The lure of travel is as strong as ever and savvy travellers know to anticipate the unexpected.
What are the big issues that will shape the travel landscape in 2015? What does the future hold for the dollar, airfares, connectivity and climate? While it's easy to get caught up in the nitty-gritty of flights and nights, you also need to consider the big picture. Here's a look in the crystal ball, with 15 macro issues under the spotlight.
Record-breaking heat waves, extreme forest fires, rising sea levels, shrinking polar ice caps and unexpected weather events are underlining the fact of climate change. This year, floods in India, Pakistan, the United Kingdom and Europe, the skyrocketing temperatures that affected south-eastern Australia in January and Europe in early summer and the recent avalanches that killed dozens on the Annapurna Circuit are all examples of changing weather patterns. For travellers, expect unpredictable temperatures and rainfall in 2015, and for every year after that politicians continue to put their own survival ahead of the planet's.
At some time in the not-so-distant future, anyone using a mobile phone with a European Union SIM card will pay no more for data roaming within the EU than they would in their telco's base country. The initial date proposed by the European Commission for the abolition of out-of-country roaming fees – December 15, 2015 – may be pushed back to allow for a more gradual reduction of charges, but EU lawmakers have already voted overwhelmingly to abolish roaming fees by 2016. Although this does not apply to anyone using an Australian telco's SIM card, all that is required to take advantage of the new deal is a SIM card from an EU-based service provider.
Air travel disquiet
This year saw an explosion in air-rage incidents triggered by trivial events. In the United States, three aircraft made unscheduled landings in the space of nine days when passengers went ballistic, triggered by fellow passengers reclining their seats, or failing to when the passenger behind inserted Knee Defenders. Economy-class air travel has reached a tipping point. In their bid to cram ever more passengers into seats, airlines have so compromised personal space that even a minor event can spark a meltdown. This will not go away, with the ominous prospect of passengers being able to use their mobile phones inflight adding fuel to the fire.
After a heady mid-year rise, the Aussie dollar has declined against the US dollar over the course of the year. Against the euro, our dollar has firmed since January 1, and remained constant against the British pound, the Thai baht and the Indonesian rupiah. As well as travellers bound for the US, those headed for Asia, where many hotel prices are computed in US dollars, will find themselves paying more for their holiday, although not enough to blunt the fierce appetite that Australians have for overseas travel.
Airlines have so compromised personal space that even a minor event can spark a meltdown.
So far, this terrifying sickness has overwhelmingly afflicted the people of just a few West African countries. The danger is that Ebola may become established in another region where poverty is entrenched, where cultural practices favour the transmission of the virus and where medical infrastructure is inadequate to respond. According to medical experts, the risk of catching Ebola on an aircraft from an infected fellow traveller is remote, even for those sitting in adjacent seats. Unlike flu, Ebola is not an airborne virus. Without a host, the virus dies quickly, probably within a few minutes.
The online platform that allows individuals to rent out their homes, rooms or apartments to visitors is running foul of the law in some cities where it has been most successful. City authorities in New York, Paris, Barcelona and Berlin are taking action against tenants who rent out their dwelling on AirBNB, fuelled by opposition from the hotel industry and from tax collectors, but most of the hostility comes from other apartment dwellers, fed up with short-term visitors who throw noisy parties and damage communal property. Expect fewer choices and higher prices to cover the cost of compliance in some cities.
Another tick for the power of social media; some overseas hotels and airlines have begun encouraging travellers to sing their praises on Facebook, Twitter and Tripadvisor. Some are going one step further and offering rewards in the form of airport lounge passes, hotel room deals, free drinks and late checkouts. An enthusiastic social media following helps but a flock of faithful followers is not a prerequisite. American Airlines has offered free lounge passes to travellers with a score of 55 or above on Klout (klout.com), which gauges individual worth in the digital world. Expect to see more perks for posts in 2015.
With sharp competition and increased airline capacity on both domestic and international routes, it's hard to see air fares for Australian travellers increasing much beyond current levels in 2015. As well as more flights between Melbourne and Los Angeles and another Sydney-Santiago flight each week, Qantas will launch direct Sydney-Vancouver flights in January, capitalising on the winter holiday season and ending Air Canada's monopoly on the route. Philippines-based Cebu Pacific, yet another low-cost carrier, launched its inaugural Manila-Sydney flights in September this year. With one of the world's most modern fleets and an extensive pan-Asian network, Cebu Pacific should help maintain downward price pressure among budget carriers.
With a maiden voyage scheduled for early 2015, Royal Caribbean's Quantum of the Seas points the road ahead for the cruising experience. Among other frills, the 167,000 tonne vessel will offer RipCord by iFly, a skydiving simulator, and North Star, a glass capsule that lifts guests almost 100 metres above sea level to offer 360-degree views. The ship's SeaPlex sports and entertainment complex is the largest at sea, with bumper cars, roller skating and a circus school with a flying trapeze. Quantum of the Seas also provides a sophisticated technological landscape, with Wi-Fiat video-streaming speed, a Bionic Bar with robot bartenders and 10-minute sidewalk-to-ship check-in. Underlining the strength of the Australian cruising scene, Royal Caribbean's 3800-guest Explorer of the Seas will homeport in Sydney from November 2015, the largest vessel ever with an Australian base.
The eGate technology now under trial at Brisbane International Airport is scheduled for rollout in all Australia's international airports in mid-2015, enabling a faster exit for passengers with ePassports. Similar to the SmartGates currently in use for incoming international passengers, the eGate scans your passport and matches the scan with your live image which is captured at the gate. If the image matches and the system flags no objection to you leaving the country, the eGate allows you to proceed to security screening, and hallelujah when that gets a similar hurry-up.
Expect more flights with on-board internet services, although not necessarily in Australian skies. At the moment Singapore Airlines, Emirates, Etihad and United are the only airlines that offer inflight connectivity to passengers on their Australian flights, but only aboard selected aircraft in the case of some of those airlines. On Qantas' A380, B747-400 and A330-300 aircraft passengers can send and receive text messages, but only using the entertainment telephone handset. Most US airlines offer internet on domestic flights via the GoGo ground-based mobile phone network, with ramped up speeds on the drawing board for mid-2015. In Europe, mobile satellite operator Inmarsat plans a hybrid satellite/cellular (air-to-ground) network to offer in-flight internet connectivity over mainland Europe.
For more and more travellers, the innocent bystander approach is a pallid way to experience the world. They want real. Sitting down to a seafood dinner with a family in Spain's Basque region, a tea ceremony with geisha or counting cheetahs on a wildlife research project in Namibia are just some examples of the so-called curated travel phenomenon, where imagination matters more than deep pockets. For the traveller looking to experience the world as a hands-on participant, a destination, a theme and creativity are the raw ingredients.
India and China Rising
Expect to see more travellers with Chinese and Indian passports. Economic growth and the expanding middle class in the world's two population giants, with both the appetite and the cash for world travel, is putting wings on their feet. Many Chinese and Indian citizens with newly minted wealth are also travelling more extensively within their own countries, which means more and better airports, hotels and transport infrastructure for all. China has become a world leader in train travel, India's domestic air services are first class and the country now has some of the world's best hotels, some in former princely palaces.
Hotels and tour operators that tread with a light footprint on their environment, give something back to local communities and use local ingredients in their food are being recognised and applauded. Sustainable travel has moved from an alternative-life add-on to a basic consideration for many travellers. Increasingly, a hotel's environmental practice may make or break the deal when it comes time to make a booking. Major players in the travel industry are recognising that sustainable travel is a key trend and are emphasising the feelgood factor in their products. Carbon offsets, Travel Corporation's TreadRight initiative, Kuoni's Fair Trade Travel program and Virtuoso's Sustainable Tourism Leadership award are prime examples.
Islamic State has declared war on anyone not of their own fanatical fold. Although the organisation has not yet exported its death-dealing brand of horror beyond the Middle East, once it begins to lose ground on the battlefield it may well do so, with travellers potentially in the cross hairs. Expect stringent air security checks, a heightened security presence at travel facilities and enhanced screening to detect any sympathisers who might have travelled to the Middle East to further IS' murderous cause.