The future of travel is less exotic

I AM WRITING THIS from Amritsar, India, in the state of Punjab. The Sikh Golden Temple here is one of India’s leading attractions, and last night I shared space with thousands of people over the course of four or five hours. In that time, I saw only two people who might qualify as White Westerners.

That simple observation — and my travels over the past year to Denmark, Switzerland, Ireland, Portugal, Mexico, England, Argentina, and Colombia — have led me to a theory about the future of travel: The world is entering a new era in which exotic journeys are for more of a travel elite than a moneyed elite.

International travel is rebounding in comfortable “core” locations (for Americans, at least) such as Mexico, London, or Dublin. But people are less keen on going farther afield. “Comfort travel” — by which I mean not just nice hotels but familiar surroundings — will be OK. “Challenge travel” — involving not only faraway places but also unaccustomed experiences — faces a more uncertain future.

It’s not just my own experience. A colleague who is currently visiting Rajasthan relates that his guide says he hasn’t worked with any foreign tourists for more than two years. The Chinese, the world’s most frequent travelers, reduced their international travel by 95% in 2021. Or consider the island of Bali, which is admittedly luxurious but still, to many Westerners, exotic. It was formerly a major tourist destination for North Americans, Europeans, and Asians, with 6.3 million foreign visitors at its pre-pandemic peak. In all of 2021, it recorded just 45 foreign visitors — and estimates are that the island will need 10 years to recover to previous levels.

One possibility is that international tourism will soon return to its 2019 composition, as people overcome their inhibitions and worry less about COVID risk. I am doubtful.

For one thing, domestic US travel has already rebounded. Reservations for US national parks are difficult to get, and West Virginia and Maine are enjoying a newfound prosperity. Most people are flying and walking through airports without masks, a sign of some comfort with baseline COVID risk. And London, Dublin, and Oaxaca had plenty of North American visitors. People seem to be able to satisfy their travel itch without going too far or taking too many chances.

Another problem is that significant parts of Asia have yet to return to normal. China is pursuing a “Zero COVID” policy, and the quarantines discourage foreign visitors. Japan still is not open to unescorted foreign visitors, with outdoor masks required. While those restrictions will eventually pass, people are getting out of the habit of thinking of Asia as a major tourist destination. I am even reluctant to take connecting flights through Tokyo, like I used to, for fear that if my connection were canceled, I couldn’t stay the night in Narita and enjoy some sushi.

When people are forced to adjust, as happened during peak pandemic times, they learn new things. What many Americans and Westerners have learned is that they enjoy “comfort travel” as much if not more than “challenge travel.” A lot of the new habits are going to stick. Especially with group travel, the preferences of comfort travelers will tend to win out in choosing a destination.

One slightly sorry truth is that many people do not very much enjoy challenge travel, which can be stressful and almost like work. When the social and group pressures to do it are removed or lessened, challenge travel is likely to decline, although the hardcore challenge travelers will remain and perhaps even expand their ambitions.

The future for challenge travel, then, may be that it becomes both less popular and more intense. In this sense it may harken back to an earlier era of travel, where risk and difficulty were ever present and surprises were frequent. It was a time when there was not a Starbucks on every corner — or, as the case may be, a Subway sandwich shop. (There is one in the pedestrian district of Amritsar, but I don’t think it is the future of dining here.)

In this re-emerging world of exotic travel, there will be less incentive to make everything comfortable and easy. Travelers who seek out the truly exotic will find new opportunities, and prices will stay low or perhaps fall further. The surrounding tourist infrastructure will be less likely to evolve toward familiarity. If you are a challenge traveler, maybe your favorite spot is less likely to get ruined.

This growing bifurcation of travel between comfort and challenge won’t benefit everyone.  Many people will play it safe, opting for Cabo rather than the wild Pacific coast of Colombia. They won’t experience the world of challenge travel at all. I, for one, will not miss them.

BLOOMBERG OPINION