I write to you from Aqaba, Jordan, a town made famous when conquered by “Lawrence of Arabia” and Faisal al-Hashimi 99 years ago, at a confluence where today four nations divide a mere 25 miles of coastline. So I have travel much on my mind. And it seems to me that the influence of travel on technology has hit another inflection point; and traditional travel companies have much to fear.
I don’t mean travel planning — the internet obviously ate that long ago. I mean the day-to-day experience of being a tourist. Specifically: I think both cameras and guidebooks are entering the deadpool.
The former, I’ll grant, is not exactly an original observation. Smartphones have been devouring traditional cameras for years and years. But until recently, travel, especially to the developing world, was one of the rare occasions for which people might acquire and bring a dedicated camera.
That’s less true now. Partly because phone cameras have gotten better (though my kingdom for a reasonably priced phone with some optical zoom and a larger sensor, he requested unrealistically) but largely because of connectivity. Data roaming was expensive and/or hard to arrange, not so long ago. You often had to buy and install new SIM cards, mess with APN settings, etc, to get it running. If you were going to have to wait for photographic Facebook gratification, you might as well do it with a real camera.
But now, in many countries, roaming is easy and seamless. Carriers like T-Mobile (in the USA) and Free (in France) offer relatively unlimited data roaming in many places — more than 120 countries, in T-Mobile’s case, and it happens automatically. They only offer 2G for free, but that’s good enough to upload the occasional picture, and 3G is reasonably priced.
Jordan isn’t even on that list — ad-hoc T-Mobile data roaming would cost me $15 per megabyte here — but wi-fi is sufficiently common that I can borrow a cup of it in most places. The ancient ruins of Petra (pictured; photo by yours truly), once so remote that they were lost to the world for centuries, now boast excellent wi-fi and three bars of cellular signal.
Similarly, guidebooks have become an endangered species. Why turn to Fodor’s or Rough Guide when you can Google what you need? Why buy information when you can get it for free from OpenStreetMaps and Wikivoyage and the like, neatly packaged for offline use in free apps like Triposo‘s? Sure, a Triposo app isn’t as good as a Lonely Planet “travel survival kit” … but combined with Googling-where-possible, it’s a perfectly acceptable — and free! — substitute.
Now, I may not be a representative sample. I’ve long been a die-hard traveller. (I’ve been to more than eighty nations; this is, I believe, the thirteenth, scattered across four continents, from which I’ve posted to TechCrunch.) What applies to grizzled veterans like me might not apply to most travellers.
But what I have observed is this: modern technology is roughly as useful to travellers as it is to locals. And now that you can make phone calls deep in the Arabian desert; now that the smartphone revolution has conquered much of the developing world — well over 90% of the Jordanians I’ve encountered have a smartphone, which is anecdotal, but applies to the milieu in which tourists move — the need for dedicated guidebooks is decreasing by the day.
The only remaining problem with DIY travel info is that, unlike guidebooks, it’s still all unbundled. I found myself using Triposo’s offline maps and basic data, supplemented where possible by Google Maps and various other sources stitched together by Google searches … and often getting the best answers from Lonely Planet or TripAdvisor travel discussion forums. There’s room out there for an app/service that combines context, maps, rich discussion forums, crowdsourced reviews, simple “how to get from Point A to Point B” guidance, and online/offline data. Nobody’s there yet: not Yelp, not Foursquare, not Triposo, not TripAdvisor.
Someone like Lonely Planet, to whom I owe some historical allegiance, could even pivot to become that … but I don’t think so. They’re owned by the inflexible behemoth BBC these days, and I fear they still think of themselves as book publishers. I suspect, not without some wistful nostalgia, that in truth their day — and that of all guidebook companies — is coming to a close.