Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

The question that Singapore's minister of foreign affairs put to attendees at the Web in Travel conference last week seemed a little silly: "How many of you are in the travel industry?"

Every hand went up.

And the follow-up seemed, perhaps, sillier: "Can you think of any other species that engages in tourism?"

Absurdly, I thought of passenger pigeons.

But the minister, Vivian Balakrishnan, moved on to points that, it turned out, are anything but silly.

He noted that our urge to visit territories that are fully settled by strangers -- to cross tribal lines -- simply doesn't exist in other species. No alpha male gorilla goes into another alpha male gorilla's turf unless he's looking for a female (and a fight).

The unique behavior of crossing borders for the simple pleasure of seeing how others of our species live at different latitudes and longitudes is a relatively recent development for humans. As recently as 250 years ago, the crossing of borders by large numbers of foreigners was typically seen as a hostile act. Even if visitors weren't an invading force, they usually brought some form of competition and conflict.

Balakrishnan, who is also the minister in charge of Singapore's Smart Nation program, which focuses on technology as a tool of societal development, showed how advancements in transportation inadvertently resulted in a new industry: tourism. He summarized how shipbuilding and steam-powered trains enabled people to move goods more efficiently and how the concentrated energy of oil made cars and planes possible.

Although the motivation behind these advancements was to expedite trade, the side benefit was an expansion of peaceful, mutually beneficial cross-border relations.

And leisure travel.

The minister also traced a bit of the history that dominates how we think of technology today: digital computing. The development of the transistor in 1947 ultimately defined three subsequent waves, each of which had specific travel applications: mainframe computers, which enabled reservation systems; the World Wide Web, whose graphical interface enable the dissemination of photos and video to better sell travel; and location-aware mobile computers, i.e., your smartphone, to ________.

You can fill in the blank about the way smartphones impact and enhance travel planning, booking and the experience of travel itself in any number of ways. Certainly, the tech-savvy, entrepreneurial Web in Travel audience didn't need Balakrishnan to suggest ways mobile computing power combines with dynamic travel information to facilitate and enhance travel.

What this was leading up to, it turned out, was a proposal. "With the building of a fifth terminal and third runway [at Changi Airport], we intend to be a major hub," the minister said.

He suggested that, unlike some competitors -- he didn't say "in the Gulf states," but everyone filled in that blank, as well -- Singapore was not going to enact protectionist policies.

"The interests of the state trump the interests of the state airline," he said. "The necessity is to create choice, not monopolies. Those days are over."

Singapore, he said, was supporting connectivity with high-speed bandwidth and practical applications of locational awareness for mobile telephony.

The point?

"We want visitors' phones to be portals to experience."

The pitch?

"The deal we are offering you is not specifically about travel or technology, but about creating those experiences," he said.

He urged the audience to "use Singapore as a test bed." Singaporeans and those who visit Singapore are, he said, "sophisticated and demanding customers. If it works here, it will work anywhere."

Technology, the minister said, is about improving the quality of life, including travel, but it's also about moving societies forward in ways that enable the travel industry (and travelers) to enjoy tourism without fear.

As we have all become painfully aware, there is a nexus between travel for pleasure and the specter of travel as something sinister. We humans, he said, are hardly one big happy global village. Travel has been the focus of threat. Technology itself is neutral; it can be used as both threat and counter-threat. Balakrishnan seemed to be calling for those in the audience not only to provide portals to experience but to develop ways to enhance travel security.

(Although Singapore enjoys relatively low crime rates and good relations with its neighbors, it's extraordinarily security-minded. It's the only country I'm aware of that builds a one-room bomb shelter into each unit of publicly subsidized housing and requires private housing to provide shelters as well.)

He concluded by urging the audience to "please consider deploying (travel-related technology) with us."

Having spent a week in Singapore on this trip, my sense was that I might well have witnessed an early stage in a process that will make Singapore the most technology-forward nation in the world.

During my time there, I met a number of Singaporeans who collectively schooled me on modern Singapore history -- that is, the history of Singapore from Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew forward. My takeaway was that, owing to its small scale and enormous willpower, the Singaporean government has the unique ability to successfully implement centralized plans that affect any aspect of life it chooses.

Apparently, it chooses travel and tourism.


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