We’re looking at a monumental change to the travel demographic – How will that change realities on the ground?
Let’s face it, none of us are getting any younger. Our lives change, maybe adapting to open ourselves up to a full-time life of travel and a degree of rootlessness, or maybe becoming more complicated and static. Perhaps we settle for a few jaunts per year – as many as our employers will allow? We retain our wanderlust but we have grown: We want to see the world as much as we ever did, but is the world ready for how we want to do it? Mass-tourism has changed enormously in the past 20 years but I think what we’re looking at now is a fundamental shift in the demographic of backpackers. What will that bring in the next 20 years? Here I display my prescience, or rather try my hand at futurology…
Since the turn of the century
Consider this: In 2002 I couldn’t get a hostel bed in Zurich and had to stay in a single hotel room, at much cost. In 2003 I explored Spain and Portugal for several weeks and actually found it pretty difficult to find hostels, never-mind hostel beds (apart from in Barcelona). When I hit Asia in 2007 the place was gearing up with new hostels appearing almost weekly. WiFi was starting to appear and queues for PCs in hostels were diminishing. In 2010 it became apparent that Belgrade was in the grip of a huge surge in backpacker accommodation. In 2011 traveling around Japan was
easier than traveling around the UK. We are looking at a worldwide explosion in venues catering for the youth travel market. Not just places to lay our heads but companies producing tourism packages aimed squarely at countries that gap year adventurers wouldn’t even have heard of around the turn of the century. The world truly has opened up. But what now?
As the travelboomers edge towards 30 or 40 years old do they have the same aspirations that they once did (not baby boomers who travel, people who have enjoyed backpacking in this new age of easy and cheap worldwide travel [I believe I’ve just coined this term])? I don’t think so. More often now I find myself happy to let the younger folk enjoy the delights of communal sleeping arrangements whilst me and my wife (Wait, WIFE? How did THAT happen?!) take private rooms in the same hostels, if they have them. That is the first major and accelerating shift I expect to see in the next few years – hostel vibes with more private rooms and facilities. We don’t want luxury or the cold detachment of a glistening corporate lobby. Neither do we necessarily want to put up with the squawking of a teen-aged girl calling her friends, separated by 6 time-zones, at 3am… We want a base from which to explore each new location. No-frills, just a comfy bed and a good strong fan if it’s too sweaty. We can still party if our aged livers allow it but many of us do need a slightly more peaceful rest in order to recover! So, not retirement homes at all but some kind of hybrid hostel culture will certainly arise to cater for this demographic.
Disposable cash = Disposable dorms?
The unfortunate flip-side to this new availability of private rooms might actually be that costs rise for younger travelers. Once owners realise that there is a demographic out there that’s more than willing to part with a bit of extra cash for private rooms I would expect that dorm rooms would shrink in size while the dorm beds remaining would rise in cost. Not by much, there will certainly still be a demand for dorms. This isn’t unheard of already. There are far fewer places with 20+ bed dorms than there were even three years ago and I think most travelers would recognise that beds are creeping up in price. Therefore will provision for travelers start to move away from the relatively egalitarian pursuit it has become, towards something much more accessible to middle-aged people with disposable income? I hope not, but I suspect that it might, especially with job security in the West being shot to pieces and the opportunity for redundancy windfalls reigniting long-smouldering wanderlusts. Would an economic recovery fix this trend? I don’t think so, mainly because I reckon that more people from emerging economies will be filtering into the system. They will most likely be people born before 1990 who have taken advantage of growth already and now want to take a bit of time out to see the world. Thereby accelerating this trend further.
Travel with children
There are plenty of amazing trail blazers out there blogging about their adventures with their tots. It sounds like an wonderful thing to expose your children to. When sprogs come into my life it’s certainly something that I will be trying to gift to them from a very early age. Hand in hand with the private room growth will come the rise in more suitable hostel accommodation for families. So, slightly quieter, more sedate hostel-type places that older folk will occupy? Kids love bunk-beds anyway so I foresee no issues getting them to buy into sleeping in small but multi-bed private rooms! We will see kids traveling much more regularly than we do now, and in places we wouldn’t really see them right now:
Oasis Air got me really excited when it launched in 2005. The promise of £75 one way flights from London to Hong Kong was unbelievable and ultimately fatal for the company – it folded in 2008 with huge debts. But, once the economy recovers I don’t see why there can’t be a second proliferation of more targeted airlines offering extremely competitive rates between hub cities. Nothing quite so extreme as this experiment but I’m sure there’s room for selected long haul carriers to provide cheaper links between Europe and Asia. Perhaps Air Asia will return to Europe after it dumped us earlier this year? Renewed cheap links between London and Malaysia – I’d almost guarantee that to happen within the next three to four years. In the end I traveled from Estonia to Hong Kong by train, which was much more fun, but not many people will want or have the time to do it that way. This cheap provision would help families in particular to expand holiday destinations beyond the traditional easy choices. It was always British families abroad = Spain, how about Thailand instead?
Again, before the economic crashes there was an undercurrent (pun noticed, not intended) of cheap marine tourism. EasyCruises floated around the Mediterranean and appeared to be doing fairly well. Perhaps the model wasn’t quite right but they went under during the height of the recession. Nevertheless I think they had a very interesting idea in providing a floating hotel between top-notch seaside destinations. The ship was meant as a place to sleep, not as a destination in itself, as is part of the appeal of a traditional cruise. The point was therefore that travelers would be unloaded into ports to spend as much time as possible on shore before returning on-board later and waking up in another new place. That sounds like my kind of cruise. None of the banality I’d expect in an ordinary one. They aimed at 30-40 year olds on a budget – precisely the demographic that will explode in the next decade. If anything Stelios was ahead of the game here and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he came back with a new and refined offering for the masses. One that will be embraced by young parents on their first family holiday after their previous backpacking experiences. After all you can’t travel much more easily than on a cruise. It won’t be for everyone but I think it’ll be a strong growth sector if it’s carried off properly.
I see the future of backpacking being quite different to what it is now with just these few changes to accommodate people who are well-used to traveling widely. It has already changed so much with the advent of innovations like the smartphone bringing more people into a mindset that it’s easier and safer to explore the globe. It’s an everyman pastime and the people who are realising that today are the ones who will redefine the way it works from now on by expanding their family lives into far-flung corners of the world. It’s no real leap of the imagination to see this coming, I’m not Yoda, but what else is on the horizon?