The author William Gibson once said "the future is already here, it's just unevenly distributed." In the case of travel this is certainly true. The travel industry has experienced dramatic change post September 11, but it is the Internet that has really shaken things up. The Web has connected new low-cost operators with newly empowered customers with the result that intermediaries like travel agents are becoming increasingly redundant.
So what else is happening and what else can we expect to see in the not-too-distant future? In terms of airlines, the general trend seems to be towards polarization. On the one hand low-cost operators like JetBlue are expanding low-cost services outside the U.S., while on the other hand national carriers like Virgin Atlantic are upgrading business-class services to the point where airplanes are starting to resemble hotels and airline lounges are starting to resemble restaurants. Up at the pointy end of the airplane we've already seen innovations like in-flight mixologists, private fridges, flat beds, in-flight massage, sky-nannies, and personal chefs—and it won't be long before we see showers and possibly lockable cabins. Down in economy we've got self-check-in, pay-as-you-go lounges, Internet access, and pay-TV on some planes, so things like seats that inflate and deflate to fit individual body shapes can't be far off. Other innovations include business-class-only flights (e.g., Lufthansa and OzJet) and business-class-only terminals. Interestingly, one consequence of tighter security screening at airports is that people (in the U.S. at least) have started to dress more casually. Gone are lace-up shoes, belts, coats and jewelry and in are more search friendly t-shirts and track pants.
Of course getting from the airport to your hotel can be a bit frustrating so we've seen a number of transport innovations there too. These include the Heathrow Express (rumored to be the most expensive train journey in the world on a per-mile basis) and the Maglev (magnetically levitated) train that runs between Pudong airport and Shanghai city center.
In hotels, the rate of innovation is not as great but we are still seeing some interesting new concepts. One of the latest ideas is miniature hotels (easyhotel.com and yotel.com in the U.K., for example). These are like boutique hotels but without the frills. Rooms are typically very small (in one case, smaller than a prison cell) but they're also very cheap. In some cases this means no phone, no wardrobe, no toiletries (except soap), no chair, and no shelves. If you want to watch TV or have a window, that's extra — as is fresh laundry after your first night. Other recent hotel 'innovations' include bath butlers at the Sydney Hilton (to run your bath for you), e-butlers at the Dorchester Hotel in London (to explain how everything in your room works), personal oxygen bottles (Optus hotel in Vancouver), iPod rentals (Dream Hotel in New York), Wi-Fi access inside elevators (Langham Hotel in London), and personalized room lighting (Sofitel Paris).
My favorite hotel innovation, however, is the humble room safe at the Langham Palace Hotel in Kowloon (China). Not only is the safe large enough to hold a laptop, but there's a cable inside to charge it up. Now that's what I call a real customer need!
But what about somewhere to go? According to the World Tourism Organization, cultural holidays are the fastest growing sector of the tourism market. In other words, more of us are getting tired of just sitting on a beach and prefer to see something interesting, authentic, or both. Hence the growth in "holidays that help" — vacations that combine an interesting location with making a difference in some way. We're also seeing the growth of more exotic destinations (Brazil and Dubai, for example), the rise of the mini-break (taking a series of short holidays each year instead of one longer vacation, due to time pressures), the growth in religious tourism, and the emergence of rich-packers (wealthy urban professionals that return to the countries they once visited as penniless back-packers).
And what about the more distant future? Socioeconomic trends will be key in determining the new ways we travel. Demographic shifts — more single-person households, more (active) elderly people, and fewer young people — will reshape the travel industry. There will also be much more outbound tourism from countries like India and China (in 2003 there were 800 million domestic trips taken in China - that's approximately the same number of trips taken by the rest of the planet that year). The resulting demand for certain destinations could mean that popular tourist sites (even whole countries) will have to ration access, while ecotourism could actually become harmful to the planet. Looking even further ahead, though, the potential issues caused by growing numbers of tourists could be ameliorated by the emerging oil crisis. Put simply, nobody has yet invented an alternative to jet fuel, so when the oil really starts to run out travel will once again become the preserve of the ultra-wealthy. For everyone else it will be a case of either staying put or taking your vacation closer to home.
Here are a few other travel related innovations I really like:
- A company called Vocation Vacations lets people try out other jobs.
- The "whatever, whenever" desk at W Hotels.
- The pillow menu at Hilton Hotels (airlines should steal this idea immediately).
- The double beds on Virgin Atlantic Airways.
- The women-only floor at the Hamilton Crowne Plaza in Washington.
- Cabin lights in first class on Emirates airline that resemble the night sky.
- Borrowing a goldfish bowl for your room at the Monaro Hotel in Chicago.
- Retro-tourism: using the slowest means possible to get from A to B.
- The Laboratory of Experimental Tourism (it really exists).
- Space tourism: coming soon to a galaxy near you.