Haddaway, travel editor at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, said, "One major trend I would add is the surging economy. More people are traveling, and prices are going up on all fronts. Hotels, planes, rental cars, restaurants -- supplies are tight. A lot of this is coming from aging baby boomers, who have more time and more disposable income. It will be the New Geezers who dictate the trends in travel."

And Janet Fullwood, travel editor at the Sacramento Bee, decried what she termed "overvisitation": "It's been creeping up on us over the past decade or so, but this year was especially noticeable. With the economy booming, record numbers of people are traveling, both here and abroad. It's getting more and more stressful to go anywhere because of the crowds and competition for everything from airline seats to hotel rooms to campground space. Examples: 10 years ago, 400,000 people a year visited Venice; now it's closer to 2 million. Ten million a year visit Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower. Ten million! That's more than 27,000 a day trooping through a church. The same kind of growth has deteriorated the visitor experience at places as diverse as Yosemite and Seattle. And just try getting a hotel room for under $200 in San Francisco between Easter and Thanksgiving. This year it's become particularly noticeable that a lot of places have gone past the saturation point, visitation-wise. People in the tourism business applaud the 'growth,' but for those of us doing the traveling, it just ain't the same."

John Flinn, travel editor at the San Francisco Examiner, related the same phenomenon to a general deterioration in air travel: "I call this 'uncivil aviation' or 'the unfriendly skies.' Due to an accumulation of indignities -- smaller planes, smaller seats, fewer empty seats, fewer meals, fewer direct flights, etc., etc. -- tempers are getting frayed.The recent rhubarb about airlines imposing strict limitations for carry-on luggage is only one more symptom, but I think it could also be a flash point. I recently wrote a couple of columns on the topic, and the mail I got was astounding -- far, far more than I've gotten on any subject. And the level of hostility was frightening. Passengers are livid at flight attendants, flight attendants are enraged at passengers, passengers are cheesed-off at each other. I think it's all a symptom of crowding more and more people into a smaller space. Carry-on practices that used to be no big deal when planes were only half full are a very big deal indeed when a flight is full-to-bursting. (Just as smaller seats weren't as big a deal if there was a good chance the one next to you was open.)"

Flinn and Haddaway added the current plight of the travel agent to the e-commerce theme: "I think the commission cuts from the airlines, which have caused a growing number of travel agencies to charge fees, probably affect as many people as -- if not more than -- the rise in e-commerce," Flinn said. And Haddaway added, "I think it is inevitable that the agents who survive will be the ones who do excellent work and charge for it."

Mountain Travel's Weiss provided the travel packager's perspective on the e-commerce theme: "Unquestionably, this was the year that people started using the Internet for commercial transactions. There's no doubt there will be a paradigm shift, and the problem for us is that a consumer can log on and look up, say, Costa Rica and find a dozen companies that take travelers there. And there is a certain sameness about how all those companies look on the 15-inch screen. So we have to be supremely easy to deal with; we have to give people value-added service, to keep them calling us rather than simply logging onto the Web.

"This doesn't worry me for 1998, but it does worry me for 2000," Weiss added. "No matter what is going to happen in 1998, the people looking for our kind of travel on the Web right now are only a fraction of the people traveling. Most of our clients are old enough that it's their kids who are on the Web, not them. But when Web TV becomes bigger and people can sit in their living rooms and surf the Web from their couches, that's when it will be more important to us."

Was there anything else new in the travel world this year?

Well, Chris Reynolds, travel writer at the Los Angeles Times, noted a shift in travel habits: "As more families travel together and more singles and lone business travelers take off, I think we are moving away from 'Noah's law,' under which everybody travels in pairs -- though travel providers have been a bit slow in response to this."

And he mentioned a British stroke of genius that just might catch on here: "In England, there's apparently an entrepreneur with a company called Powder Byrne (how's that for a moniker?) who's doing great by booking up blocks of high-end hotel rooms, then hiring English nannies to provide high-end day care while parents go out (or stay in) and recreate. This is a simple, great idea -- and I don't think anyone's doing it in this country yet."

And that's our Christmas gift to you.

I welcome your responses -- remember, it's dgeorge@salonmagazine.com -- and wish you the happiest of travels during the holidays, and throughout the new year.

By Don George

Don George is the editor of Salon Travel.

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