“Travel is usually thought of as a displacement in space. This is an inadequate conception. A journey occurs simultaneously in space, in time and in the social hierarchy. Each impression can be defined only by being jointly related to these three axes, and since space is itself three-dimensional, five axes are necessary if we are to have an adequate representation of any journey.”
–Claude Levi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques (1955)
In the now-concluded series, The Americans (2013), Soviet spies who took residence in suburban Washington, D.C. pose as owners of a travel agency for their cover. This series, set in the 1980s, evidences that era before online travel agencies became largely defunct, as the shows protagonists, a husband and wife team, print out detailed travel itineraries, feigning concern for their clients’ holidays.
Skip to the present day when travel is highly mediated by any number of online services and hundreds of apps which offer us advice about where to avoid traveling this year due to Brexit or where to head if one is an esurient fan of Game of Thrones. Simply put, travel is not the same as it was twenty years ago when not only were travel agents widely used, but people actually went on vacation to get away from the everyday. Today the panorama of travel has shifted entirely towards the more pragmatic as travel is as much about the destination as one’s carbon footprint, sustainable vacation spots and how to remove an unsightly scar not covered by insurance.
As with most every cultural tradition since the rise of the internet and social media, travel culture has vastly changed from how it is conceived, planned and structured today. From the browser to the airport to the vacation spot and since the turn of the millennium, the way we think about travel has been as impacted by new media and technology as much as travel has affected new technology.
For instance, with the rising costs of healthcare in some countries and the limited coverage of public systems in others, people are taking their vacations in parts of the world where they are killing two birds with one stone as medical tourism is not only having a huge spike, but it is actually being advocated by some national health systems. The demand for medical interventions in certain nations like Hong Kong outnumbers the country’s ability to return these professional services. With the increasing popularity of healthcare apps over the past two years that hook into medical tourism, getting rid of your glasses has never been so easy or so cheap.
And it’s no longer westerners traveling to any number of India’s hundreds of specialized eye hospitals which treat everything from diabetic retinopathy to Lasik surgery at a fraction of the price of similar treatments in the west. India’s top clinics like Sankara Eye Foundationand Chaudhary Eye Centre are just two of the nation’s approximately 1,300 eye hospitals which offer both critical and esthetic services, the latter of which heavily serves medical tourists. We are also witnessing the expansion of the Indian model of medical tourism across the globe as Brazil, Thailand, Malaysia, Costa Rica and, more recently, Iran are just some of the countries offering specialized treatments while also serving as a travel hotspot for vacationers. And just this week, the Yucatanannounced plans to expand its footprint into medical and wellness tourism which makes Mexico the number one medical tourist destination in the Americas.
But what about the relaxation part of the vacation?
While traditional travel agencies have shifted their services to what is today called “transformative travel” in order to remain viable, these services are somewhat elite and costly. Generally speaking, online travel services are still how most people book their travel. So, when people travel today, their first stop is often to scan flight comparison sites and their next step is usually to seek out accommodation. This can involve anything from booking a hotel or Airbnb rental (which outearned Hiltonlast year in revenue) and will often take up much time searching its accessibility to certain areas, means of transport, restaurants, and if there is even wifi on the premises. Locating suitable housing can also involve an in-depth search for the best rates with online hotel engines such as Booking.com. Even Google is getting into this market as it has recently announced its expansion of accommodations search. Again, remind me why we aren’t using travel agents?
Travel for pleasure, in the absence of specialist agents, means that our culture of vacation today involves much more planning, research, online comparisons and for many, the hopes of finding keeping to their budget. In essence, there is a lot of stress and planning surrounding travel with little to no time left to read up on destinations and the local activities one will actually do and see when there. This is where travel apps have taken over the “experiential” part of travel.
If in doubt as to what to do, there is now the perfectly commodified solution with Airbnb’s “Experiences” which allow you to connect with locals for a tour of Holland’s tulip fields or even to “play mermaid for a day.” Not only is landing at your destination and hoping for the best and cheapest hostel near the train station a thing of the past, but you can forget about walking through town to just wander and think. Gone are the days of chance and haphazard experiences or, for that matter, of actually speaking to anyone you haven’t previously organized to take a guitar lesson from since today you can organize everything with random strangers who up-sell their wares online. Travel is shifting from directing money to the site of the hotel, museums, river cruises and evening theatre, nowadays vacation travel means diverting this money over to home-owners (who are usually on vacation elsewhere) and local yoga instructors.
Sure, you are still traveling and “vacationing” in a different way, but this new modality of traveling seems to involve an overwhelming demand for interactions, lessons, wellness and “self-discovery” at the end of economic exchange. In the past, the largest chunk of vacation travel was diverted to hotels and meals with little to no pressure to get on the Hop On Hop Off buses. Today vacation travel necessitates another raison d’être for traveling—be it medical, wellness or finding one’s inner truth with apps taking the place of common sense and memory. If you forgot your bathing suit in the past, you would just buy a second one. Today, apps like Packing Pro help the traveler pack and are depressingly more common as we are making replicants of ourselves. Everything about travel today is so tightly regimented and controlled that it is no wonder that people are getting exhausted and anxious from vacations. The expectations are set so high that travel now reminds me of parents planning their children get into an elite university from the day they are born. Why all the pressure?
Just hit travel and fly.