Is technology taking adventure out of travel?

17:00, Jul 05 2014

I arrived at the Hostel of Death just after 10pm, that time of the night when it's really too late to edge out the door and find somewhere else.

The proprietor grunted, pushing a key in my direction.

I call it the Hostel of Death, but if there actually had been a crime scene it would have been difficult to discern evidence from ingrained filth. That's just the affectionate name I gave it, after kicking open the sticky door to a room caked in mould and slicked in grime. The air reeked of something that might have been formaldehyde.

I was exhausted, but sleeping in the windowless death-trap and being either suffocated or woken by Jack Nicholson hacking through the door seemed too risky. I needed to get really drunk first. Cursing the mention in an outdated guidebook that had led me to the hell-hole in the first place, I struck out into the night. Rosario, the birthplace of Che Guevara - that's all I knew about the city.

Wandering along, depressed and hungry, I turned a corner and stumbled across one of the most beautiful memorials I've seen. The vast pillars of the Monumento a la Bandera were lit from below, a giant flame flickering as one bridal party after another posed in elaborate outfits on the steps. I sat there and ate empanadas, watching the beautiful young Argentines as they flitted around and into the night.

That's the beauty of travel though, right? One minute you can be ready to throw in the towel, wring your companion's neck and head straight for the nearest McDonald's. The next, you're stopped in your tracks by something awe-inspiring, an unexpected sight or off-piste adventure that makes the challenges worthwhile.


But if the attractiveness of travel is in chance and discovery, is technology now squeezing every ounce of spontaneity out of our trips?

Technology has changed the way we travel. From checking hotel rankings on TripAdvisor to booking through Hostelworld, plotting a path on Google Maps and documenting everything on Instagram, it's hard to imagine going anywhere without it.

But there's evidence it's also making us more risk-averse travellers, stifling our creativity and any chance of (I know it's cheesy, but here it is) "finding yourself" on the road.

In fact, would Jack Kerouac even have written On the Road if he had been able to track his every movement on his smartphone's GPS? Would Elizabeth Gilbert have had the time to meditate if she'd been updating her Twitter account?

A friend was telling me how, in 1991, he was working at a backpackers' hostel in Sydney when the owners bought their first fax machine, another tool to book ahead.

"People were just so disappointed, because they felt like it was taking all the romance and spontaneity out of it," he said.

Earlier this month, online travel agency released the first hotel booking app for Google Glass. With it, the wearer's location data is used to find the closest hotel, which can be explored using augmented reality. The app then guides you step by step to the hotel, micro-managing each turn.

That sunhatted tourist with three cameras around his neck, nose-deep in a Footprint Travel Guide? He's got nothing on the next generation of textbook travellers. It's a future where you never even need to ask for directions, because Glass will show you the way.

Then again, the very concept of travel has changed since the first Lonely Planet was penned in 1975. An overseas trip is not just for the free-spirited, for those actively hunting out adventure. Last year alone, New Zealanders made more than 2.161 million outbound trips - almost double that of 1990, when we took 1.18 million journeys.

Research by the World Travel and Tourism Council concedes that nowadays, only the most intrepid traveller would "dare to journey blind" without using the reviews, rating and recommendation sites at their fingertips.

Instead, they suggest a future in which the "safe surprise" reigns supreme. "Discovery is managed, experiences vetted and true adventure marginalised. Instead of surprise and chance, travellers are increasingly seeking vetted spontaneity."

All the self-tracking technology people now use every day has actually redefined our attitude to holidays, they say. Today's traveller is much more likely to pay attention to safety forecasts.

That Mai Tai on the beach might not be so attractive if it causes a spike on those calorie counters and UV absorption graphs. "Are moments of relaxation and indulgence threatened? Conceivably, yes," the researchers said.

They also put the change down to a cultural shift. The kibosh is being put on risk at every level. Smoking bans, government-proposed fat and sugar taxes, internet privacy warnings. Messages to avoid risk bombard us at every turn. And being able to use Dr Google to diagnose every minor rash has its downside - we are now way more paranoid, too.

Before leaving the country then, today's traveller is faced with a deluge of data. And once abroad, it doesn't abate.

As little as five years ago, when you waved goodbye to mum and dad you weren't seeing them again until you touched back down, unless they finally got Skype working on the dial-up internet.

Now, you never have to psychologically check out. You might not be physically at home but a version of you is still there, on Facebook feeds, posting on Instagram, on Snapchat or Facetime or Skype (if you have a good time and no one else sees it, did it really happen?)

You could try to avoid it, to stay off the web. But you can't make the choice for everyone.

A friend spoke of her annoyance during a recent trip around Europe. In hostels, the silence and enforced togetherness of common areas - the kind conducive to friendship - was replaced by the tapping of keyboards, a here-but-not-here sort of distance.

Of course, there are upsides to knowing where to find the best restaurant in town, and peace of mind knowing the hotel you've booked got 89 per cent on TripAdvisor. It's good to be able to call home for free, to transfer money in an instant.

It certainly minimises those Hostel of Death experiences. But here's hoping we don't take so much of that wonderful chaos out of the universe that we ruin the magic, too.

Sunday Star Times