Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

A travel industry opinion column titled "Going nowhere" could be about legislation stalled in Washington, or the new tourism initiative announced by Syria last June or (one hopes) the preliminary efforts to allow cellphone usage on commercial aircraft.

But the title above isn't strictly metaphorical. It's about understanding the importance to travelers of remaining motionless.

The travel writer Pico Iyer's book (and complementary TED talk) "The Art of Stillness" (Simon & Schuster/TED, 2014) examines why one needs to pause occasionally in order to fully process and appreciate a trip, among other aspects of life.

Iyer became a travel writer not only to share experiences but in hopes of bringing "magic and clarity" to his own life.

He soon realized what every tour guide knows -- that you must bring the "right eyes" on a trip. "You take an angry man to the Himalayas, he just starts complaining about the food," Iyer notes.

And a way to get one's eyes (and attitude) right, he observes, is to allow time to sit still. In his experience, it is the only way to "sift through the slideshow of my experience and make sense of the future and the past."

He recalls how a trip to North Korea 24 years ago lasted only a few days, but by making time to reflect on it and try to understand it, the trip has lasted 24 years "and will probably last a lifetime. ... It gave me some amazing sights, but it's only sitting still that allows me to turn those into lasting insights."

He alludes to the near-universal problem of time poverty and delves into how current technology exacerbates the difficulty of even contemplating taking time to retreat within.

At the heart of his travel essay about going nowhere is the understanding that "we can more and more easily make contact with people on the furthest corners of the planet, but sometimes in that process ... lose contact with ourselves."

There's much more to his thesis than an updating of New Age thought to take technology into account. He is tapping into, and defining, an aspect of modern society that is widely experienced and deeply felt. The TED talk is trending in popularity quickly because it puts into words the longing of a society that often feels helpless in the face of instant and constant connectivity and is aware of the need to find time to simply process what it has experienced. Everyone wants to press pause.

Is it paradoxical to suggest that the travel industry can insert itself into a growing desire to remain still?

I wrote earlier this year about research suggesting that for most travelers, the happiest part of a trip was the anticipation of it; Iyer further suggests that a trip's deepest meaning may be found afterward (or in still moments en route).

The industry currently occupies a central space in the trip cycle, of course. There has to be something to anticipate and something to reflect upon, and that's where travel retailers, tour operators and cruise lines come in. But as travelers become more conscious that their trip includes before, during and after parts, the question for the industry is how to add value to both ends as well as to the middle.

I suspect that many of the pieces that can enable this are already in place. Tour operators, travel agents and cruise lines have, to varying degrees, developed pre-trip communication plans to build excitement.

As for reshaping the trip itself to build in time for reflection, it might be a matter of balancing and calibrating several industry trends -- experiential travel, authenticity, wellness and independence -- to overtly help travelers process what they experience.

But there could also be certain add-ons featured on selected departures to expressly facilitate periods of stillness and processing. Iyer reviews the concept of the "Internet sabbath," a period of 24 or 48 hours during which one completely disconnects. (Interestingly, this sabbath is most widely observed in Silicon Valley.)

I experienced such a sabbath -- actually, an extended sabbath -- last summer, when I went with Abercrombie & Kent around the island of Svalbard, Norway, well above the Arctic Circle. In addition to the possibility of seeing polar bears, arctic foxes, puffins and walruses, it had been promoted that the ship would have Internet connectivity. We saw all the wildlife, but the Internet connection went out on day two and remained out for a week.

The reaction of the 200 passengers was interesting. No one seemed particularly put out. It was not a topic of complaint in the dining room or bars.

For the first few days, whenever a question arose in the course of conversation that no one could immediately answer, we would instinctively reach for our phones to Google it. But even that habit was broken surprisingly quickly.

Although I dreaded knowing that I would later have to review thousands of emails that were piling up, a week without Internet was a guilty pleasure for me. It wasn't just that I added several hours to a day that already had 24 hours of sunlight, but it was only with the absence of a phone that I became aware of how distracting it is to carry a connection to everything and everyone in one's pocket.

"Black hole" resorts, which present a pre-digital experience, have cropped up over the past few years, but I'm not sure it has to be all or nothing. Iyer speaks of the importance of "empty space" within existing form: the pause that gives beauty and shape to music, for example, or the white space on a printed page.

I believe there is a market developing for those who have the audacity to remove rather than to add, and to offer nothing in place of something.

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