Johanna Jainchill
Johanna Jainchill

A discussion I sat in on last month in New York, titled "Is Travel Broken?", not surprisingly painted a somewhat ugly picture of the modern traveler.

The panel, organized by Airbnb, described travelers as focused more on selfies than on experiences, letting mobile devices keep them too connected to home and sticking to schedules and routes and never just getting lost.

"My fear, ultimately, is that we've lost the capacity to wonder as we wander," lamented panelist Ilan Stavans, an Amherst College professor and co-author of "Reclaiming Travel" (Duke University Press Books, 2015). "As we arrive to another place that looks like the photograph that we've already seen, we no longer are affected and transformed inside. We've become machines at this."

Panelist Pauline Frommer, co-president and editorial director at Frommer Media, talked about a discussion she had with a hostel owner, who described as "tragic" the changes that mobile devices have brought to the travel circuit.

"Hostels used to be a place where young people met and had conversations, and now they're just having conversations with friends back home," she said. "We put our devices between us and the place."

Reflecting on the discussion, panelist Chip Conley, Airbnb's global head of hospitality, said in a blog post that the short answer to whether travel is broken is yes, "but not in the way you think."

"Travel has been replaced by tourism," he wrote. "We've been crippled by our inability to make a journey, defaulting instead to prescribed schedules and bucket lists."

In agreement with Stavans, he wrote: "Travel is no longer an awakening. We continue to distance ourselves from the places we visit. While surface actions, perhaps in the form of selfies, prove we were there, they do not serve as proof that we've been changed."

However, it was also Conley who challenged the other panelists. He said that they were describing traveling as if it were akin to visiting the zoo.

"What's different and beautiful about travel is getting to know the animals," he said. "The sense of discovery that comes from getting to know the person in their place and understand that this is the kind of restaurant they have in their neighborhood or getting to understand how they live their life ... It's not the architecture or someone performing a dance. It's the personal connection."

So, is travel broken?

People are traveling in greater numbers than ever, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization. With more than 1 billion people traveling every year, there are going to be millions of ways they choose to do it.

And a good portion of those travelers, especially the ones who can afford it, will say they are looking for authenticity. Airbnb has in part exploded in popularity because people love the idea of staying in local homes in real neighborhoods and sometimes meeting their hosts.

Stavans co-wrote a New York Times article a few years ago that suggested that, "Our once-epic journeys have been downsized to cruise ships and guided tours." This might be true, but as Frommer said on the panel, the idea of mass-market travel is actually quite new.

"Just a couple of generations ago, you only traveled because a plague hit your village and wiped everyone out or because you were part of a large army or because you had to emigrate because there was no food," she said. "There was no leisure travel except for the really tiny number of elites who were taking the grand tour."

The discussion reminded me of a conversation I had with G Adventures founder Bruce Poon Tip in September. The tour operator offers trips marketed as authentic and immersive and like other tours it has schedules and manufactures interactions with the locals.

But if that is how these travelers are comfortable traveling, what is wrong with it? Very possibly those people might otherwise never go to Bhutan or Iran, and they very likely wouldn't take part in a cooking class with the Vietnam street youths who work in a restaurant, one of many projects G Adventures supports and brings its guests to visit.

"Travel is the fastest path to peace," Poon Tip told me. "Travel agents should think that and sell that to their customers. Say to people that getting to know other cultures brings you home with two very special gifts: a greater appreciation of where you come from and tolerance and respect for other cultures. You can't travel and not experience that."

As Conley wrote, the community is "the linchpin to bringing back meaningful travel. ... The future of travel is not about looking ahead but within and finding a way to connect travelers with community. The human connection that comes from travel is perhaps the most enlightened element. I've always believed this."

What G Adventures offers, in a guided- tour setting, is a chance to connect with a community in a way that its guests perhaps would never otherwise do.

Not that I disagree with the panelists. I backpacked through parts of South America and the Middle East when mobile devices were nascent, getting lost, meeting total strangers and going months without contacting home. I'm grateful for those experiences. But they are not possible for everyone -- not even me anymore.

One aspect of travel that the panel unanimously seemed to think was broken was the hotel sector, which might seem to have been a convenient angle for an

Airbnb-hosted event, except that Conley, the former CEO of Joie de Vivre, still owns 15 hotels. ("As a hotelier, I wouldn't be an executive at Airbnb if I thought it was going to wipe out the hotel industry," he told me later.)

Airbnb, he said, was simply 10 steps ahead of boutique hotels, which realized that the standard hotel brands had missed an opportunity by assuming that customers mostly wanted safety and predictability.

"They hadn't realized there were desires and unrecognized needs that were predominant for a lot of travelers, and that's why boutique hotels grew," Conley said. "Airbnb is just the extension of boutique hotels 10 steps further."

He had some advice for other hoteliers, who send out "standards police" to inspect their brands' properties.

"Who is your innovation police?" he wondered. "Who allows those hotels in your collection to actually do something different that can become a best practice for everyone else?

"Otherwise, what you'll just create is a lowest common denominator and just focus on the bottom line of brand standards. And, frankly, brand standards get really boring to customers after a while."

The concern, it seemed, was that if hotels maintain their status quo, they will serve as what panelist Arun Sundararajan, a New York University professor of information, operations and management sciences, described as a "means to an end."

"I stay in hotels when I travel for overnight business; I stay in Airbnb when traveling for fun," he said. "It's a question of whether the travel experience is a means to an end. [If it is] then it's a hotel. If it's an end to itself, then it's an Airbnb."

The takeaway, I thought, was best summed up at the very beginning, when the moderator, CBS News travel editor Peter Greenberg, suggested that travel was not necessarily broken but was certainly "redefined."

"The problem that all of us face and are challenged with, and maybe even inspired by, is that that definition changes by the hour," Greenberg said.

"There's no one definition, but I think we'd all be in agreement that it's changing at warp speed."


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