The Trends That Will Shape Travel in 2019
This past year’s biggest travel trends—the rise in solo female travel and solo travel in general, the new emphasis on green travel, the development of cannabis holidays, an uptick in expedition cruises—will continue to shape travel into 2019 and beyond. But the travel industry, and the activity of travel, remains ever-changing. I’ve spent the last several weeks interviewing experts from across the industry to get their takes about what’s on the horizon. Here's what they, and I, see in the "crystal ball".
China is now responsible for the most outbound travel of any nation. By most estimates, 137 million Chinese tourists left their country on vacations and business travel in 2018. Not only are they traveling, they’re also doing it in style. Taleb Rifai, the former secretary general of the United Nations' World Tourism Organization, told Hong Kong's South China Morning Post that Chinese travelers "spend double the international average." With that kind of buying power, the tastes and needs of Chinese visitors will be a major influence on the industry. One way might be the establishment of new high seasons. The busiest holiday rushes for Chinese travelers are Golden Week (early October) and Chinese New Year (late January or early February). Those periods are traditionally low season in most parts of the world, but thanks to this Sino-wave, that is changing. Will Chinese vacation patterns kill off-season discounts? It’s a distinct possibility.
An offshoot of increased Chinese travel: People everywhere may soon be flying Chinese carriers. "The top three Chinese airlines are heavily subsidized by the government, and they are putting on more and more routes," says Mark Eacott, a Principal at Hirsch Bedner Associates, a hospitality design firm. "So you’re going to find, as a western traveler, that some of the cheapest options on your routes may be with a Chinese carrier." And these won’t just be flights into and out of China: The least costly flights today between London and Sydney are on a Chinese carrier via Shanghai.
Eacott notes that the influx of these visitors is also affecting accommodations. International hotel chains are creating sub-brands that cater to the Chinese tourist, such as Hualuxe, from InterContinental. These Asia-facing brands will be in major cities around the world. Their bars may serve tea instead of alcohol, and their construction and décor rely on the principles of feng shui. Top of the to-do list for existing luxury properties, according to Eacott? Adding high-end Chinese restaurants.
Pictured: An Air China plane.
According to the World Tourism Organization, the number of international travelers in 2017 grew 7% to 1.3 billion. Some destinations have been swamped—and are responding. Mykonos put a limit on cruise ship arrivals, the Thai government temporarily banned visits to one of its most famous bays (used in the movie The Beach), and both Rome and Florence have instituted fines for bad tourist behavior.
Travel sellers are also responding. "We’re suggesting that travelers go to alternate destinations that offer much of what their popular counterparts offer, minus the crowds and inflated prices. For example, the Similan Islands can replace [the Thai beach] Maya Bay, Komodo will be the new Ubud, Bukhara instead of Angkor Wat, and Ladakh in place of Everest," says Darshika Jones, regional director for North America of the travel adventure conglomerate Intrepid Group. The company's off-season tours to popular destinations like Turkey and Japan are doing almost as well as their high-season counterparts, she notes. Some tour operators that specialize in overtouristed places are making crowd avoidance a big selling point. "We've formed strategic partnerships with museums and archeological sites and we work with them to visit during off hours," says Sean P. Finelli of The Roman Guy, an Italian tour operator. “With the Vatican [pictured], we go in at 7:30 am, which is half an hour before the other tour companies, and that way our customers can see it in peace.”
In 2019, a project several years in the making comes to fruition—and it may make consumers weep with frustration. The International Air Transport Association's New Distribution Capability (NDC) initiative will allow the airlines to use artificial intelligence to customize fare quotes to each passenger. That means that if Passenger X flew 3 times in 2018 and paid for checked luggage and priority boarding, when X flies in 2019, she will automatically be shown tickets with baggage fees and priority boarding fees included in the package. Her ticket price will be different from what Passengers Y and Z see, even if they are all researching the same route at the exact same nanosecond. Why is that a problem? Well, X might have been traveling for business in 2018 but may not care about checked bags and boarding when she’s flying on her own dime in 2019. Because of pricier biz travel decisions, she may not be shown the cheapest fare without extras included. "The scary thing is that most travel suppliers know more about us than our mothers do. The idea behind all this is very Big Brotherish," James Filsinger, the CEO of the online airfare refund company, Yapta, told me. "It will add a layer of complexity to the travel buying process and a lot of opacity."
The museum experience is radically changing. "It’s a 'dam break' moment for museums. We're working with them to meet visitors where they are, so that they can enjoy museums more," says Nick Gray of Museum Hack, a tour company that’s currently working with 50 attractions across the United States to enliven the museum-going experience. "Our role is to attract this whole audience that thinks that ‘museums aren’t for me'." Toward that end, Gray and others are making museum tours more playful and interactive (with museum-goers often acting out what they see in the art as pictured). And both tours and exhibits are being themed around pop culture in old guard institutions. That might mean a foodie-centric experience in a gallery, tours that evoke Harry Potter or Game of Thrones, and even discussions about the sexiness of the artworks’ subjects.
Also on the rise: new “museums” that are actually little more than Instagram playgrounds. In the last several years, pizza, ice cream, happiness, and eggs—among other topics—have been the putative subjects of these new attractions. The real exhibition in these places, however, is the visitors themselves, who use the whimsical, colorfully designed rooms for selfies, not enlightenment.
The numbers tell quite a story. According to Frank Marini of Yankee Leisure Group, the conglomerate that controls Railbookers and Amtrak Vacations, reservations for those two companies jumped by 30% in 2018, with advance bookings for 2019 up 54%. "I feel rail travel is becoming the new river cruise. If I mention rail travel, there’s a smile on someone’s face, even if they’ve never done it before,” says Marini. And most of his customers are newbies: Some 63% of those who booked with both companies in 2018 had never vacationed by train before.
“Because it’s there" were the famous words spoken by Sir Edmund Hillary when he was asked why he wanted to climb Everest. Today, growing numbers of travelers are echoing his sentiments, planning vacations with the specific goal of pushing physical limits. Among those are runners inspired by the creation, two years ago, of the Abbott World Marathon Majors, which tied together the world’s six most famous long-distance races—New York City, Chicago, Boston, Tokyo, Berlin (pictured), and London—and awards a special, highly coveted medal to runners who complete them all. Now athletes are looking to even more exotic routes. "Marathons in such exotic locations as Patagonia, Bhutan, and Antarctica are some of our most requested tours,” Jeff Adams, President of Marathon Tours and Travel, told me. And challenge seekers are looking far beyond running. "Aspirational brands like Red Bull and North Face have helped mainstream more adventurous travel, like mountain climbing," says Mark Whitman, founder of Mountain IQ. "Startups like IGO Adventures and others that offer weekend Ironman-type challenges incorporating travel are becoming more and more popular."
In another era, they would have called it gluttony. But today, obsessions with food are being, yes, catered to by every element of the travel industry. In new hotel design: "The hotel restaurant is no longer buried in the back of the hotel plan like in so many hotels from the '50s, '60s and '70s. It’s right on the corner so it’s seen as part of the community as well as [part of] the hotel,” says Clay Markham, senior vice president at the global architecture and design firm CallisonRTKL. "And many new hotels are going for multiple dining and drinking spots, including speakeasies and rooftop bars."
On the tour front, dining also is front and center: "We’ve been doing focus groups about what our guests love, and the highlight of our tours comes down to those local food experiences that our guests wouldn’t be able to find on their own," says Jamen Yeaton-Masi, director of tour development for Country Walkers. "They’re looking forward to being an invited guest in someone’s home, or having a chef not only do a cooking class, but also walk through a market with them." The company is one of many now adding specialty food experiences. Stephanie Lawrence, the founder of Traveling Spoon, a company that hooks up individual travelers with home food experience around the globe, has seen her own company grow exponentially in just a few years. "It’s so meaningful and really memorable to go into someone’s home and literally break bread with them," says Lawrence. "It transforms travel into a true cultural experience that doesn’t happen from just going to a museum or out to a restaurant."
Back in 1992, the concept of housesitting was considered so oddball that, in the rom-com flop Housesitter starring Goldie Hawn and Steve Martin, the eponymous character was depicted as a borderline con artist. But in the last few years, the arrangement—in which a stranger takes care of pets and waters plants in return for a free stay—has mainstreamed. "So many more people are engaging in housesitting than when I started," says Kelly Hayes-Raitt, author of How to Become a HouseSitter: Insider Tips from a HouseSit Diva. "I think it was the Facebook groups that started a few years ago that were the tipping point. Housesitters suddenly had a community where they could share information and ask questions. And as the number of people considering housesitting grew, the number of people who knew housesitters also grew, and homeowners became more comfortable trying it." The numbers bear Hayes-Raitt out. A decade ago, there were six major websites that acted as matchmakers between homeowners and travelers. Today, there are more than 50.
The island chains of Palau and Hawaii are leading the way to environmental sustainability by announcing bans on types of sunscreen that damage coral reefs. Hawaii’s move came first, and starting in 2021, it will stop the sale of sunscreens that contain damaging oxybenzone and octinoxate. Palau added eight more ingredients to its "no-slather" list, and it looks like other destinations will follow. Hopefully we’ll all soon favor sunscreen that does not harm these important underwater ecosystems.
Remember the Pacific Crest Trail from Wild? In 2013, 1,879 permits were issued to hikers planning to walk it, but in 2017, that number soared to over 6,000. It isn’t just the popularity of that book and movie that account for the surge, though: Hikers attempting to walk the length of the Appalachian Trail in the last five years have increased by 91%, according to the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA). A panoply of new multi-day trails for both hikers and bikers is in the works or has opened recently. That includes one coming in Portugal for mountain bikers; a 1,700-mile-long trail in Chile that connects several national parks; a country-length hike through Jordan (2016 debut); and the Via Dinarica through the Dinarica Alps, a joint project of neighboring countries that were, in some cases, former enemies. "There’s a pride and a quiet joy in doing [long distance trails]," says Casey Hanisko, the President of ATTA. "Travelers want to go away from really busy routes and go on a slow journey through mountains, along coastlines, and so on. So there’s a trend for destinations to create more of those [opportunities]….And when you’re biking or hiking on a long trail, you’re appreciating places in a slow and giving and gracious way."
Pictured: Section of Continental Divide National Scenic Trail in Colorado
For those who haven’t heard of it, dynamic pricing is a nefarious scheme to end civilization. I’m kidding….sort of. The nutshell explanation of DP is this: fluid pricing based (often) on trends gleaned through online consumer tracking. In this case, a slew of attractions—from theme parks to ski resorts—will charge prices that shift daily. A big example: Walt Disney World announced in October that it was moving to a date-based fee scheme based on how busy the parks are predicted to be. Travelers are directed towards an interactive calendar with prices that, in my experience, vary by $1 to $12 per day. "What most operators are seeking is better predictability. So they’re investing in lower prices, which means if you buy sooner [you’ll get a better deal], because it helps them plan for upcoming business," says Evan Reece, founder of Liftopia, an online company that originally sold only ski lift passes, but now also creates back-end sales technology for amusement parks. According to Reece, attractions are consistently raising prices the closer to the date of use. Reece says that this type of pricing is wholly replacing last-minute discounts, which means that consumers have no risk of paying too much if they bite early.
It’s no longer necessary to be in the same office as your boss—or even the same time zone. As remote work becomes more common, people are taking their jobs on the road, traveling full-time while working full-time. "Happy employees produce better work. And I’d say because digital nomads live their best life, that means they can produce their best work," says Charlie Fogarty, co-founder of Lorem, a company that provides technical help to those working remotely. “Bosses are starting to understand that and are creating more flexible jobs.” So what does this type of lifestyle look like? Many simply pack up and go, working wherever they can find consistent Wi-Fi. New websites such as Outsite act as marketplaces for living and working spaces around the world. Others join peripatetic communities such as Remote Year, a program that provides a 24-hour work space, housing, and transportation for a large group of workers who move together every few weeks to a new part of the globe.
Drop that straw! As Frommer's reported last spring, straws are among the most environmentally detrimental forms of plastic. Entire cities have banned their use, as have SeaWorld parks and Walt Disney World (where they're either banned or now available only by request). Single-use water bottles are also being phased out. San Francisco recently became the first American city to ban sales, and Cinque Terre in Italy is installing water taps along its hiking trails and selling reusable flasks to walkers. Among the major hotel chains, Red Carnation, Hilton, InterContinental, and Marriott all are providing reusable glasses, flasks, and filtered water to guests at one or more of their sub-branded hotels. Shannon Guihan, a director at the hospitality consulting firm Bannikin: "We no longer have to convince clients that these issues [of plastic waste] are important. They know that travelers care. And they want to be part of the solution, using their buying power for good." Who knows? Smokers may soon be supplanted by plastic users as the biggest targets of dirty looks.
A vacationer’s (rental) home is her castle, it seems. In the last year, mighty HomeAway, one of the largest home rental platforms, saw the demand for castles grow by 55%, with estate rentals ticking up by 25%, and places with more than four bedrooms up by 44%. Melanie Fish, a spokesperson for the company, guesses that group rentals are the reason for the increase. "People are just getting smarter about amortizing their vacation costs," she says. "Instead of paying a lot for their own place, they’re bringing along friends and family members, renting big places, and paying much less per person."
You follow their adventures online—why not follow them down some exotic street in person? Big-name bloggers are parlaying their digital celebrity into tour operating. Juliana Dever (pictured), an actress and travel blogger with 10,000 monthly readers and some 100,000 social media followers, says that when she announced a 12-person tour to the country of Georgia, it sold out in three hours. "I did a survey of my readers and they reported that they thought the trip [with me leading it] would be more authentic than a usual guided tour," says Dever. "[Blog readers] have a relationship with this person. They trust their taste and style. So the opportunity to travel with this person takes it to the next level." Bloggers such as Wild Junket, Adventurous Kate, Nomadic Matt, and Wandering Earl are also among the ranks of bloggers leading real-world explorations.
It’s not a "smart" hotel. It’s a bloody genius! In the not-so-distant future—we’re looking (perhaps) just a few months ahead—your room will read your body temperature and adjust the thermostat accordingly. And with your phone, you’ll be able to unlock lobby lockers or closets so that you can store your laptop while you have a drink at the bar. That drink? It will be served by a "cocktail robot" (one that hopefully works well) and automatically charged to your account without you even having to tap the phone. "Automation is going to allow hotels to offer the same, or greater, level of service with fewer staff," says David Kasprak, a principal at O’Kelly Kasprak, a hospitality design firm.
Facial recognition is a trend we cited last year. It's already at certain airports and on many cruise ships as a way to shorten long check-ins to a few quick moments. Cruises, like hotels, are extensively using automation to transform the visitor experience. On the new Celebrity Edge ship, the click of an app can turn on the lights and control the TV in your stateroom even if you're nowhere near it. (It could be a fun way to prank your traveling companion.) That technology should be rolling out across the Celebrity Cruises and Royal Caribbean fleets over the next couple of years.