When Virgin Galactic’s first passenger flight takes off from New Mexico in 2014, it will herald a new era for tourism. The six people on board – among them Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson and his son Sam and daughter Holly – will, for an hour, get to witness the curvature of the Earth and experience weightlessness. The commercialisation of space will have begun. Not only that, but international sub-orbital flights – think London to Sydney in four hours – will also have become a possibility.
The UAE will be next on its list, when Virgin Galactic’s second spaceport opens in Abu Dhabi in a few years’ time – talks are underway regarding its construction. “Its central location and climate make for a spaceport operation that is easily accessible to around two-thirds of the world’s population,” says a representative from Virgin Galactic. Imagine that: most of the world only an hour or so away?
Turn back the clock and people were saying a very similar thing in 1919, when British aviators John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown crossed the Atlantic for the first time non-stop in just over 16 hours. But then few industries have made so many advances in the previous century as international tourism. The past 15 years have seen the greatest leaps of all, thanks to momentous breakthroughs in technology. When was the last time you booked a flight anywhere but through the internet? Or used a holiday brochure when TripAdvisor would do the job with far better insight?
The internet has indeed transformed the way we plan, book and take holidays. Now, with mobile platforms offering an ever-increasing number of apps designed to make travel as seamless as possible, it has never been easier to get away. Take Tripit, which collates all your itineraries, including flights, hotels and car rental, in scannable format on your smartphone. Or Urbanspoon, which, when you shake your phone, calculates where you are and suggests a bar or restaurant nearby (the app works in cities all over the US, Canada, Australia, Britain and Ireland).
QR (quick response) codes are also changing the way we interact with places we visit. These graphic squares contain encrypted information that can be decoded by QR-enabled mobile phones (QR-reader apps are available to download for all mobile platforms), and are now frequently used instead of tickets and boarding passes. They are also appearing in cities, airports, museums, and at tourist sites all over the world. Scanning them on your mobile links you to further information about where you are. For instance, if you scan the code at the Carnaby Street shopping area in London, you will be linked to the Carnaby Essential Guide, which features maps and lists local restaurants, cafés and shops.
Gizmos may make it easier for us to travel, but are they enriching our experience when we get there? Tom Marchant, CEO of hip London-based travel agency Black Tomato, feels they can be a mixed blessing. “Technology is an enabler,” he says. “It’s certainly encouraging people to learn more about places by easing the logistics of getting there. I think, though, that there needs to be a careful balance between how much we let technology drive how we travel and what we do when we get there, simply because one of the reasons we travel in the first place is to escape and connect with other cultures and people.”
The same could be said of the advances being made in ‘virtual travel’, where Google is leading the way. Its Art Project, which features works of art from museums all over the world in extremely high resolution, right down to the brushstrokes, allows you to view these works almost as if you were standing in front of them; while its Trans-Siberian Railway project, a joint venture with Russian Railways, allows you to make that epic journey across two continents, 12 regions and 87 cities in real time – around six days – from the comfort of your own home.
Marvels though these are, Marchant says they are no substitute for the real thing. “They are for enjoying alongside and using as a form of inspiration, a catalyst to go and do the real thing.”
Interestingly, when it comes to what many customers really want, it boils down to simple, back-to-basics travel experiences. “Essentially it’s about people wanting to get back to their travel roots,” says Marchant, “This means disconnecting from the real world, going out into the wilderness, forgetting the day to day and really travelling – going back to what some of the great explorers did.” It seems ironic that despite all the advances being made in technology, it is sometimes this from which they wish to escape. “It’s a reaction to the globally connected day to day we’re living in,” adds Marchant.
He sees travel moving towards an ever more personalised experience. “Everyone wants to feel that what they’re doing, how they’re doing it and where they’re going is unique to them,” he says. “That’s a huge change from 20 years ago, when what was many considered to be luxury was staying in a hotel that was the same in terms of room layout and consistency of the decor the world over. I think travel is going to become a far more intuitive experience where it feels like people have understood you from the start.”