The sight has become so commonplace it’s no longer remarkable: Travelers hunched over their phones as they walk through a foreign street, crowded around a piece of art only to view it through a screen, or posed in front of some stunning vista just to grab a selfie.
But through the constant glow, a consensus is emerging: This is not good. This is not healthy.
“There’s this sort of idea that there are limits, and the basic functioning of our physiology is pointing to these limits,” said Christopher J. Lee, a Lafayette College history professor whose book, Jet Lag, explores the negative implications of modern technology. “It’s simply important to listen to our bodies, sort of identify what’s preventing us from getting rest. Is it this technology that keeps our attention and keeps us awake longer than it should?”
Apple and Google are giving customers tools to cut back on phone use. Silicon Valley executives are trying to keep their kids away from screens. Facebook is trying to de-emphasize mindless videos. And former tech company bigwigs at the Center for Humane Technology are working to combat the problem of technology “hijacking our minds and society.”
Wired wrote in mid-2018 in a story about digital wellness: “Our devices have never been more powerful, and people have never been so desperate to escape them through ‘digital detoxes’ and ‘dumb phones.’ Unplugging is the rallying call of our time.”
Those sentiments build on concerns about security in light of numerous data hacks. And new questions about privacy revolve around smart speakers such as Amazon Echo and Google Home. Even Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson, whose company is installing Alexa voice-powered devices in hotel rooms, sounded uncertain about the technology’s future.
“I’ve got a couple of the devices still in a box in my closet at home,” he said during Skift Global Forum in September.
Some customers are similarly uncertain, he said, wary of having the gadget in their rooms.
“I think, as a society, we’re going to try and figure out, are these devices that we can trust?” he said. “I think inevitably we will figure that we can trust them because they offer enough convenience that collectively we’ll figure out a way to tap into that convenience and still be confident that they’re not listening to us when we don’t want them listening to us.”
Travel Loves Tech
So where does all that leave travelers?
Airlines, hotels, and cruise lines are working harder than ever in 2019 to foster tech-driven relationships with their customers. They are updating their apps to better track behaviors and tailor offers. They are wiring more rooms to let guests control lights, temperature, and TV settings with their phones. Cruise lines — once known for terrible and expensive internet access — are upgrading their infrastructure to keep passengers more tech-tethered than ever.
And social media remains an important way for travel companies to promote their products to consumers. Fewer eyeballs online could mean fewer potential guests at a hotel or destination.
“Basically, there’s a very direct conflict right now between the business goals of travel companies and the idea of reducing our reliance on technology,” said journalist Sara Clemence, author of the book Away & Aware: A Field Guide to Mindful Travel.
In recent years, a smattering of hotels and other travel companies have acknowledged the issue with tech-free promotions, though they are often short-lived. A company called Off the Grid garnered headlines in early 2018 with a promise to take customers on vacations sans smartphones. By late in the year, the company’s website was down and its founder unreachable.
Tour operator Intrepid Travel launched a series of “digital detox” trips in 2016, promising to make cellphones off-limits. While some trips are still placed under that category, the no-phone, no-social media part of the deal is no longer enforced.
Instead, the operator is catering to those who want a tech break by recommending specific destinations where connectivity is a challenge. Intrepid said U.S. bookings to some of those locales were up signif icantly in 2018 compared to a year earlier: Patagonia saw a 114 percent increase, while Mongolia trips jumped 35 percent.
“We are seeing an increase in those more remote destinations where you get that opportunity to unplug and reconnect,” said Darshika Jones, Intrepid’s director of North America.
Overall, the tours and activities sector is still seeing rapid growth and signif icant investment as consumers shift their spending to experiences rather than belongings. In its 2018 U.S. Affluent Traveler Survey, Skift Research found that 67 percent of high-income travelers said they would rather spend their money on activities than a nicer hotel room. That number climbed eight percentage points from the previous year.
The survey also found that 75 percent of affluent travelers had participated in at least one organized tour or activity. And since travel giants such as Marriott, Airbnb, and TripAdvisor have all been investing in growing their tours business, the sector appears likely to continue to draw customers.
A Happy Medium
Clemence, the author who wrote about mindful travel, said she doesn’t expect travel companies to voluntarily scale back their reliance on technology. She believes it’s up to individuals to find their own happy and healthy medium. She offers tips on how to be more thoughtful during trips, such as using a film camera for pictures, navigating with a physical map instead of an app, or taking a random bus route for unexpected discoveries.
“I don’t think the answer is either you travel in a way that’s super plugged-in or you go on some digital detox holiday that’s specially structured and your phone gets locked away when you arrive,” she said. “There’s got to be something in between. I think that sort of has to be driven by individual travelers.”
Still, some companies are trying to be thoughtful in how they deploy technology. J. Allen Smith, CEO of Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, said at Skift Global Forum 2018 that it was important to avoid “technology bling,” or the shiny new object that might be fancy but ultimately not all that functional.
He said one innovation he was pleased with was the company’s chat service, which can translate 100 different languages through the Four Seasons app, WeChat, text, or Facebook Messenger.
“At the end of the day, it’s all about people,” Smith said. “You can’t let the technology override that notion. Everything we do with respect to technology is in the quest of serving our guests in a more effective way and providing a better experience.”