Any attempt to predict future events 12 months out, especially the health of an industry as diverse and dynamic as travel and tourism, is always perilous for the predictors and their audiences alike, because though each sector has its own set of business challenges, the sundry elements of travel air, ocean cruising, river cruising, car rentals, hospitality, tours, packages, destinations, etc. are inextricably interlocked. Pinch one, and all the others feel some pain. Raise one part up and, to one degree or another, the rest benefit.
What's more, prognostication becomes trickier each succeeding year, thanks to the relentless acceleration of technological innovation.
To cite just one example, recent issues of Travel Weekly have reported a lot of speculation about the impact of artificial intelligence (AI) that enables suppliers to enhance the personalization of their products. We also reported a darker view springing from growing concerns that consumers will come to see personalization as invasions of privacy or, especially in the case of airlines, a tool for price discrimination. While the growth of AI is all but certain, its acceptance is not a settled issue.
Making tech innovations all the more complicated for the travel industry is the fact that it is a global enterprise operating under the purview of multiple governmental and international authorities.
Consider, for example, how the implementation of the EU's General Data Protection Regulation this year set new and rigid parameters on the private sector's responsibility for the security of consumers' data. And that came on top of enforcement of EU antitrust and privacy laws that saw several e-commerce giants, including Google and Microsoft, paying billions of dollars in fines for noncompliance, while Amazon came under investigation for anticompetitive practices. Global companies are under pressure from more directions today than at any time in history.
Travel is nothing if not global. Despite the recent political winds of populism and isolationism in the West from Brexit to President Trump's America-first nationalism the industry must by necessity remain international in its outlook and global in its vision of the future. The paradox of that parochial-vs.-international tension in business might have been articulated best by Uber (and former Expedia) CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, who told editor in chief Arnie Weissmann, "We are the ultimate local company, and we are helping global economies."
Not all technology advances present challenges, of course. Airline executives are quick to point out that the introduction of fuel-efficient aircraft like Boeing's 787 Dreamliner are not only cutting fuel costs on established long-haul routes but enabling more and longer routes that would have been cost-prohibitive just a few years ago. Driving this technology, in large part, are a slew of environmental regulations that touch all parts of the travel industry.
For example, the cruise industry, facing steadily more restrictive environmental regulations, has been installing scrubbers on ship exhausts and is now introducing new technologies to achieve longer-term compliance, including ships fueled by liquefied natural gas or propelled by hybrid petroleum/electrical systems.
Of course, the sword of Damocles that always hangs over the world's largest industry is global economic shifts, whether natural (Hawaii's losses after the Kilauea eruption or the hit cruising took in the Caribbean after hurricanes Irma and Maria) or man-made (economic convulsions resulting from trade wars, tariffs and various governments' policies and market interventions).
And yet ...
As you read the reports that follow, you will not help but notice an optimism that pervades our interviews with industry leaders. Travel is accustomed to being buffeted by winds of change as well as economic and political setbacks, yet it has always adapted and prospered. Our prediction: It will do the same in 2019.