It's hip now to be bearish on international travel's long-term trajectory. But Parag Khanna has fascinating insights into why the travel industry is central to a new, more mobile phase of history.
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How we live and work morphed in the pandemic. In the future, migrations will scatter both the dispossessed and the well-off. How can travel become a geopolitical force for good in our world increasingly on the move?
Parag Khanna, an author and a geopolitical scientist, gave a lot of thought to this topic when writing his latest book, Move — which examines the forces uprooting the world.
We spoke with Khanna about what the travel sector needs to know about the coming upheaval in mobility. The chat was prelude to his interview with Skift CEO Rafat Ali at Skift Global Forum on September 21 at the TWA Hotel in New York City.
We’ve lightly edited the conversation for clarity.
Parag Khanna: We’ve gone from the Great Lockdown to the Great Reset, and soon we’ll have the Great Migration.
The travel industry is central to this next phase of history. You are charged with organizing human mobility beyond anyone’s hometown. This is an incredibly powerful role and obligation. You can shape what we build and where we build, where people go and how they get there, and even what people do and how they do it.
But let me back up: It’s ironic that, in January 2020, we knew that 2019 had witnessed the highest number of international travelers in history [1.5 billion], and the number of migrants also stood at nearly 300 million.
Since then, we’ve had the Great Reset, with many people returning “home” — wherever that is — not knowing if it’s temporary or permanent.
Next we will enter an era of great migrations, unlocking global mobility.
All the forces that push people to uproot themselves are accelerating simultaneously: the demographic imbalances between old and young, political instability, economic crises, technological disruptions, and climate change. Taken together, I believe we will go from nearly zero migration in 2020 to a resorting of billions of people in the unfolding post-pandemic era.
It’s imperative that we manage this next phase of migrations better than before because the stakes are much higher. The world population is reaching a plateau. If we want to maintain economic momentum, it will have to be inclusive and focused on the world’s four billion young people, helping them get to where they need to be to lead more productive lives.
We also need to adapt to climate change. There are places in the world that have become effectively unlivable, and people should be relocated away from them.
There’s literally nothing more important than moving people and connecting them, period. The travel sector has a historic role.
Skift: Given the coming shifts in mobility, how can executives make sure the travel industry acts as a force for good?
Khanna: Access is the critical word.
We’re not seeing government leadership transcending today’s hyper-bureaucratized travel and migration system. That initiative is going to have to come from the travel industry.
Immunity passports, travel history, criminal records, financial statements — we should be digitizing these certifications and develop secure blockchain platforms that ease the exchange of information across responsible agencies. We need passports on apps.
Of course, we expect neutral international bodies to administer such systems, but the travel sector is more tech-savvy than the typical government. Also, you have greater motivation because you’re losing out in the lag time between today’s antiquated bureaucracy and tomorrow’s more efficient international mobility.
Basically, the travel industry has to develop the tools that make it easier for governments to say “yes” to greater mobility while also making the requirements more palatable to citizens and customers.
Again: what could be more important when we’re talking about the billions of people who need to and want to move?
Skift: How do travel executives need to rethink their implicit assumptions about “the “Asian market” opportunity, “Northism,” or other broad-brush generalizations?
Khanna: I’ve spent a lot of time with governments and companies tinkering with maps and org charts. Does “EMEA” make sense? Does India belong in “APAC” divisions, or should it be a market unto itself? And so forth.
Asia is the majority of the human population and always will be — and it’s the fastest-growing region economically as well. Travel within Asia is growing multiples faster than travel outside it. But Asia is also the most important new vector of global migrant flows: between Asia and Europe.
In the book, I describe how a new class of “Asian-Europeans” is emerging as Asian businesspeople, travelers, and students expand their numbers in Europe. Asians will play a huge role in helping Europe overcome its acute labor shortages in healthcare, technology, and other sectors. Plus, Europe is a far more climate-resilient region.
In terms of professional mobility, we definitely see more “Northism” in that Canada and northern European countries have risen to the top of indices of ex-pat desirability. I also forecast a significant rise in summer (and winter) tourism in northern countries, including Russia.
Skift: In online travel, there’s been a kind of “travel giant triumphalism.” Some people have believed e-commerce multinationals will dominate commercially in all markets. Will Big Tech inherit the Earth?
Khanna: Given the size of the North American, European, and Chinese travel markets, it’s no surprise that they and their e-commerce and travel giants dominate and have the foundations to scale globally.
They’re also becoming more interoperable, as we see through the efforts of Ctrip with Tripadvisor.
I view this phenomenon less from the perspective of which countries’ companies have a global market share and whether common standards are emerging. Adopting this perspective levels the playing field and helps get us closer to the seamless and inclusive mobility that should be the industry’s common agenda.
Skift: But Parag, are there dynamics in play that could allow new travel giants to emerge and prosper in markets like South Korea, Indonesia, Singapore, India, Japan, Mexico, Dubai, Brazil, and Argentina? Can these upstart firms hold their own against the tech giants from the U.S., China, and Europe?
Khanna: We have to think of this in terms of cross-border partnerships and less as a big-versus-small, West-versus-rest type of situation.
The global players require local partnerships and investment in building up local supply chains and industries. It’s symbiotic, the way foreign investment almost always is.
Skift: You’re currently researching artificial intelligence’s (AI’s) broader impact. Could you share insight into AI’s potential impact that might surprise people who haven’t followed AI closely?
Khanna: What we’ve seen so far in AI applied to travel is promising and certainly adds to our convenience, from chatbots to content generation to personalization of customer experience. GPT-3 could be very useful here as well for interactivity.
No doubt, we’ll also see more augmented reality along the continuum from travel planning to navigating things to do in dense cities.
All of this contributes to something greater that has been accelerating since the pandemic: the blending of work and lifestyle. Travel and migration are also fusing as people choose to work remotely from disparate locations over a year or continuously. As family sizes shrink, but connectivity expands, it’s less likely that people will feel the need to “settle down.”
In MOVE, I also have a section on the growing ranks of mobile retirees — precisely the opposite of the sedentary nature of retirement thus far.
Remember that the world is complex. Even if you want to stay put, politics or the environment may force you to move. To move is human. We should regain confidence in becoming nomadic again and make the experience as comfortable as possible. Who else to trust with this great responsibility than the travel industry?
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Photo credit: A terminal at Beijing's main international airport in 2019. Dion Hinchcliffe / Flickr / Creative Commons