We are sitting on a local bus on the lovely tropical island of Penang in Malaysia, longing for the charms of its main city, Georgetown. The old part of town hasn’t changed much since we were here 18 years ago. Then we were backpackers in a Chinatown hostel, suffering salmonella courtesy of an insufficiently fried egg from a street vendor; now with three kids, we are still backpackers, but staying in slightly more comfortable accommodation by the beach. Hence the bus ride into town. A Western, white-haired couple boards the bus at the Holiday Inn. Looking like cruiseship-escapees, they are a good example of today’s most prolific travelers: retirees nowadays are the cash-laden, internet-savvy baby-boomers, with a lot of time on their hands. They may also be senior travelers in more than one sense – not only are they of an advanced age, but they may well be former travelers on the hippie-trail in the 60’s and 70’s. So there are backpackers with more grey hair than your occasional correspondent.
Overall, the tourism trend is on the up. After a slight slump in 2009 in the wake of the global financial crisis, tourism growth has returned to its normal, steadily rising curve over the past few years. Global tourism arrivals went up by 4% in 2012 (with an estimated value of US$ 1075 billion) and are expected to rise further in 2013. Asia Pacific has the highest regional growth rate in incoming tourists and is now the world’s second most popular destination after Europe. China and Thailand are classic choices, while Vietnam is one of the fastest growing destinations and Burma holds promise for the future (barring major political unrest as a result of the ongoing reform process). The main contributing factor to these travel trends are the healthy income growth and economic boom in the BRICS countries as well as other developing countries, creating a travel-hungry middle class. Notably, Chinese tourists are now the nationality spending most on tourism abroad.
Now that we have established that people travel a lot, you may wonder how. As you may have guessed, independent travel is still a big deal. The world is literally at our fingertips and seeing it does not cost an arm and a leg anymore. We go online in the planning stage and to make reservations, then to share experiences and plan the remainder of the trip while on the go. This is true also for seniors; in fact, a recent study revealed that travelers over 55 are more likely to book their whole trip online than those under 45. It is also cheaper to fly. Asia is the largest, most competitive and fastest growing air traffic market, with a year-on-year growth of 9 percent. More than 50 LCCs (low cost carriers) are currently operating in Asia, with e.g. two-thirds of the market share in Thailand and the Philippines.
What may be more surprising, however, is the opposing trend of people opting increasingly for the package holiday. After a decline in package holidaying around 2005 when the online and individual travel trend really took off among the broad masses of travelers, the frequent bankruptcies of travel companies and airlines have led some tourists back to the financial security and the convenience of the package.
But things are changing in the “traditional” package: You may be going on a cruise, but embarking in Vietnam. Golfing in North Korea, anyone? Or hanging out on the beach in the morning and volunteering in an orphanage in the afternoon? Or just hanging out at the beach, but resting (literally) assured that the resort you are staying at has a low carbon footprint (not just refusing to clean your towels)?
If you are in Singapore or other countries offering a reasonable bang for your healthcare buck, you might have the ultimate value-added package holiday – have a kidney transplant and check out the sights. There are different kinds of trends in medical tourism; patients looking for cost-effectiveness and those who travel regionally for treatment not available or considered unreliable in their home country. In Singapore, the latter account for nearly half of the medical tourists. Patient numbers from China and India are increasing. Many patients/tourists are coming for elective surgery or treatment, e.g. transplants, and are able to spend time on sightseeing and recreation. (And if they are not well enough to do the touristy thing, their travel companions might be!) Therefore, medical tourism is in line with Singapore’s tourism plan, which is focusing on specialized, high-end tourist attractions in order to increase the spending per visitor.
In conclusion, traveling nowadays has certainly changed from my backpacking days in the 90s. A trip has to be meaningful, be it through a service element, educational value or for health purposes. It has to be endowed with a purpose that can be justified to your Facebook friends. Because – and this is a huge difference – we are never far away anymore. You’re expected to share the trip in real time with friends and family. Gone are the days of leisurely waiting outside the General Post Office for the clerk to find your letters (which could take hours). Gone are the quarterly printed newsletters from Lonely Planet aimed at updating and complementing their travel guide books. And gone too are the days of speaking fast to say as much as possible to your parents back home in the few minutes that you could afford to talk, every other week or so. We are now locked into a system of endless opportunities and connectedness and expectations; our own and others’.
There’s no escaping anymore.
Budget air travel
UNWTO (World Tourism Organisation)
Asian airlines performance