While being lucky enough to travel so extensively we have almost taken it for granted. As we now have the time to pause and reflect, let’s look back at the golden age of travel and realise how privileged we are to be born at this time.
The golden age of travel began almost 250 years ago with the end of great voyages for the discovery of new worlds, and with the beginning of the industrial revolution. Following which, the concept of formal tours was first introduced for paying tourists, in the mid-1800s, and would become a global phenomenon with the end of the Great War in 1945. With the advent of commercial flights in the early 1950s, also known as the Jet age, travelling to far off destinations and experiencing new adventures became a reality – travellers could now live a life far bigger than any could have previously imagined.
Travel had always been essential throughout human history, but only recently it morphed from the random to the organised when in the early 1800s wealthy Europeans started to go on tailor-made trips and expeditions and returned with fascinating stories to share with wide-eyed souls back home. The face of travel changed drastically when in 1841, Thomas Cook introduced the concept of group tours. They organised the very first group tour within England, and thereafter, the first holiday package to Europe by rail and to the USA by steamship, in 1879. This ushered the era of organised tourism with all-inclusive transportation, accommodations, and meals. Travel now was not just for the very affluent but also a reality for the upper-middle class. It was aided by the expansion of the rail network throughout Europe as now tours could be shorter, more compact, and less risky.
Towards the far end of the 19th Century (i.e. late 1800s)and amid the age of industrialisation, the automobiles arrived. The first flying machine took to the sky in 1903, courtesy the Wright Brothers, and in 1919 the first scheduled passenger airline flew between London and Paris. Transportation naturally played the deciding role in travel and tourism that was to boom in the latter half of the 20th century. The first half, however, wasted away in two bloody & costly wars, the great economic depression of 1929 and the Spanish flu, that ravaged the world for half a decade from the end of the First World War in 1918. Once World War II ended in 1945 and the economies and lives started to heal, tourism too made a comeback. Thus, it’s safe to say that the last 75 years have been the golden age of travel, from the end of WW-II to today.
Since tourism is a function of time and money in the hands of the tourist and political-social stability, most of the world was ready for this great act of human movement, with world prosperity and globalisation as never before. The age of unequal abundance was about to begin. Commercial flights of the 1950s now connected all this together and complimented road and rail. In the next few decades, the prices of air travel fell with the rise of competition in developed countries, giving global tourism a boost.
This revival of tourism in the three decades post-world peace was mostly in organised group travel following which a major event in modern travel history took place. When Tony and Maureen Wheeler released the first Lonely Planet guidebook in 1973 (after backpacking from England to Australia), the time of the individual backpacker and budget-conscious traveller had begun.
Lonely Planet became one of the most instantly recognisable brands in the travel industry because of the niche it addressed i.e. of the immersive, informed, and long term sustainable traveller. This theme would play out for the next 50 years with sustainable travel, community & environment-friendly tourism being the centerpiece for the conscious tourist. Many other comprehensive travel guides followed in the wake of Lonely Planet.
The age of the internet dawned in the ’90s and a decade later, at the turn of the 21st century, it would take the travel world by storm. Here, the true democratisation of travel took place, the real inclusion which the UNWTO (United Nations World Tourism Organization) speaks of. ‘Trickle-down economics’ could now take place which brought about access to numerous budget hotels, hostels, B &B’s, and homestays that were mushrooming everywhere, all connected by the far reach of the internet.
With the meteoric rise of B&B’s, travel companies & operators were either bracing for the online tsunami or proactively embracing it to ride the wave. Flight prices had never been this low, fuelled not only by cheap crude oil but also by demand over the internet which was ensuring maximum capacity utilization and economies of scale. New flight destinations were being added by the day and low-cost carriers were popping up in many micro-markets especially South East Asia and India after their expansion in Europe.
The smartphone revolution was the answer to ‘information at your fingertips’. Travel related online searches skyrocketed with traveller’s advice on various websites and blogs all over the internet. Flight search engines were being used as never before and the ‘bucket list’ concept became synonymous with travel. Besides this, the ease of using credit cards, USD & Euro as widely accepted currencies, more open borders, and visas on arrival all helped travel immensely.
This is when the digitally savvy, deal searcher, airline mile collector, and life hacker came to the forefront; the so-called ‘flash’ packer packed with information. Many such wanted to pass on tips & tricks of the trade or just wanted to become popular, and thus, arrived the travel blogger and the vlogger. These jet setters, digital nomads and influencers where found just about anywhere and gave their ”followers” major travel goals. Social media channels just added fuel to the desire.
Most recently, there have been those who counted countries, had competitions on who has travelled the most. The California based Traveler’s Century Club (TCC) is one such ultra-exclusive club of those who have travelled to 100 or more countries around the world and has 1,400 members at last count.
All this has led us here today. While the case of ‘everyone can travel’ still doesn’t exist, because it costs money and time off work, nonetheless, we certainly live in an age with the greatest criss-cross mass movement of humanity. It’s easier to see the planet in one lifetime as never before.
The coronavirus will and has caused a clampdown on the industry with its lockdowns, but travel will bounce back once we feel it’s safe to move again, just as it did after other past shocks. However, it’s unlikely to reach similar levels in a hurry simply because of the economic impact of this carnage.
As stated in the beginning, these are the times to look back and appreciate how lucky we have been and are to be alive in this time in history; to be able to have instant access to content, knowledge, entertainment, and wealth and more importantly, to air transport. To be able to reach another continent while sipping on your wine, watching a movie, or catching a nap – all of this up in the air.
This is truly the golden age of travel and the next era will only start when humans become space tourists en masse, and there’s still some time for that to happen. Here’s to curiosity.