Each year, the travel industry grows. And, each year, it changes. Sometimes I'm amazed by how fast the sector evolves, considering it's now at the point where more than 1.5 billion people are estimated to have travelled internationally this year. But, probably more than ever before, it's the size of the tourism industry that is causing many of the changes.
We're seeing some regions trying to address overcrowding, while others are hoping to benefit from more tourists. There are travellers who want to go where everyone else is, and there are those looking for a new challenge away from the hordes. And everyone is talking about (even if they're not taking action on) environmental concerns and how travel can be more sustainable.
While there are always lots of things changing, these are some of the biggest trends that I've noticed in the travel industry in 2019.
Overcrowding at tourist sites has not been well-managed over the long term and it's now got to the point where some destinations are having to take drastic action and ban visitors completely. The Philippines was one of the first countries to take this approach, closing Boracay Island for six months in 2018. More places have now followed because of overtourism, including Maya Beach in Thailand, Fjadrargljufur canyon in Iceland, and parts of the Danish territory of the Faroe Islands. Indonesia had also planned to close Komodo National Park for a year but appears to have reversed the decision.
These destination closures won't affect the increasing number of tourists who would avoid crowded areas anyway. While there have always been intrepid explorers, it's become more common for average travellers to visit countries that might once have been considered dangerous. Destinations like Colombia, Guatemala, and Kyrgyzstan are almost mainstream these days and have seen a big increase in visitors in the past year. I've also noticed an increase in the popularity of countries like Lebanon, Pakistan, and even North Korea.
With a booming global tourism industry and many travellers looking for new destinations, this year we've seen a lot of countries loosen their visa rules to try to attract visitors. (It's probably also one of the reasons these previously dangerous countries are becoming more popular.) Saudi Arabia is one of the most recent, allowing Australians (and citizens of 50 other countries) to get tourism visas online or on arrival since September. Other countries that have loosened their visa rules recently to encourage tourism include China, India, Myanmar, Uzbekistan, and Belarus.
Online travel advice
Although there's a desire among many travellers to find new destinations and unexplored locations, it's getting harder to do that online. Algorithms on social media are favouring the most famous and photogenic sights. Mass online media, trying to reach even more readers, often publishes the same 'bucket list' content, focused on already-popular destinations. And big players like Google and TripAdvisor are dominating the digital space more than ever, offering generic travel suggestions rather than expert advice. It's no wonder overcrowding is becoming more of a problem at many sites when they are the same places recommended to all 1.5 billion travellers!
But, for travellers who make the effort, there are more opportunities than ever. In recent years, active holidays like walking or cycling have become more popular, as have personal development trips, where you might learn a skill or focus on mindfulness. In 2019, these two types of holidays appeared to merge, with more travellers embarking on physical challenges with the goal of self-improvement. Whether it's a pilgrimage walk, or running a marathon, it's clear travel is not always about relaxation. Just look at the photo of a crowded Mount Everest from earlier in the year to prove that!
The popularity of apartments, rather than hotels, continues to grow and major accommodation websites like Booking.com are now offering both in the same search results. But a new trend that's emerged is the idea of 'co-living' where you can rent an apartment but within a building of like-minded travellers, with communal areas for socialising. It has the friendly atmosphere of a hostel but with the comfort of a boutique home - and you can stay for a few days or a few months, for those wanting deeper immersion.
Cruise lines are continuing to focus on niche travel as they try to broaden their customer base beyond the classic markets of families and retirees. This year, there have been cruises with a tattoo theme, a drag queen theme, and a zombie theme... and next year there's even a cruise for believers in the flat earth theory (don't ask). But there's also been a shift towards wellness, with yoga and meditation more likely to be offered onboard, and more excursions involving cycling, hiking, and kayaking.
Environmental sustainability has been an important focus of the travel industry for years, but 2019 saw an increased focus on cultural sustainability too. As well as making sure local communities are benefiting financially from the rise in tourism, it's also important that their traditional cultures are not being harmed. Major tour companies have started releasing information about how much money stays in the destination, and developing guidelines to make sure locals are not being exploited. It's also nice to see that tourists are now asking these questions themselves and using the answers to influence their travel decisions.
- Michael Turtle is a journalist who has been travelling the world full-time for eight years. Follow his travel adventures at timetravelturtle.com