In every industry, theres the establishment and there are the independent forces that arise where the establishment doesnt have a stronghold. In some industries, the lines are clear-cut. In Hollywood, its the studios vs. the indie filmmakers. In music, its the major labels against the small labels struggling to keep it real.

Invariably, the independent forces find a degree of success and become their own form of establishment. The Sundance Film Festival, once the antithesis of commercial filmmaking, is now viewed by Hollywood as its farm system, where young talent is scouted and recruited. (A new crop of filmmakers promotes its festivals as alternatives to Sundance.)

Though there is tension between them, independent forces refresh and renew the establishment. What traditionally brings them together are the dynamics of distribution -- independents dont have any, and the establishment, in control of distribution, is in need of fresh product.

How do these forces work in the travel industry? Its not so clearly defined, but the divisions exist. There is a subculture of small hoteliers and tour operators, and they have an audience.

When I first traveled extensively, I went as a backpacker. In the early 80s, I spent 18 months going around the world, mainly through Africa and Asia.

Many of the suppliers I used did not intersect with the travel industry establishment, but they do now. I recently came across the Web site of a scruffy African overland company I had used. It now features upscale trips to every continent.

The Thai island of Ko Samui, where I rented a hut on the beach for $1 a night, was then seen as the untouched alternative to Phuket. Today, islands farther out tout themselves as the untouched alternative to Ko Samui.

This summer, I thought it might be a good experience for my 12-year-old daughter, Emma, to see a bit of the developing world, and I wanted her to see it as those who live there see it, which meant a dip back into the world of independent suppliers.

We went to Honduras Mosquito Coast and traveled about 70 miles up the Platano River in a motorized dugout canoe. Its a fairly remote place. There are no roads to that part of the country.

I had found, on the Web, two German expats who arranged accommodations in thatched quarters in villages on the river. One of the Germans would join us and be our guide.

The trip was amazing in many regards, not least as a peek just below the industry radar. The first surprise was our companions. We were joined by three others in the long canoe: a 33-year-old Australian consultant for Deloitte and a couple, also in their early 30s -- she an editor for the U.K. edition of Glamour, he a geography teacher.

Like me, they had seen a bit of the world as backpackers before settling into a white-collar existence. But they still wanted an authentic cultural experience when they traveled, and they were willing to put up with a bit of discomfort to get it.

The second surprise was in the villages. Each of our host families, belonging to the Miskito tribe, saw opportunity in tourism and built special houses -- simple but clean and comfortable -- for travelers.

Each of us in the canoe had found the operator via a search engine. Previously, a below-the-radar travel company would eventually plug into establishment distribution channels to grow. But the Web changes everything. The German guys work with travel agents and tour operators, but they dont feel a strong need to do so. They bought a few keyword searches on Google and have all the business they can handle.

The Australian consultant and the British couple -- and I, for that matter -- may be atypical in our desire to keep it real as we age. But not necessarily. The challenge for the establishment moving forward will be to continue to co-opt the indies even though shifts in distribution let the upstarts reach an audience directly.

Perhaps the establishment can take heart in my daughters desires. Despite sunburn, bug bites and six-hour stretches in a canoe, she says she still wants to go on another adventure. But first, Paris.


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