The road ahead

Terrorists and viruses be damned - travel is making a comeback. Where will you be headed in the next five years?

The past few years have not been kind to travellers. Fears of terrorism have hobbled airlines. Outbreaks of infectious disease have cast their pall over once popular destinations. Rising gas prices have pinched drivers’ budgets. What comes next? Much, much better news, we think. Thanks to a rising tide of disposable cash and a carpe diem attitude, Canadians are itching to get back on the road. Look for these trends to fuel our travels.

The long and the short of it

Snowbirds, whose wings were clipped by a weak economy and worries about security, will again make long migrations south, often travelling in RVs or staying in new vacation properties. But computer-savvy seniors will be equally likely to arrange online house swaps or rent self-catering accommodations that let them enjoy the comforts of home in exotic locales. Meanwhile, their grandkids will emulate young royals by taking off a year after high school ? what the Brits call a gap year ? and signing on for volunteer programs abroad.

Those in the workforce are in for extended journeys, too. Boomers, inspired by intrepid authors who chucked everything to sail the world or immerse themselves in a foreign culture, will indulge in more mid-life sabbaticals. And young couples will increasingly see family leave as an opportunity to travel. The bad news is that many workers will be too busy for even the traditional two-week trek. Already a third of us forgo our allotted holiday time, forfeiting an average of eight days per year. That’s unlikely to change in the near future.

Frequent short breaks may save our sanity, however. Count on more people taking quickie vacations of three to four days. Vancouverites, for instance, might pop over to Victoria while Calgarians opt for a weekend in the Rockies. If North America follows in Europe’s path, low-fare airlines may make it possible to range even farther afield. According to Patrick Dineen, editor of the trade magazine Travelweek, tour packagers are already offering more short-break options. “Instead of only one- and two-week itineraries, major mass-market operators now have three- and four-day breaks to places like Nassau and Las Vegas.”

Bigger is better ? except when it’s not

We’re super-sizing everything from suburban homes to servings of fries, so big developments in travel are inevitable. Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 cruised into the record books last January as the largest civilian vessel ever built, and Royal Caribbean’s Ultra Voyager, which will accommodate 5,000 people, is set to launch in 2006. As if that wasn’t enough, a 6,300-room Malaysian hotel will become the world’s biggest next year, while the 550-passenger Airbus 380 will get bragging rights as “the largest commercial airliner ever conceived” the year after.

Yet a countercraze is gaining momentum. In a world where privacy is at a premium, many would rather escape the crowd than join it. Those who believe less is more were once content to vacation off-season and book into low-key B&ampBs. Today, out-of-the-way locations with Lilliputian lodgings ? ranging from upscale eco-lodges to low-cost retreat centres ? are in vogue. By extension, the next big thing may be isolation vacations in off-the-grid spots that feature fewer guests and fewer amenities.

Affluent travellers are already lining up to play Robinson Crusoe. At Vladi Private Islands, a Hamburg, Germany-based sales and rental company with an office in Halifax, bookings have tripled over the past five years. Demand for its 64 islands, four of which are in Canada, now exceeds availability, and clients need to book up to a year in advance. Owner Farhad Vladi says the dual appeal of solitude and self-sufficiency is easy to understand. “In modern society, simplicity becomes a luxury.”

Pack up the kids

According to Alex Robinson of Let’s Take the Kids Travel Agency in Ottawa, family travel is “an ongoing trend that shows no signs of reversing.” As harried parents strive for quality time with the kids, families are vacationing in spots formerly considered adult-only. For example, many business travellers are taking their children along on the road. So conference planners are overhauling outdated spouse programs to include child care and family-friendly activities, while business hotels are adapting by adding efficiency suites.

Even exotic resorts are raising comfort quotients to draw multiple generations. Exclusive destinations, like Four Seasons’ new Costa Rican property, are catering to kids with customized children’s programs, kiddy cuisine and luxury items including child-sized bathrobes. To capture another fast-growing niche market, some highend hotels even welcome family pets. Starwood Inc., which owns the Westin and Sheraton hotels, introduced a Love That Dog program last summer. Look for copycat programs to be unleashed.

A variation on the family theme is the trend for multiple households to vacation as a group. Robinson cites Walt Disney World’s new Magical Gatherings (tailormade for parties of eight and over) as a sign of the trend. Reunions and destination weddings, today’s most popular reasons for friends and family to holiday together, will continue to thrive. And other milestone events will become occasions for travel: Oprah Winfrey’s and John Travolta’s recent 50th birthday bashes? held in California and Mexico, respectively ? are surefire trend starters.

Experience required

Trend trackers predict that more and more vacationers will be looking for experiences rather than destinations ? what we do will be as important as where we go. You might, for instance, learn Nordic knitting in Norway, take tea with geishas in Japan, or go undercover at a U.S. spy camp.

You can already see emerging signs of this trend as people seek out the unusual and offbeat. Ed English of Newfoundland’s Linkum Tours says that “an authentic experience is the important part” of what people are looking for. One thing he’s noted in particular is that “people are looking for more unique accommodations.” That’s prompted him to transform two lighthouses into inns, and countless other alternatives to conventional hotels are popping up nationwide. Equally intriguing options are available overseas. The tourism boards of Holland, Scotland and Sweden have added pages to their Web sites highlighting one-of-a-kind lodgings. Soon it will be easy to bed down abroad in castles, convents, tree houses, houseboats, and even ? to give an extreme Dutch example ? oversized wine barrels.

Business travellers will get a boost as hotels realize their patrons want more than just a room and a bath. New York City’s Library Hotel already combines tech tools ? high-speed Internet access in guest rooms, plus WiFi in common areas ? with a literary theme that helps turn bland business trips into novel adventures. The approach seems to work: parent company HKHotels opened a music-themed hotel in Prague last year, and its first Canadian venture is planned for Montreal.

The bottom line

The World Travel Monitor suggests our growing quest for value will be the single most important influence on tomorrow’s travel market. To find value, we’ll comparison shop online. And we’ll increasingly create do-it-yourself itineraries based on personal priorities. That doesn’t mean package trips will be passé, just that we’ll want more for our money.

To meet that demand, look for cruise lines, coach lines and all-inclusives to offer more sophisticated à la carte activities. Upmarket providers of trophy tours, such as African safaris or Antarctic adventures, will cater to individual whims, and their ability to deliver on our requests will override any loyalty we feel towards particular providers. Even our devotion to those ubiquitous frequent-flyer programs will diminish as we put price before promised perks. Being homebound in hard times may have given us a new longing for travel. But we’re not yet ready to overlook the bottom line.