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Is technology making travel sedentary?

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“Don’t listen to what they say. Go see,” says a Chinese proverb. And that’s exactly what most of us did before the internet enabled game-changing innovations in tourism. Not too long ago, if you wanted to book accommodation, you would seek recommendations from friends and family, pore over travel guides and make calls to shortlisted hotels. If you were more free-spirited, you would skip the calls and pick a property after reaching the destination. Taxi drivers, who often double up as guides, generally had good suggestions up their sleeves and just like that you would have begun exploring the place even before you actually set out to.

Asking for directions – a fast dying habit now that there’s GPS – was an easy way not only to know how to get somewhere, but also to gauge how friendly locals were (it’s common knowledge that Delhiites tend to mislead) and picking up nuances of the local language and dialects. Your guide could be anyone — a hired professional, a fellow traveller you hit it off with or an enthusiastic local only too happy to show you around. And before the likes of Burrp and Zomato took over, you discovered the most heavenly meals from all and sundry.

By risking a certain level of uncertainty, these were some of the simplest forms of adventure and active aspects of travel that we’ve today traded for convenience provided by all things online – from booking vacations to apps meant to be audio guides.

But those in the business of travel tell us that while in certain ways passivity has set in, the past decade or so has also witnessed just as many ways, if not more, in which travellers have become more active. “Overall, thanks to the ease of technology, people take far more interest in the whole planning process. Where earlier those of our parents’ generation would just give the agent a lump sum of money to set things up, today even if they outsource the logistics, they are far more involved in the way their itinerary shapes up,” says Piya Desai, founder of Girls On The Go (GOTG).

What’s equally interesting is that while you still have a good number of tourists who just want to sit back and relax, there’s a growing number that travels for energetic pursuits such as hiking, trekking, paragliding, sailing and even cycling, diving and marathons. These activities that previously may have sometimes been included in travellers’ itineraries, today have become focal points for many, with sightseeing and such forming the fringes.

Gauri Jayaram, founder and CEO of Active Holiday Company, recalls, “When I had started the venture in 2013, the first group of marathoners I had taken to London comprised about 10 people, this year I am taking 100 marathoners to Berlin. People now want to visit Morocco to climb Mt. Toubkal, North Africa’s highest peak, and places like Germany, France and Italy for cycling”.

She attributes this shift to a variety of factors. The influence of the West; those facing mid-life crisis or feeling trapped with corporate jobs and home loans seeking relief by engaging with nature or exhilaration of adventurous activities; attention to fitness, etc.

“It’s largely an upper middle class trend, as for the rich these activities have flaunt value,” says Jayaram.

Bose’s observations are similar and she’s seeing the emergence of another range of awe-inspiring demands. “Due to increased purchasing power, today groups driving to the South Pole in specialised trucks; the cost is over 1 crores. But at the mid-level you have travellers keen on the northern lights, storm chasing and eclipse chasing. There’s also a deep desire to pursue hobbies while on vacation. Besides food, dance and music, there are also those who travel to learn a language. Sometimes we arrange classes in multiple cities for them. Spiritual getaways are also big”.

This phenomenon though is not evidenced merely by the experience of niche or boutique travel agencies, traditional tour agents too have had to adapt.

For instance in its GITs (Group Inclusive Tours) Thomas Cook ensures that at least there’s one “local experience customised to the destination everyday, like a picnic at Central Park in New York or archery in Bhutan” and for their FITs (Free Independent Travellers) they “co-create a host of experiences from mid-level adventure to extreme adventure, a chef’s table, scotch trails and even DJing lessons,” says Abraham Alapatt, President and Group Head Marketing, Service Quality, Financial Services and Innovation at Thomas Cook (India) Limited.

Travellers are no more inspired merely by tourist attractions, but wish to immerse in and seek to take away an experience “and experiential travel means different things to different people. There are those who would like to give back to society by assisting the local community through various activities such as school building or imparting knowledge amongst the locals,” says Karan Anand, Relationship head at Cox and Kings. That’s voluntourism for you.

And to cater to those who “love to get out of their comfort zone”, this year Cox and Kings has launched Trip 360º that facilitates cycling, diving, biking, trekking, cruise and other adventure-based trips in India and abroad.

Emphasising that safety, sustainability and sociability form their core values, Anand adds, “We were also the first to offer gourmet vacations where chefs accompany the group, introduce them to the local style of cooking and educate them about ingredients through market visits”.

What’s equally heartening is that people are opening up to simple skills as well. “A lot of middle-aged people are inspired to learn how to cycle or swim, which they never did as kids, on seeing locals at various destinations,” says Alapatt.

Ask Jayaram whether active travel is one more fad that will recede soon and she assures us, “It’s a growing niche that will continue to grow. It won’t become less sexy, but will see greater mass appeal”.

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