For the travel industry, this is the best and worst of times. More of us are travelling than ever before, yet the world we’re travelling around is becoming increasingly uncertain. Open borders are good news for tourists – they’re also good news for terrorists (and economic migrants). So has globalisation had its day? Is isolationism back in fashion? With immigration on the increase, was Donald Trump’s travel ban a sign of things to come?
These are the kind of questions that trouble airlines and hoteliers, and all the other big players in the travel industry. If only they had a crystal ball, they could make a lot more money (or stand to lose a little less). Of course these ‘industry insiders’ are really just like all the rest of us – they don’t have a clue what’s going to happen next. That’s why a company called Amadeus (who provide specialist IT to the travel trade) has teamed up with management consultants AT Kearney to try and foresee how this global business will evolve. So what did these wonks come up with? And what are the implications for ordinary travellers like you and me?
AT Kearney has identified two ways in which international travel is changing. The first big change is personalisation. In industry jargon, this means the dramatic growth in independent travel. Naturally, this transformation is being driven by the internet. As clever travellers already know, with a laptop or a smartphone it’s easy to arrange your own trip. Innovations like airbnb show how this process is evolving. Suppliers and consumers can now communicate directly, with no need for expensive middle men. If you own your own home, you’re a hotelier. Who needs travel agents anymore?
Well, quite a lot of us actually – or rather, quite a lot of them. The big growth area for international travel isn’t in Europe or America – it’s in Asia, and Asians love inclusive deals. While we tinker around online, renting out our own apartments, they still like having a travel agent to look after them. They’re not as travel-savvy as us Brits (not yet, at any rate) and so, in emerging markets like China, package tourism is booming.
Asian travellers will probably tire of package trips eventually, and start building their own bespoke holidays – but if they’re anything like us, it may take them quite a while. Meanwhile, a different process looks set to transform the travel industry, a process AT Kearney calls fragmentation.
Fragmentation is all the bad stuff, at least as far as the travel trade is concerned (we all love open borders when we’re travelling, but as citizens we aren’t quite so keen). Security is a growing concern and not just in Trump’s America. The whole world is on the move and computerisation is making travel a lot simpler, but protectionism is on the rise and politicians are putting up new barriers, as voters become more fearful of where globalisation may lead.
Brexit is a symptom of this sea change, but Britain isn’t the only country that’s seeking to ‘take back control.’ Even the core nations of the EU are (finally) tightening their borders. Schengen was the high-water mark of borderless travel. There’s an increasing realisation that what works for commuters in the Benelux may never work for transcontinental travellers, however seamless the software becomes. ‘Technology has never held more promise for the travel industry,’ says Alex Luzarraga, vice president of Amadeus. ‘But the status quo is being turned on its head. There is widespread mistrust and populism. Things we used to take for granted, such as the right to travel across Europe without passports, for example, may be less likely in the future.’
So, if technology makes international travel easier and protectionism makes it harder, which of these two opposing forces will prevail? Well, much of that depends on what happens to the global economy, and since that’s a question no management consultant can ever answer, AT Kearney have hedged their bets by coming up with four future scenarios, which they’ve named after famous artists (rather pretentious, I know, but it does make it much simpler to remember them). They’ve called these four scenarios Bosch, Warhol, Picasso and Dali. So what do these four potential outcomes entail?
As befits an artist who delighted in painting hellfire and damnation, ‘Bosch’ is the worst case scenario: a global recession slows innovation, and rising nationalism leads to stringent regulation. ‘Warhol’ is a mixed bag: the Asian economies grow, Western economies stagnate and though mass market travel is buoyant, personalised travel remains a niche pursuit.
The ‘Picasso’ scenario is more positive: growing security concerns feed protectionism, but a worldwide boom funds innovation and drives demand. The ‘Dali’ scenario is the best of all possible worlds – and therefore the least probable: global prosperity, cross-border collaboration AND technological innovation (and if you want to bet the future of your travel company on this Panglossian prediction, you’re a braver – and more optimistic – man than me…)
Quite what we’re supposed to do with this all this speculative information is anybody’s guess, but from where I’m standing (at the Easyjet check-in desk, off on my summer holidays, trying to control my fractious children) it seems to me that our future travel prospects have never been more fraught. Sure, most Britons can now jet off to destinations their parents never dreamed of, but flying is no longer glamorous, and the mounting fear of terrorism makes border crossings increasingly tense. As Fraser Nelson has pointed out, as the developing world evolves it produces more and more educated, ambitious young people – more and more of whom will want to leave their homelands and seek a better future in the West. To my mind, that can only mean one thing, whether you’re a ‘Picasso’ or a ‘Warhol’: despite the new technology that makes arranging travel ever easier, once you set off for the airport it’s going to get increasingly difficult to actually get from A to B.