The Future of Travel
In 1970, the proto-futurist alvin toffler published Future Shock, adding information overload to the lexicon when he posited that the pace of change itself was speeding up. As proof, he pointed to our newfound tendency to stay in motion. In 1914, the average American traveled 88,560 miles in his lifetime. By Toffler’s day, many frequent fliers covered that in a single year. “Never in history has distance meant less,” he wrote. “We are breeding a new race of nomads.”
Toffler didn’t foresee the half of it. “In 2050, there will be nine to ten billion people on the planet, and one in two will travel abroad,” says Ian Yeoman, one of the many self-styled futurists who have followed in Toffler’s footsteps. “That is, if growth continues, and if the world has enough resources to support that growth.”
And therein lies the rub. To accurately predict the future of travel is to predict the future itself. No wonder the assignment was catnip for the futurists we reached out to. They envision a world that’s still recognizable from our own, notwithstanding fringe events such as the “gray-goo problem” (when microscopic machines run amok). Here are a few of the terms that may define travel in the years to come—assuming gray goo doesn’t swallow us first.
The Newest Nomads
The shape of travel to come is largely a function of money—who will have it, and how much, according to Peter Schwartz, author of The Art of the Long View and cofounder of the futurist think tank Global Business Network. This explains why the next nomads will be Chinese and Indian, with Middle Easterners to follow. The World Tourism Organization anticipates the annual number of outbound Chinese tourists to double this decade to 100 million—after which, it’s anyone’s guess. Chinese travelers already spend more money abroad on luxury goods than any other nationality. Meanwhile, falling birthrates and aging populations across the developed world will mean further slowing of certain economies. Today’s German or French tourists will soon be replaced by those speaking Mandarin, Hindi, or Arabic.
The greatest luxury of the 21st century will be dropping off the grid. Black-hole resorts will be notable for the total absence of the Internet—even their walls will be impervious to wireless signals. Whether they’re set on mountaintops, in quaint villages, or in sleek urban centers, black holes will become the pinnacle of the Slow Food, slow travel, slow-everything movement—the ultimate in getting away from it all, says Judith kleine Holthaus, former head of projects at the London-based Future Foundation.
The hotel of the future will be endlessly customizable, from the digital art on the walls right down to the furniture, which will change shape and texture. This bleeding-edge technology is called “claytronics,” according to Yeoman, an associate professor at New Zealand’s Victoria University of Wellington and previously the resident futurist for Scotland’s tourism board. Made of programmable, microscopic robots, a claytronic bed could morph into a couch during daylight hours, conserving space and ushering in a new breed of capsule hotels.
If nostalgia is a longing for the past, then “solastalgia” (a combination of solace and nostalgia) is mourning for a world that’s constantly changing all around us. “Most people realize that technology is progress, but they almost lament the fact that there is so much of it in their lives,” Holthaus says. She envisions locavorism and retro impulses taken to their extreme—resort villages dotting the English countryside where visitors detox from modern life by learning to harvest vegetables, cook meals, and care for animals. Grandparents will teach courses on their nearly forgotten family histories while their grandchildren acquaint themselves with obsolete skills such as analog photography.
Imagine searching for flights in the corner of your eye or the back of your mind, thanks to Internet-connected contact lenses and intelligent software agents that will explain everything within your field of view. Guidebooks are already being replaced by instant recommendations from social networks, which will be followed by itineraries tailored to your psychological and genetic profile. You won’t need to speak the language, either, thanks to real-time translation. “You’ll never get lost, you’ll always know what you’re looking at, and you’ll always understand what everyone’s saying,” says Michio Kaku, author of the best-selling Physics of the Future.
The Ageless Society
An older and increasingly wealthy population will produce what Yeoman calls “an ageless society,” one obsessed with its health. Today, medical tourism implies having a little work done before recuperating on the beach, but in a future full of octogenarians, the world’s best doctors and hospitals will become destinations unto themselves, complete with their own hotels and travel agencies. “Tourism will become a function of health care,” Yeoman says.
The shuttle’s retirement means space travel is about to be commercialized, led by pioneers such as Space Adventures—already responsible for blasting a half-dozen multimillionaires into space—and Virgin Galactic, which has taken deposits from 450 potential astronauts. “The International Space Station will be converted into the Orbital Hotel, owned by Richard Branson,” Schwartz forecasts, “and tourists will pay ten million dollars a week to stay there.” What will they do? Maintain the space station. At least until a cash-strapped NASA starts selling seats on its Mars mission.
The next iteration of adventure travel? The thrill of exploring the once forbidden: “dark tourism” destinations such as Chernobyl or the Axis of Evil. “Libya … Iran … let’s go to Iraq!” says Deborah Westphal, managing partner of Toffler Associates, Alvin Toffler’s consulting arm. With billions hitting the road each year, heading off the beaten path will require going farther and farther afield. What’s after Havana once the embargo is lifted? Why, Pyongyang, of course.
While most futurists find it unlikely that we’ll be grounded by peak oil, climate change, or a deadly pandemic, they also say it’s not out of the realm of possibility. In these scenarios, Yeoman predicts trains will replace planes for long-haul transport, relegating former island destinations to backwaters, or, as he sees it, “eco-paradises” for the rich. Places with temperate climes and fresh water will be the hottest destinations of all. He imagines New Zealand as a coveted agrarian state where China’s CEO’s vacation at gated resorts policed by drones and harboring the world’s last dolphins. The rest of us will stay indoors, content to experience the Galápagos on our tablets—by downloading someone else’s memories in full-sensory HD.
Some of the hottest destinations of the future won’t be defined by where, but when. Our collective hunger for new experiences, crossed with our nostalgia (and solastalgia) will lead us to travel back in time via wholly immersive experiences, whether it’s a resort set entirely in the Mad Men era (food, fashion, Pall Malls, and all) or stocked with cloned dinosaurs, like in Jurassic Park. The most far-out visions involve androids making the past come vividly alive. “You could inhabit another person’s life,” says Rohit Talwar, CEO of Fast Future Research. “If you want to be Julius Caesar or Marie Antoinette, you can.”