‘Digital detox’ vacations unplug the mobile-fixated

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Among Intrepid Travel's digital detox tours is a 10-day trip to Thailand.
Among Intrepid Travel's digital detox tours is a 10-day trip to Thailand.

In a move that might seem paradoxical, a new survey showing that travelers are tightly attached to their mobile devices spurred Intrepid Travel this month to unveil a collection of “digital detox” tours on which no mobile devices, computers or cameras of any kind are allowed.

Despite the potential benefits of this throwback form of travel — ranging from making deeper connections with the local peoples and cultures to a greater sense of exploration — it remains unclear if or how many travelers would actually be ready and willing to detach from all their devices.

“People feel naked without [mobile devices],” said Karen McCrink, director of leisure travel services at Milford, Mass.-based Atlas Travel. McCrink said that these days travelers are obsessed with whether WiFi will be available on their trips; they want to be assured they will have connectivity, whether to check work email or to post photos of a trip to social media.

But according to Intrepid Travel, that obsession is precisely the problem.

“The research really showed that we are trending in the wrong direction when it comes to technology and travel,” said Leigh Barnes, director of Intrepid Travel North America. “People have admitted to missing out on important life moments because they’re too busy on their phones.

“It is entirely possible to be present and make connections while still taking photos and having WiFi,” he added. “However, what we’ve done with these tours by removing technology from the picture is really enable people who would otherwise be glued to their phone a chance to focus on being completely present.”

To find out just how reliant travelers are on their devices, Intrepid Travel commissioned a survey from OnePoll of 1,500 Americans about their cellphone use. Some of the key findings:

• 38% of respondents admitted to missing a life moment because they were too busy on their phone.

• 31% admitted being so concerned with getting a good photo that they missed out on experiencing the moment.

• 74% admitted their phone is never more than 3 feet away from them.

• 56% said they’d be willing to take a break for a few days from their phone.

• 47% said they would not be able to go on vacation without a cellphone.

• 41% said they choose locations to visit based on what will look good on social media.

• 57% said they would stay at a hotel without WiFi, while 29% said they would not and 14% were unsure.

• 84% admitted that cellphones and technology were distracting when it came to daily life.

In response to the data, Intrepid created four digital-detox tours to Ecuador, Thailand, Morocco and India where no cellphones, cameras (including even film cameras), laptops or technology are allowed.

In the two weeks since the tech-free tours launched, the Australian company has received a couple of bookings from the U.S. and fielded numerous additional inquiries.

While digital-detox travel does not appear to be a product that will be embraced by the increasingly device-hooked masses, there are signs that the concept could be gaining on a smaller scale.

In 2013, the San Francisco-based company Digital Detox launched its first Camp Grounded concept, hosting 275 adults in the woods in Northern California with no access to devices.

For 2016, Camp Grounded will offer two sessions in Northern California, one in New York, two in North Carolina and one in Texas. It is also leading a private camp for more than 350 Google employees. All told, Digital Detox anticipates welcoming more than 2,000 grown-ups to its phone-free getaways this summer.

Brady Gill, the assistant director at Digital Detox, said, “People around the world feel out of control when it comes to their relationship with technology and are looking for a fun, supportive way to take a break.”

Indeed, travelers themselves often admit that when they lose connectivity on a trip, whether expected or unexpected, an initial feeling of panic or dread is often followed by a sense of liberation.

When Travel Weekly editor in chief Arnie Weissmann traveled to Cuba last year with his then-22-year-old daughter, Emma, an assistant editor at Travel Weekly’s sister publication TravelAge West, they were forced to reckon with Cuba’s lack of cell and internet availability. The two made a daily trek to an internet cafe a mile from their hotel for a daily dose of cyber goings-on.

“I happily discovered that I didn’t actually need to contribute to every email discussion where my name appeared in the ‘To’ or ‘CC’ line,” Arnie Weissmann said. “It’s good to know that you can truly disconnect and life goes on more or less as normal without you.”

Emma Weissmann admitted that as someone whose smartphone is usually within arm’s reach, being forced to unplug in Cuba was definitely an adjustment.

She said that although they made the mile-long trip each day for their connectivity hit, “It wasn’t the act of being connected that I look back on but rather what we experienced during the walks. It was the time when we found ourselves interacting with the locals, taking in the pace of life and spending time absorbing all that was going on around us. In that way, it really was quite liberating.”

Asked if she would actually choose a vacation where she was forced to be disconnected from the internet, she said, “If I was free from all work responsibilities and choosing to disconnect, I think I would really enjoy it. … There’s something quite relaxing about not knowing what’s happening with this Facebook friend or that Twitter follower.”

For the most part, however, travel sellers concurred that connectivity has become not just desirable but a necessity for many travelers who not only use it to stay in touch with their office, friends, family and travel agents but as an increasingly crucial travel resource.

“The availability of reliable apps and the ever-increasing ability to easily communicate internationally with a mobile device has allowed travelers to roam with greater confidence, staying connected to one another, to travel suppliers and to their travel agents,” said David Walsh, owner of CWCruises, an independent Avoya agency. “Being able to stay connected while traveling has enhanced their experiences.”

It’s a generational thing, too, observed Brian Chima, a travel agent with Akron, Ohio-based Chima Travel, an Ensemble agency. He said he had noticed that while his Gen Y clients (those born between the 1980s and 2000s) require WiFi, Gen Xers (those born between the 1960s and 1980s) were more willing to go off the grid.

“They would almost prefer their resorts to have no WiFi at all, and they want to truly get away from it all,” Chima said. “Now whether they actually stick to their plan of being off the grid or not, I don’t know. However, for many of my Gen X clients this truly is their intention for when they travel.”

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