The expiration of exploration: has technology taken the mystique out of travel?


Monday 14 November 2016 by Johanna Van Balen

Travel has always been about adventure. Discovering the undiscovered. Exploring new worlds. Taking in new cultures. Ever since Christopher Columbus set sail in the 15th century, introducing Europe to the Americas and changing everything we knew about the world, travelling to the far reaches of the planet has had an air of the exotic.

Fast forward to today and more people are trekking around the globe than ever before. According to the International Civil Aviation Organization, almost 3 billion people travelled by air in 2012. Last year, the figure was more than 3.5 billion – and it is set to keep rising.

Budget airlines, price comparison websites and “sharing economy” startups like Airbnb have enabled us to travel the world for a fraction of the cost. Every day I receive marketing emails and pass posters on the tube and adverts on the sides of buses, all advertising cheaper seats to more and more exotic destinations. I’ve travelled by air eight times this year, by Eurostar once – and I’ve got four more trips scheduled before the end of the year.

Like many of us, I’ve become an expert in finding lower airfares thanks to websites such as Skyscanner and cheap accommodation from the likes of Booking.com and Voyage Privé. I do it all on my phone during my lunch break. How else would I put my holiday allowance to good use?

As I send texts and emails to my partner about £35 return tickets to Oslo or $40-a-night apartments in Baltimore, I’m struck by how easy all this travelling is. Isn’t it supposed to be a bit more work? Isn’t it meant to be a bit more of an “adventure”?

All these advances in technology and resulting new services have transformed travel. They have changed the way we approach it and the way we view the world. I’m grateful for technology that has made it easier and cheaper for me to scour the planet for new cultures and experiences. But I’m concerned that these advances are also sucking the romance and adventure out of travel.

These days, I don’t actually need to leave my house if I want to explore the far-flung reaches of the globe. I can visit most of the world’s major cities, including their museums and eateries, on my computer or smartphone. Whether it’s via Google Maps, TripAdvisor or the plethora of travel apps and myriad blogs that share the “best of” these destinations, the world is at my fingertips. But is that really a good thing?

Once upon a time, travelling meant heading into the unknown to embrace new cultures, scenery, people and often languages. And when you arrived you were completely disconnected from the world you left. I remember going on family holidays as a child and not speaking to anyone back home. Instead we saved all our tales for when we were crowded around our newly developed photographs a few weeks after our return. You could barely find an English newspaper when you were in a foreign country.

Nowadays, my Facebook feed is jam-packed with photos of my friends’ globetrotting. They are always just a WhatsApp away and they’re fully plugged into the goings-on back home thanks to their phones and 24-hour rolling news. Is there any such thing as a remote location anymore? Thanks to internet cafes, Wi-Fi connectivity in most public places and universal mobile phone coverage, no one is ever truly removed from their daily life – no matter how far they travel from it.

The ubiquity of smartphones is driving this. More than one in three people will own a smartphone by 2018, up from one in 10 five years ago. And, of course, you can use them for anything, from booking flights and accommodation to taking pictures and finding your way around a foreign city. Soon, all the traditional hallmarks of a trip abroad – dog-eared paper maps, printed plane tickets and reservations, clunky cameras with spare film, heavy guide books, even heavier novels, museum queues and the crackling expensive international phone calls tentatively made from the hotel – will be a thing of the past. Indeed, sales of travel guides in the UK and US have fallen in the last decade, despite a modest revival during 2015. How long until the last book is sold and we become fully digital?

It seems to me that technology has taken the mystique and adventure out of travel.

Planning trips used to feel like something akin to work: hours of meticulous planning, talking to friends who had already been there and relying on your hotel for directions and recommendations. Now you can interact with locals directly online, get recommendations from people on the go, rehash your itinerary with a quick web search, book your museum tickets online and skip the lengthy queues. We often know exactly what we’re going to experience before we leave – so where’s the payoff? Where’s the gratification?

Yes, technology has changed the way people travel; it has made everything more readily available, more fast-paced and more accessible to everyone. But it’s also a choice. For those who complain that remoteness is becoming more difficult to find: nothing is stopping you from packing a guidebook, buying a disposable camera and (crucially) switching your phone off.

While I don’t take advantage of all the technological marvels at my disposal, I’m very grateful that technology helps me to see the world as easily and as often as I do. For me, technology is very welcome to enhance the travel experience, but not to strip the mystery away completely. I still bring my camera with me, but I use my phone for shameless selfies. I buy guidebooks and use them to plot routes on my phone. I’ll occasionally call my mum to let her know I’m OK.

And sometimes I just turn everything off and soak up my surroundings. Because while these countries have already been discovered – online and off – I’m still seeing them for the first time.

Johanna has left The Frameworks.

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