Does tech make travel less interesting?
comment 1 Written by on March 12, 2011 – 12:17 am

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Photo: Flickr Creative Commons by Daquella Manera

Is the world a more or less interesting place for traveller today? That was the question that the Guardian was asking at the weekend. It was an interesting debate – featuring travel writers Jan Morris and Pico Iyer – among others.

I added my two-penneth too, as the ‘internet traveller’ (which I hope doesn’t make people think I never leave the house and just look at photos of nice places on my laptop).

As someone who started travelling before even having an email address, I could relate to the different perspectives. Things have changed. It’s odd – and, admittedly, slightly disturbing – to see a hostel lobby filled with backpackers on laptops.

Shouldn’t travel be about switching off? I’ve wondered about this before in this post, Going Unplugged.

The main thing to consider has to be whether you a controlling the internet or it is controlling you when you are abroad. Are you going online to enhance your trip (to find a recommended restaurant or make a local contact)? Or are you going to kill some time and likely to get sucked into a online debate or the latest Charlie Sheen footage?

A while ago, I did an interesting interview for The Linguist magazine about a virtual language school, Avatar Languages. Howard Vickers, the founder, was a fascinating person to talk to about the interplay of technology in our everyday life. “Circumstances are key,” is what he said. He used this example:

If you are in the Louvre looking at the Mona Lisa, you could use your phone to find out more about the painting and its history. It may even spark a new conversation with someone around you. The difference is if you end up ignoring a real person and staring at the online version of the painting instead. The moment [the internet] becomes too much of a distraction or is interrupting the flow of real life, that is the time to put it down.

Travel as an industry is still in its early days, relatively speaking. Each generation sees big changes. It’s easy to get nostalgic.

It’s also very easy to think that there are now tourists covering every inch of the globe and this is far from true. The majority of tourists stick to pretty much the same route. When I look for less-visited places (for work and for pleasure), I don’t find it hard – even in big cities or around hugely popular tourist destinations.

For me, where the internet and travel networking really comes into its own is in cities. If you’ve ever ended up reluctantly eating something overpriced and substandard, or going to bed early in an exciting new city because you can’t find these late-night bars you’ve heard about, you’ll recognise that being clueless is not always fun and exciting.

I do, however, still like to switch off. I like that we can still go places that aren’t online, where we don’t have to forcefully exercise self-discipline and instead just accept that this is the way it is.

But these places we visit are developing too. They want the internet. They want the chance to get online, to promote their businesses, to access worldwide information and learn new skills. Just over a year ago, I stayed at a wonderful, homely estancia in rural Uruguay. The owner spent the days out in the fields and then had just enough generator-powered electricity to watch a film every night. From a tourist’s perspective, it was idyllic. “Do you actually want electricity?” I asked, naively caught up in romance notions of “getting away from it all” . “Oh yes,” he assured, without hesitation.

This particular owner wasn’t “opting out”, but as the internet stretches to new ground will we be seeing more places that do try to opt off the grid? At the moment, cafes and hotels proudly display the international Wifi sign (it’s everywhere you look in Buenos Aires). But will they soon be proudly displaying ‘no wifi’? I’d bet on it.

Just yesterday, I spotted a billboard for a well-known beer. The bottle was in the foreground, set against a background of a Caribbean beach, with one short caption: “No fi”.

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