Guided tours are in for a shake up: Escorted travel is about to change forever

Let's start with the good news. In one sense at least, the world of escorted travel is about to get a lot less crowded, with tour groups shrinking in size. "Smaller destinations are becoming more popular, and as a result we are going to see smaller group sizes too," says Gavin Tollman, chief executive officer of Trafalgar Tours. "Forty-odd people is the current industry standard; we're going to see that go down to 20-odd people."

In all other ways, however, travellers in the next decade will find that the world is an increasingly crowded place. Tourism numbers have shot up over the past 10 years – from 846 million in 2006 to 1.24 billion in 2016, according to the UNWTO World Tourism Barometer – and show no signs of slowing down.

"More and more people will be travelling, and we will see increasing numbers of people exploring different destinations because at certain times of year, some destinations are already full," says Tollman. "We're already seeing hugely increased interest in alternative destinations such as Nepal and South Korea."

People will still want to visit Paris and Venice, of course, but they may find that they are paying much more, particularly in peak season. As a consequence, destinations and tour operators alike will be working harder to lure visitors during the off-season, Tollman says.

"In Calgary, for instance, you simply can't get more seats for the Calgary Stampede; so it's about bringing other aspects of Alberta to the forefront," Tollman says. "In Australia, there are certain times of year when the Barrier Reef is saturated. I love the way that Western Australia's Ningaloo Reef is now presented as an alternative."

The sheer number of travellers will also mean we need to plan our holidays further in advance. Already hikers hoping to trek the Inca Trail, for instance, need to book at least a year in advance. Say goodbye to the spur-of-the-moment holiday, says Sujata Rahman, Abercrombie & Kent's regional managing director, Australia/Asia Pacific. "We will need to do a lot more forward planning."

However, once travellers do get their feet on the ground, Rahman says that they will have plenty of opportunities to get to grips with their destination. "Touring was traditionally about seeing the world go past from the windows," Rahman says. "People are no longer content with seeing; they want to be doing."

In some ways, Rahman says, her company's high-spending guests are harking back to their pasts. "When we were younger, the charm of backpacking was that you could meet the locals," Rahman says. "That was lost for a while, now it's coming back."

Tollman agrees that meetings with locals will be considered highlights of any itinerary. More than just providing great memories, he says that these interactions also make an important economic contribution to regional economies. 

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"We have a lady in Perugia who is the last weaver using one of those wonderful Renaissance looms, who we visit on our tours," he says. "She has said that if it wasn't for our guests, she would be out of business.

"In the Loire Valley, we work with a goat cheese farmer; we send her a group once a week for 40-odd weeks a year. It is an illustration of how travel can be a force for good, helping to sustain community businesses."

Our desire to experience local cultures, rather than just ticking off sights, is a sign of our growing sophistication as travellers. The next generation of young travellers will be even more experienced, says World Expedition's Responsible Travel Manager, Donna Lawrence.

"We have school groups that are going to Nepal, Vietnam and Cambodia," she says. "These 14 and 15-year-old kids are experiencing these amazing destinations; as a result, they are much more globally aware, with a better cultural understanding, than previous generations."

These adventurous travellers will naturally be keen to explore undiscovered destinations. However, Abercrombie & Kent's Rahman says it is not just new destinations that will intrigue travellers. "It is not necessarily about finding a corner of the world which they have never been to," she says. 

"Perhaps they have been to India five times before, but they have never been to Pushkar. Or perhaps they will be drawn by a philanthropic element. People want to feel that they are giving back to communities. We have set up bike shops in Zambia and Uganda, and our guests go to the bike shop, learn about the project, and can hire a bike and ride around the village. It's a way of having a positive impact."

Choosing a holiday destination is partly about following our dreams but is also, of course, shaped by geopolitical realities. Intrepid Travel's managing director, James Thornton, says that while some destinations will fall off the must-visit list due to security concerns, others will work their back on. 

"Ten years ago, we were seeing large numbers of travellers going to Syria, and a lot more were going to Egypt [than are now]," he says. "However, not many travellers were going to destinations such as Colombia, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Iran, which are popular now."

Climate change will also change our travel plans. "We are already seeing the impacts of global warming on the polar regions, with ice shelves splitting off," says Thornton.

Africa's safari industry is also facing an uncertain future. "Anyone who works in or visits Africa is concerned by the multiple challenges facing the continent," says Rahman. "You have a growing population, which leads to increased clearing of wilderness – and then there are the impacts of climate change. 

"However, I am heartened by the number of people and organisations doing whatever they can do to improve conservation. The challenges are enormous, but there is reason for optimism."

Donna Lawrence says that as global tourism increases, Australians are likely to start exploring closer to home. She predicts that Arnhem Land will become popular with travellers looking to learn more about our indigenous cultures. "At the moment there is a limit as to how many visitors they can take, because the infrastructure just isn't there, but it is definitely an emerging destination," she says.

Lawrence also predicts that interest in wilderness destinations, which is already high, will continue to grow. "People will increasingly want to remove themselves from all these instant connections, to immerse themselves in nature where they don't have phone calls to answer or emails to respond to," says Lawrence. "We see it already in people who come back from a couple of weeks in the Himalaya or the Andes. They look different: they have slowed down, they have really relaxed."

EASY RIDER

WILL DRIVERLESS CARS REVOLUTIONISE ROAD TRIPPING?

It's an inviting vision: the road trip where the car does all the driving. No more tired, cranky drivers; instead, the holiday begins the moment you leave home. Rather than staring at the road for the entire trip, you might catch up with that must-watch series you downloaded, do some last-minute trip planning, or even take a nap.

Unfortunately, it's not likely to happen within the next decade. While major car manufacturers are putting a lot of work into autonomous cars, "the development will happen in stages",says Shaun Cleary, corporate communications manager at Audi Australia. 

Car autonomy is measured in five levels, with level five being a fully self-driving car. Audi's upcoming A8, which will launch in Australia next year, will feature level three technology, which means it is capable of driving itself for short periods, particularly in traffic jams. The car also has technology that allows for remote parking. 

One of the factors impeding the introduction of autonomous cars is the lack of an appropriate legal framework. "The current legislation states that the driver must be in control of the vehicle at all times," Cleary says. 

With most of the trials of the new technology happening in Europe, that is where driverless cars will probably make their debut. However, that doesn't mean the Australian road trip won't change in the near future. State governments are starting to plan for more widespread adoption of electric vehicles. Queensland has already announced the launch of a "super highway" for electric vehicles from Brisbane to Cairns. The route will feature 18 car charging stations capable of charging a vehicle in 30 minutes, and drivers will be able to re-charge for free for the first 12 months. 

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