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That was then but this is now: 21 things that have changed in travel

My eldest daughter, Talya, celebrated her 21st birthday last week and - as I imagine most parents do - I spiraled down a hole of reminiscing where the time has gone. On one hand, it feels like yesterday that we brought her home from the hospital. But I’m also very aware of how much has changed over the last two decades. Not just in my personal life, but in the travel industry too.

We’ve seen a lot of development since the new millennium and the travel industry has had to adapt every step of the way. From technological advancements to major political changes, there have been things that have vastly changed the way we live our lives, and the way in which we travel.

So as Talya steps into her 21st year of life, it inspired me to recap 21 significant things that changed or affected the industry in the same amount of years...

1) Let’s start with the most obvious change... accessibility. The number of foreign holidays taken by Brits in the last 21 years has increased by nearly 10 million. Everyone loves to go on holiday and (current circumstances aside) now more than ever, those dream trips are within reach.

2) From reviews on TripAdvisor to travel influencers on Instagram, the factor of ‘social proof’ dictates where and when we go away. Don’t believe me? A 2015 survey found that 48% of Instagram users were using the platform to help them pick their next holiday destination. Not to mention, now we easily keep in touch with all the people we meet abroad.

3) Hollywood also holds influence. Not the sign, but the movies. The Beach, released in 2000 and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, inspired millions of tourists to visit Maya Bay. It became so popular that at one point it had to be temporarily closed. We’ve seen a boom in tourism fuelled by television and film. So, if you’ve recently binged a Netflix series and packed your bags shortly after, you’re not the only one.

4) The tragic events of 11 September 2001 in New York City had a long-term effect. The aftermath saw a huge decline in visitors, which took almost five years to get back and it has forever changed the way we think about airport security - with extra measures still in place today.

5) 9/11 wasn’t the only crisis to have a huge impact on the travel industry. The tsunami on 26 December 2004 affected 14 countries and caused widespread destruction. It’s estimated to have cost around $50 million, as well as a dip in tourism the following year - but the area made a remarkable recovery.

6) The financial crisis in 2008 saw markets crash and left holidaymakers with tighter purse strings. According to a census that year, there was a 17% increase in British staycations, with more people opting to cut costs and holiday closer to home.

7) Some people forget that airspace around Europe has closed before, when a series of volcanic eruptions in Iceland caused an ash cloud resulting in the largest air-traffic shutdown since World War II (until Covid-19 that is).

8) Most of you will remember the Arab Spring political uprisings in Egypt. Visitor numbers almost halved in the following years.

9) We may not have yet felt the full effect of Britain’s decision to leave the EU, but we can see the immediate aftermath with visitor numbers to the UK falling by 5.3% in 2018.

10) Multi-centre holidays have been steadily on the rise, with more clients looking for the adventure that comes with visiting more than one destination in a trip.

11) The increase in accessibility throughout Europe has seen our holidays drop in length, with more of us opting for several shorter breaks over one long holiday.

12) Does anyone even remember Teletext? Gone are the days when we used to book our holidays through the television remote.

13) The infamous ‘booze cruises’ have become a thing of the past. Since duty-free sales ended, it’s no longer cost-efficient to cross the Channel for your alcohol and cigarette supply.

14) The decision to relax the rules to create a common aviation area across Europe allowed for carriers like EasyJet and Ryanair to enter the market - making holidays readily available for those with smaller budgets.

15) We’ve been moving away from an old favourite, France. The number of holidays from UK residents has fallen by 9%. Instead we’re nurturing our love affair with Spain (up 87% in 20 years pre the latest quarantine announcement!). Budget airlines may be behind this - rather than driving to France on a ferry, tourists are opting for a cheap flight elsewhere.

16) Poland, Romania and Croatia joined the EU in the last two decades - making travel to those countries a lot simpler.

17) With Iceland’s economic crisis devaluing the krona, the country gained newfound popularity among UK tourists.

18) Security concerns have seen a reduction in the number of visitors to Egypt, Kenya and Tunisia.

19) Four times as popular as it was 21 years ago, cruising is most definitely on our radar. The sheer diversity of ships on offer and places to be able to visit in one trip is making it more appealing to everyone (even young holidaymakers).

20) Let’s talk about the UAE, Dubai in particular. With a massive investment in hotels and shopping malls, the glitz and glamour of the UAE is strikingly popular among Brits, not to mention, direct flights with a reasonable price tag.

21) Can you remember the last time you saw someone wandering through a city with a guidebook in hand? Another thing the internet has made redundant.

If I reminisce any further to what travel was like when I was 21, then I really start to show my age. It was a totally different world back then. (OK, it was 1983!)

From carrying cases full of CDs and canisters of film, to having the full content of my bank account converted into little bits of paper. It wasn’t just the travellers’ cheques you had to hold on to, paper plane tickets were guarded with your life.

Flying back then was a whirlwind. Flight attendants looked like movie stars, you could bring almost anything through airport security (which was pretty quick to get through, but check-in took forever) and your in-flight entertainment was a book and a deck of cards. And once you landed? It was an expensive taxi ride (unless you had a calculator to work out how badly you were being ripped off) to the unreviewed hotel you’d booked over the phone for two whole weeks of having absolutely no idea what was happening in the world. That is, unless from the late 90s, you found an internet cafe and could send a message home because laptops weighed 20kg, WiFi wasn’t a thing yet and international phone calls would have ended in bankruptcy.

The thought of a smart phone that pretty much did everything from instantly checking currency rates, viewing your location on a local map and planning how you get from place to place, doing your homework on where you may want to eat that night let alone deeming it unnecessary to have to take a camera and consider the cost to capture everything you saw would have blown your mind.

Being a travel agent in the 80s was a whole different ball game.

The way holidays were booked pre the digital era seems completely pre-historic and I wouldn’t believe it had I not experienced it. From looking up airfare rates on a fare sheet, trawling through an encyclopedia of air routes and times, booking flights on Pan Am, and handwriting pages of tickets only for your client to lose them.

I can also recall the days of advising clients to arrive 30 minutes before their flight, just to be safe, and sending them a physical, paper map for their trip.

Oh and travel agents provided a valuable service from real people without having to compete with faceless online travel agencies or airlines. Food for thought.

Travel really has transformed over the years. Maybe by the time my youngest reaches 21 I’ll be booking clients holidays through a virtual reality headset, so they can truly experience a country before they even step foot on the plane.

That’s if planes haven’t been replaced by personal spaceships.

Julian Abbott


A massive thank you to the following sources for helping to inspire this post:

Traveller, Karryon, Eshores and Centrav.

All the statistics mentioned came from the Office for National Statistics, TripAdvisor, ABTA Holiday Habits Reports and Government Tourism.

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