2017 hasn’t been a year of revolution – at least in travel – so much as the continuation of established trends. Perhaps the most bothersome trend is the continuing regulation and commercialisation of travel. You might feel that you have more freedom and potential than ever before, but how much of that is just Big Business highlighting the options you already had?
For example, I returned to Iran in 2017. I had a fabulous time and highly recommend it, but virtually all the foreign travellers I saw were, like me, members of tour parties doing the same things, staying at the same hotels, travelling the same roads in virtually identical tourist coaches. An exotic land where I was just another egg in the crate.
I like flying. For an Australian such as myself, overseas travel pretty much involves a day and night spent sitting on a plane, so that’s a good thing.
What I don’t like is sitting in a cramped seat, eating bland meals, and feeling more than ever that I’m just filling a slot in a packed crate.
Airlines now routinely do their best to fill every available seat. The Americans have gotten this down to a fine art, where flights are often over-booked and every single seat is taken, along with the overhead lockers being packed full. Take a middle seat with two extra-large folks on either side, and you’ll know how a sardine feels in its tin.
Along with the ever-shrinking airline seat, amenities once offered for free are increasingly restricted or available only at an extra charge. British Airways, for instance, moved to a model where those who paid least for their seat board last. The existing fees for seat selection, checked luggage, and so on became more and more commonplace.
The so-called full-service carriers such as Qantas and British Airways now have passenger classes that resemble low-cost carriers.
Conversely, the accommodation at the sharp end of the airliner is increasingly elite. I experienced Emirates First Class on a long-haul flight from Sydney to Dubai. The Economy cabin was packed, but in First, there were far more vacant seats than full. We had our own little cabins with doors that could be closed for privacy, caviar and top-shelf spirits on demand, even a shower.
Other airlines have bigger individual cabins, even multi-room suites. In these rarefied accommodations, the bed no longer converts into a fully flat bed; there is a separate bed. For couples travelling together, the suite divider can be lowered, allowing them to share their slumber in a fully-enclosed cabin. Afterwards, showers are available, with a maximum occupancy of two.
The States of America led the charge here. Restrictions aimed at making immigration and travel harder for those with brown skins and non-Christian faiths were introduced, with the knock-on effect of adding to the difficulty of travel from any nations where these factors apply.
Terrorism, as is increasingly the case, was used as the excuse. The ham-brained restrictions included checking all electronics, thereby sealing hundreds of extra lithium batteries into the cargo hold where if they caught fire they could not be easily extinguished.
On that note, but (probably) unlinked to terrorism, is the recent crackdown on checking in “smart luggage”. You know, the sorts of bags that can recharge your devices or even trundle you around a terminal. Because they contain hefty lithium batteries as well as charging stations, they are an even greater fire risk than the average laptop. Sure, it’s a great idea to plug your devices in, lock the top, and have all your camera batteries charged up when you arrive, but you might not arrive if your flight has been downed by a fire in the cargo hold.
Something more chilling is the recent requirement that visitors – even green card holders – allow their social media accounts to be checked. Hand over your Facebook password while we scan your contacts, please. The TSA will get no ISIS-related propaganda from me, but they’ll sure get a bunch of commentary on the wisdom of having a professional clown as head of state.
I used to think that the Internet gave power to the everyday Jack and Jill on the street. Crowdfunding, Wikipedia, Craigslist and all the rest of it. Online coöperation to get around the monolithic monopolies, right?
Net Neutrality is one more nail in the coffin, but really we are sinking our own ships with every cookie on our computers, every loyalty card in our wallets. I’m so deep into the hunt for points that it takes me an extra minute at the checkout to find the right loyalty card to scan. “I’m the loyallest guy in the world,” I say as I hunt through a wodge of cards, each with their own barcode, magnetic strip and RFID chip.
Ever wonder why, when you book a flight, suddenly you’ve got ads popping up for hotels, car rentals, and you’ve gotten a special email about special deals on special meals at nearby restaurants? Well, it’s people selling your data and others mining it for profit. Their profit, not yours.
The other day, I was driving down the motorway at dusk, pulled out to overtake a truck, and as the car ahead did the same thing, cutting into my space. my car flashed its lights at them. I had nothing to do with it, but my car is full of sensors and computer chips, all hooked in – yes, my phone is linked by Bluetooth and it has my Facebook password – and it just decided to warn the driver ahead without telling me.
Same deal with everyday life. The more devices, the more data, the more smart whizkids out there figuring out ways to pull a buck out of your pocket. Pretty soon I’ll just send my iPad on a holiday and it can send back Instagrams of what a great time it’s having.
The end result of all this optimising by the travel industry? Popular tourist destinations are becoming overloaded with tourists, to the extent that the locals aren’t just irritated by the hordes while raking in the money, some councils are actively setting caps on visitor numbers.
And the experience ain’t so great for the tourists, neither, with every cafe, every street, every lookout jammed with folk from New Jersey, Birmingham and Shenzhen.
As I said, I was in Iran earlier this year. All over the country, huge new hotels are going up to cater for the ever-increasing crowds. That’s fine as it goes, but the real problem is that the cultural, historic, and ancient sites the tourists come to see are often limited in capacity. I couldn’t get a clear shot of the tomb of Cyrus the Great at Pasargad because there was always a dozen tourists standing in front.
Just how much fun is travel going to be when the tourism multinationals squeeze you into the bare minimum of space both on the way, and at the destination, package everything down to the last plastic Buddha, and extract every possible cent from your credit card?