The birth of commercial air travel gave way to an unrivaled experience of luxury and service while catapulting us into a new era of global connectivity. Only decades later we book flights and hotels online with a click of the mouse and take advice on restaurants and local activities online from complete strangers. But as commercial air travel has devolved for most of us from special occasion to dreaded necessity, self-serve technology has displaced the familiar faces from brick-and-mortar travel agencies, and online forums have weakened our trust in each other.
The conversation around innovation creates a dichotomy out of technology and humanity. Yet technological advances are proving just the opposite, especially when it comes to travel. The interface of most travel sites these days would have you believe that little innovation has taken place in the industry over the past 20 years. Yet, travel is leading a new wave of innovation that introduces one of the greatest technological and economical advancement in the industry yet: peer-to-peer travel. It’s difficult to perceive in pixels, because it’s powered by people. The future of travel is one that is human. It’s the real-life connection and sharing of the past made better by the technology of tomorrow.
Travel used to be a very special occasion. Before the technological revolution, travel was less efficient, and therefore less common and more celebrated. People dressed up. They smiled at one another. They learned each other’s names and shared stories. Travel was much less efficient, but it was deeply human. People asked strangers on the street for directions. They trusted strangers’ tastes and opinions to lead them to a decent restaurant. They even let others take them into their homes for a meal or even a warm night’s sleep. They’d spend days with people they’d just met, enjoying their company and local knowledge. Or some of them would only travel to destinations where they had friends, because who else would they let show them around and host them? I came of traveling age just after this era had ended. Every once in a while, however, I’ll put on a nice dress and comb my hair for a flight, as if I’m Owen Wilson in Midnight in Paris, waiting for a cab to pick me up and transport me to a bygone era.
The ‘90s brought about tremendous innovation in travel technology with the introduction of online travel agencies (OTAs), flight search, travel forums, e-ticketing, blogs, and so much more.
This disruption in travel space lead to an incredible amount of autonomy. We can now travel from San Francisco to London without having to actually speak to single human being.
By buying our airline tickets in a click, commanding our phones to translate French phrases into English, and viewing our friends’ adventures to Machu Picchu in real time, our experiences have become defined by our value for speed, efficiency, and saving money. And whether we’re in Plaza Catalunya, Sloane Square, or the Forbidden City, we can still enjoy a hazelnut soy latte in the familiar white paper cup and green logo, reminding us that we live in a truly globalized world. Suddenly we’ve found ourselves in a world hyperconnected to information and data, yet disconnected from each other and ourselves.
One of the greatest powers of technology is its ability to take us back, to reclaim the humanity we’ve lost along the way.
We’re now using technology with local guides, local concierges, hosts, and drivers. An exponentially growing number of consumers are choosing Airbnb, Lyft, and Vayable over the less personal alternatives. And just as importantly, many are choosing to run businesses off of these platforms because of the human interactions they provide. Technology has the power to isolate us, but it also has the power to bring us together.
And it makes sense that travel would be one of the first industries to see the impact technology can have on offline connections and peer economies. After all, travel is all about real-world interaction. It’s about connecting: communities, individuals, and perhaps most importantly, with ourselves.
The future of travel is like any true innovation: It embodies looking forward as well as reclaiming something we’ve lost along the way. In the Odyssey, Homer writes about the return home as the most epic part of the journey. Just as Odysseus returned after 20 years to the same place, as a new person after, 20 years after the advent of online travel, a new and evolved industry is returning to what’s human.
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