Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

We all know that as horrible as the planting of bombs in New York and New Jersey was, the outcome could have been so much worse for the people of those states, for the nation's psyche and in terms of economic impact on the global travel industry.

While we avoided the worst-case scenarios, we can hardly consider ourselves lucky. Those incidents, coupled with the stabbings at a mall in Minnesota, added incrementally to a feeling of unease that has become resistant to statistical reassurances. It's no longer enough to know that you're more likely to die in the U.S. from falling out of bed than being struck down by a terror attack. The sense of inevitability of future attacks has a corrosive effect, operating at many levels.

Focusing only on the travel industry for a moment, are there any identifiable travel countertrends that are resilient enough to withstand a drumbeat of more bad news?


Three days before the bomber and Minnesota assailant attacked, I was in Marrakech at Pure, the invitation-only, expenses-paid luxury show for travel advisers that focuses on experiential travel.

The organizers had asked me to moderate a discussion on new travel trends among a small portion of the international press corps that was there to cover the event.

The eight editors and reporters they had invited to participate in the discussion represented only four countries -- the U.S., the U.K., China and Belgium -- but cut across several media platforms, including consumer and trade, legacy and newbie, digital and print. Participants ranged from freelancers to founders.

Catherine Fairweather, travel director for the British magazine Porter, volunteered a trend that could certainly gain momentum after the events of last week: safe-haven travel.

"The world feels like a wobbly place," she said, noting a recent uptick in interest in activities such as dogsledding and viewing the northern lights. "Interest in Nordic countries is rising."

She went further, linking safe-haven destinations to a desire to "pare down" on trip complexity.

Debbie Pappyn, a Belgian freelancer, agreed.

"Life is so hectic and complicated," she said. "People are stressed out and want to relax. You can see it in every age group. If you go somewhere outdoors you don't want to have to hike; you can just sit there and enjoy."

And the example she cited where she herself had recently found peace occurred at an even higher latitude than much of Scandinavia: She boarded an icebreaker in the Arctic.

Picking up on paring down, senior editor Paul Brady of the U.S. edition of Conde Nast Traveler observed that "the markers of old-fashioned luxury have gone out the window."

He questioned assumptions about the endurance of "authenticity" as a dominant trend, asserting that "people don't necessarily want authenticity. They say they want it, but there's nothing authentic in much of the travel luxury sector."

He did feel, however, that "experiential" travel, another legacy trend, was evolving and strengthening.

"I'd change [the description] to 'hands-on,'" he said, challenging Pappyn's assertion that people want to sit back and enjoy. "People want to engage and be active, rather than having something happen to them."

A variation on the desire to simply chill and enjoy a vacation came from Guannan Huang, features editor of the China edition of Conde Nast Traveler, who said her readers exhibited no signs of changing their habit of spending a lot of money to go to an island or ultraluxury resort for a vacation.

It struck me that the reasons for that could have more to do with the previous experience of China's rising wealth class than a desire to disconnect from a stressful world. Three years ago at Pure, I had shadowed a Chinese agent who was somewhat mystified by Butterfield & Robinson's offerings of luxury bicycle trips through Burgundy in France.

Many of the Chinese nouveau riche spent much of their life with no alternative to bicycles. "I honestly don't see Chinese millionaires riding bikes," she said. "Perhaps [riding] in a Mercedes."

But my take on the shifts in trends had nonetheless been influenced just that morning in a discussion I'd had with Norman Howe, the CEO of Butterfield & Robinson. He used a phrase I found intriguing, and in retrospect, it perhaps offers a travel alternative to staying home, shutting down or seeking only safe havens and simplicity: transformational travel.

In support of comments by Conde Nast's Brady, there are several consumer studies showing that people are putting less emphasis on material goods and more on experiences.

Departures senior features editor Jessica Flint noted during the press roundtable that her readers sought unique trophy experiences, yet I can't help but think that this tendency will evolve into a desire for activities that have value beyond impressing friends.

Travel experiences can provide a meaningful framework in a "wobbly" world, and the wobblier things get, the more likely transformational travel could rise.

Safe havens could emerge as the knee-jerk reaction to terror, but knees will tire. A search for substance in an increasingly senseless world is a travel trend that could benefit any supplier or destination, and one that every traveler will appreciate.


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