The idea of big travel is going the way of big hair, rapper bling and coal-fired energy. Just a bit old-fashioned and embarrassing, and unkind to the environment. Nobody these days boasts about their gigantic hotel suite, 80-day vacation or how they visited Barcelona along with 9 million other tourists. Travel has gone all Marie Kondo. Now it's all about minimalism, short breaks, and what sparks joy rather than what big-city sights you've seen.
A recent survey by Intrepid Travel, which asked Australians to rank the things that concerned them most about large-group travel, is indicative of the new mood. Travellers declared a dislike of mass tourism, worry that cookie-cutter experiences provided nothing unique, and the desire to experience destinations like a local.
"Size is one of the most appealing aspects of small-group travel," says James Thornton, Intrepid Travel's CEO. "This type of tour has around 16 or fewer people and visits places on and off the tourist trail. The tour leader has the opportunity to ad lib and share what is unique about their home country."
Intrepid has seen a 19 per cent increase in small-group bookings since 2017, and sister brand Peregrine Adventures 26 per cent. Rival Collette, which launched a new range of Explorations tours last year, has seen bookings grow more than 60 per cent. These more active, immersive tours feature less conventional transport such as Vespas and unusual accommodation options such as igloos, and provide interactions with locals from Moroccan families to Spanish bullfighters.
The desire for more local, more intimate experiences isn't just confined to tours. Small-ship cruising, lesser-known destinations and pared-down hotels have also shown considerable growth. Such forms of travel suit Millennials in particular, who now make up significant percentage of the working population and who are generally more interested in lifestyle than material possessions, and experiential travel instead of sightseeing.
The move to downsized travel is also being driven by environmental awareness, with consumers looking for more eco-friendly, sustainable and ethical travel products. A booking.com report shows that 68 per cent of travellers had an intention to stay in eco-accommodation in 2018, an all-time high. Consulting firm Deloitte reports that eco-friendly travel has increased by 30 per cent over the past decade.
THE SMALLER HOTEL ROOM
Few trends are more welcome than the recent emergence of comfortable, well-located but affordably-priced hotels, which have cut costs through clever design, smaller rooms and the elimination of seldom-used amenities such as gyms. Such micro-hotels – named for their small rooms, not hotel size, and which are more high-tech and stylish than hostels – particularly appeal to younger travellers, who spend less time in hotels and more time on exploration and nightlife.
The micro-hotel trend started in Europe and Japan, spread to the US and is now popping up in mainland Asia. Look for brands such as Arlo, Hoxton and CitizenM. Big chains are now launching new micro-hotel brands such as Motto by Hilton and Moxy (Marriott), which has already opened 40 hotels and has more than 100 more planned.
Micro-hotels have arrived in Australia, too, with Ovolo Hotels in Brisbane, Canberra, Melbourne and Sydney, where compact rooms include everything guests want for overnights, but nothing extraneous.
THE SMALLER COUNTRY
Countries modest in tourism visitors, if not geographical size, are increasingly on the radar of travellers looking for unusual destinations, less beaten trails and more responsible tourism. Lonely Planet's top countries for 2019 include Panama, Kyrgyzstan, Belize and tiny Atlantic island nation Sao Tome. Countries with the fastest-growing tourism numbers in 2018, according to the UN World Tourism Organisation, include Georgia, Palestine and Togo.
Intrepid Travel's analysis of engagement with its social media found that photos from Iran, Jordan, Morocco and Patagonia received twice as many comments and likes as more mainstream destinations. The company has added new departures to Belarus, Moldova and Ethiopia.
Even Europe, which receives nearly half the world's 1.3 billion annual tourists, has its (relatively) quiet corners. You might consider Belgium rather than France, more time in Portugal, which gets a tenth of Spain's tourists, or a visit to Romania, among Europe's least-crowded and cheapest destinations, yet still offering splendid landscapes and historical depth.
THE SMALLER TOUR
If you don't like being one of the crowd, then rejoice at the rise of the more intimate, personalised and exclusive small-group tour. Many are responding well to the increased demand for more sustainable, social-minded and eco-conscious travel.
Companies specialising in small-group tours include Intrepid Travel with 800 green-friendly itineraries worldwide, Collette for its ever-growing small-group explorations, and Luxury Gold, which has expanded its small-group and personalised journeys. Meanwhile, Australian company Bunnik's new brand, Small Group Touring Co., is already offering 30 tours across 38 countries.
"We know that more and more people are looking for that small group touring option designed to really connect with the local sights, customs and culture," says Dennis Bunnik, CEO of the Bunnik Group. "Small Group Touring Co. has a strong focus not only on giving travellers an opportunity to tick off iconic sites, but to also gain insight into the local culture and people through unique experiences and a deeply personal connection to a place and its people."
THE SMALLER CRUISE SHIP
Although mega-ships grab the headlines, there has been a revolution in options available to small-ship cruisers over the past decade, with the launch of dozens of innovative cruise ships from companies including Coral Expeditions, Lindblad and Scenic sailing to ever-more adventurous destinations such as Papua New Guinea, the Kimberley and Costa Rica.
"Once you cruise on a small ship you never go back," says Heritage Expeditions' David Bowen. "It's like travelling to an idyllic beach by car, compared to arriving at a famous beach on a train full of passengers."
Small ships appeal to younger, more active and more adventurous travellers, although many small ships from companies such as Silversea and Crystal Cruises supply considerable luxury, too – they are the floating equivalent of boutique hotels. The environmental record of smaller ships is also appealing to increasingly eco-conscious travellers. Peregrine Adventures offers carbon-neutral cruises, and in 2021 Ponant is launching a LNG-fuelled expedition ship.
THE SMALLER PLANE
Not all trends towards a smaller world are welcome. The recent demise of the Airbus A380 dismayed travellers who appreciated its space, quietness and comfort, but orders for the superjumbo were scrapped when airlines decided smaller aircraft were more economical.
Airline passengers have been feeling the squeeze for years. Early jetliners had a seat pitch of 34 to 36 inches (86 centimetres to 91cm), but this has become ever shorter, with a few carriers now supplying 29 inches (74cm) on long-haul flights and a wince-inducing 17 inches (43cm) on some domestic US sectors.
Aircraft seats and armrests have become narrower as airlines cram in more rows, and aircraft toilets are smaller, too. Critics point out that the 24-inch (61cm) width of some US aircraft toilets is narrower than a standard dishwasher.
The good news about shrinking – but more efficient – airplanes is that flying has become increasingly cheaper. According to Skyscanner, a flight from Australia to London in the Golden Age of spacious 1960s flying cost five times more than it does now.
THE SMALLER CITY
As overcrowding becomes ever more of an issue, travellers are turning to less frequented cities in the hope of finding the unbeaten track, authentic experience and a more adventurous form of travel. Pinterest says searches for "small-town travel" have increased a whopping 276 per cent over the past year. Searches for "less-travelled islands" were also up by 179 per cent.
It's easy to see the appeal of smaller destinations, which are often associated with old-world charm and might offer particular museums, festivals or easy access to surrounding landscapes. Traditional sightseeing is also in decline among younger generations of travellers, who would rather have experiences than see the Eiffel Tower or Statue of Liberty.
The desire to avoid overcrowded, mainstream cities, especially in Europe, is another motivation. Venice gets 30 million visitors annually, yet Bologna only 7 million, while Amsterdam is inundated with 15 million tourists to Utrecht's far more modest 4 million. Expect to hear more about small cities such as Belgrade in Serbia, Pula in Croatia and Grenoble in France.
THE SMALLER TRIP
Travellers are turning away from the two-week holiday in favour of more frequent but shorter breaks instead, including short cruises. The trend has been helped by the rise of budget airlines, the work-hard, play-hard mentality, and an increasingly time-poor workforce. It has also been encouraged by the increasing ease of booking package holidays online, the influence of social media, and the desire for Instagram moments.
In 2018, Pinterest recorded a 167 per cent increase in searches for long weekends. And Urban Adventures, which offers small-group day tours, has seen 54 per cent growth since 2017 by catering to time-poor travellers who want a quick but insider look at city destinations.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 10.5 million Australians made short overseas holidays in 2018, up 6.9 per cent from the previous year. There was a 17 per cent increase to China and 13.5 per cent increase to Japan, demonstrating that mobile travellers – mostly without children – aren't daunted by long-haul flights, even for short breaks.
FIVE SMALL NATIONS WORTH VISITING
Try not to blink or you'll miss the delights of some of the world's smallest nations.
This lingering vestige of Italy's many former city-states is a fascinating anomaly, and what it lacks in size (61 square kilometres) it makes up for with rugged scenery, splendidly situated castles and a World Heritage capital. See visitsanmarino.com
ST KITTS AND NEVIS
These two Caribbean islands were badly hit by 2017's Hurricane Irma but are back in business. Go for gorgeously lush landscapes featuring dormant volcanoes, rainforest, sugar-cane farms and reef-protected beaches. Nevis has top dive sites. See stkittstourism.kn
The sunny Atlantic beaches and scenic lagoons of mainland Africa's smallest country are a magnet for European holidaymakers. Eco-lodges along the Gambia River allow excursions to view monkeys, manatees and dolphins, hippos and chimpanzees. See visitthegambia.gm
The main sight of this tiny principality wedged between Austria and Switzerland is the castle above its capital, Vaduz, but you'll also find pretty geranium-draped villages backed by snow peaks and linked by well-developed (but far from over-tramped) hiking trails. See tourismus.li
This tiny collection of islands and atolls northeast of Australia and halfway to Hawaii is the ultimate tropical getaway, with no cruise tourism, no organised tour operations and only a dozen accommodations – but plenty of charm, friendliness and natural beauty. See timelesstuvalu.com
FIVE TOP SMALL, GREEN CITIES
Growing awareness of tourism's environmental impact is a major factor in the demand for downsized travel. Here are some modestly-sized, eco-aware cities well worth visiting.
Helsinki offers unbeatable neoclassical buildings, lively street markets, cafe-lined avenues and elegant boulevards. What's more, it tops the European Green City Index and aims to be carbon neutral in the next 25 years. The city is energy efficient and bicycle friendly, and nearly 40 per cent of its land area is covered in parks and nature reserves. See myhelsinki.fi
CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA
Cape Town is backed by rugged peaks and Table Mountain, and fringed by beautiful beaches. Nature is everywhere, from seals on the waterfront to baboons and penguins on Cape Peninsula. Environmental consciousness is growing, and Cape Town is rolling out cycling routes in areas such as Greenpoint and Seapoint – though not yet downtown. See capetown.travel
Adelaide has a thriving music and dining scene, good museums and a perpetual buzz. Small-town charm is enlivened with experimental festivals and pop-up shops, and the city centre is graceful with colonial-era buildings and leafy parkland. As a bonus, Australia's greenest city is tackling climate change by introducing everything from electric-run public transport to energy-efficient street lighting. See southaustralia.com
Oregon's biggest city is arty, eco-friendly and alternative. It's also one of America's greenest cities, with residents keen to eat local, shop in street markets, recycle and use renewable energy. The city is one of the world's most cycle friendly, with more than 500 kilometres of cycle paths, and plans to add more than 1000 kilometres more by 2030. See travelportland.com
This city isn't just beautiful, but gladdens the heart of the eco-conscious visitor. Some hotels have earth-friendly housekeeping and energy conservation programs, while some restaurants grow their own herbs or run courses on organic cultivation. Don't miss Ekoparken, a massive 6700-acre sprawl that encompasses royal palaces and museums, but also has an oak forest full of deer and badgers. See visitstockholm.com
IF YOU WANT TO GO BIG ...
THE BIGGEST HOTEL
The much-stalled Abraj Kudai hotel project in Mecca in Saudi Arabia will eventually deliver the world's biggest hotel, with 10,000 rooms. Until then, be satisfied with the 7351-room First World Hotel in Malaysia's Genting Highlands, a two-tower behemoth painted in eye-popping colours. Its central plaza has restaurants, shops and a theme park. The hotel has hosted more than 35 million guests since it opened in 2006. See rwgenting.com
THE BIGGEST MUSEUM
When it comes to total gallery space, the Louvre in Paris takes pole position at 72,735 square metres. It gets more visitors (more than 10 million) than any other museum and features 38,000 objects, with important collections of antiquities, Islamic art, sculpture and paintings, including Mona Lisa and the armless Venus de Milo. It's also a repository of decorative art and the French crown jewels. See louvre.fr
THE BIGGEST CASINO
The Venetian Macao on China's southern coast is the world's largest casino, with 51,000 square metres devoted to 800 tables and 6000 slot machines. When you tire of the roulette wheel you can resort to 600 shops, 20 restaurants or a gondola ride on a pseudo-Venetian canal. The building is the world's seventh largest by floor area – the concierge provides a map to help you avoid getting lost. See venetianmacao.com
THE BIGGEST THEME PARK
Magic Kingdom in Florida is the world's largest by attendance, with more than 20 million visitors annually. The park is anchored by Cinderella's Castle and has numerous famous rides such as Dumbo the Flying Elephant for toddlers, Splash Mountain and Pirates of the Caribbean. Not enough? It's part of Walt Disney World, which has three other theme parks, two water parks and more than 30 hotels. See disneyholidays.com
THE BIGGEST CRUISE SHIP
By gross tonnage (228,081), the world's largest is Symphony of the Seas, by passenger numbers (6780) it's Allure of the Seas and Oasis of the Seas. On board all of them, you'll find the tallest cruise-ship slide (10 storeys), a surf simulator, a theatre large enough to host Broadway musicals, a Central Park planted with real trees and flowers, an ice rink and nearly 20 dining venues. See royalcaribbean.com.au