25 years old today: what difference has the World Wide Web really made to #travel?

Today is the 25th anniversary of the World Wide Web, an innovation that has fundamentally changed society much as the Industrial Revolution did in the 18th century.

The travel and tourism industry is one transformed – indeed is still transforming and keeping we travel and tourism professionals on our toes. No longer in control of messages, brands or distribution channels. The customer has all that.

But what has changed exactly? The experience or the way we access these? We still go out to eat don’t we? Or are we doing that in a different way? The act of eating I mean, not clogging up social media with what you are eating and how clean the toilets were.

I have on my desk a travel memoir that was published in 1908 and tells of a winter voyage to South Africa by a small party of intrepid English travellers. It includes such gems as having lunch with the Governor and his lady, afternoon tea with Emily Hobhouse who was helping destitute Boer women, followed by a glorious 32-mile motor around the Cape peninsula with its views of ocean, shore and mountain – one of the finest drives in the world, followed by a private tour of Mr Ardens Claremont garden. The group even complains that the city is becoming too modern and that buildings from the past will be lost! Where have we heard that before?

So what had really changed between that trip and my own recent visit 116 years later?

For a start, I wasn’t greeted by a marching band at the airport, nor was I invited to take tea with the great and good of Cape Town, but perhaps if there weren’t so many visitors to Cape Town now, this could have been arranged?

Pre-travel: The journey in 1908 was undertaken for business purposes and the itinerary I suggest would have been planned around specific activities, people and locations. Advice on where to stay would have come from colleagues as well as strangers. That much hasn’t changed. What has, is the ability to now read other customers’ reviews.

Booking: No doubt the travellers from 116 years ago booked with the great travel pioneer, Thomas Cook who was the first to successfully package long haul travel, but it cost a fortune and was not accessible to the masses. I expect the booking was made months, or even year’s in advance with confirmations and embossed tickets issued. How on earth did they plan ahead? How did they know where to stay in Bloemfontein or Durban? Private homes was one answer. That has all changed with online booking, awareness and fierce price competition that is now the norm, with every continent within reach.

Access; whilst I was fortunate to have once travelled on a mail ship between Cape Town and Southampton in just 11 days, for visitors today, with less time on their hands, the overnight flight is indispensable. However, the authors description of entering Table Bay encapsulates the delight that travellers have experienced since those first Portuguese explorers rounded the Cape in the 15th century and will continue to do so in the future. 

Look what’s happened to Lonely Planet: I still use guidebooks, whilst their restaurant listings may not be up to date, the destination essentials don’t really change do they? There is less hype in guidebooks that are keen to convey a sense-place and less about what is hip-and-happening that will doubtless be shut this time next year. I do have the luxury of checking online though, to see what is available but always trusting word of mouth.

A bed for the night: Of course they stayed at the elegant Mount Nelson hotel, that timeless pink Cape Town icon and maybe some of the staff would remember this group? Seriously though, we still all need somewhere to rest our heads at night, but the traveller of today needs more than a bath down the hall to keep them happy. WiFi is considered an essential service, and is probably the shoe-shine equivalent.

Dining: the author doesn’t mention food at all and I expect that’s because the Edwardians had a very different relationship with what they ate and viewed it only as a means to an end. Not something to share with everyone else, all spread out on the table, and only being allowed to be eaten once hundreds of pictures had been posted on various online channels. Whatever would they have made of that I wonder?

When was the last time you sent or received a postcard? It doesn’t say if the travellers sent any, but they were the easiest and most convenient way of showing off to your friends and family where you had been. Sharing discoveries of your travels hasn’t changed, it’s the frequency and ease that has become a double-edged sword. Whatever happened to living for that moment and just enjoying what you were doing?

An Edwardian Selfie: 1908
An Edwardian Selfie: 1908

Memories: these travellers published a book about their journey – how novel is that? It would have certainly been viewed as daring to have travelled so far, been away from home for so long and to have had the wealth to do it! Are we so easily impressed these days? There are no selfies of course, only dour pictures of groups of sombre-looking people in dark woollen suits. I think if they had access to the internet, they would have left those at home and worn something more comfortable. Thanks to the internet we don’t have to invest in quite so much time and money to share our travel memories.

Becoming immersed in local culture is not something you need the internet for: what is still required is an open mind and willingness to engage and put yourself out of your comfort zone. The author enthused at great length about meeting with people from across the diverse South African spectrum in a manner that is so familiar today.  He also voices an opinion of his host’s political views, but it’s guarded and sets out not to offend anyone. Unlike these days, we can offend whom we like, when ever we like.

Perhaps what has evolved since 1908 is not the desire to visit new places, experience new things and then share with others, but that this can now be done in a much faster time in a way that suits so many more individual tastes, budgets and time pressures. We, the travel professionals want above all else, those ringing endorsements that will drive more business. But the travel essentials of needing transport, food and lodging has not changed – all of the above still served with varying degrees of skill, comfort or food poisoning.

I await the next 25 years with great impatience.

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