Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The Ultimate Double Whammy For Today’s Travellers

The Ultimate Double Whammy For Today’s Travellers

Both of my readers are on the brink of asking me the following question, “ What has changed the most about international travelling in the past fifteen years?” After a couple seconds of reflection, I can identify quite a number of major changes.

One of the biggest changes has been the availability of wifi or Internet access in every corner of the world. In fact, it is available in just about every hotel or apartment. One of the first questions most travellers ask is if the hotel has Internet access. It is as critical to today’s globetrotters as clean drinking water and a warm shower. I recall as late as 2003, searching the back streets of a little Turkish town to find an Internet cafe and today these cafe are almost obsolete. In many places they are now called Starbucks!

During the same 2003 trip, I was on a tour with twelve others along with their assortment of twelve cameras. Today, the 35 mm professional camera and the point-and-shoot variety are less and less visible. The camera phone has overwhelmed the old camera market. While camera buffs may scoff, today’s iPhones take excellent photos, that you not only can edit immediately, but send to anyone around the world, instantly. Phone cameras are not only easy to carry and use, but they are less intrusive and can take candid photos without being obvious. Wifi and iPhones are the ultimate double whammy for today’s travellers.

My mind’s eye is still locked into images from old newsreels and movies from the 1950s and 60s. When I went to China in 2009, I envisioned grey tunic clad Chinese, travelling on foot or rickshaw all wearing the conical straw hat. To my surprise, Beijing was crowded with thousands of inhabitants wearing jeans, T-shirts, polo shirts and up scale chic Western clothing. I saw more Mercedes than rickshaws and a North American major city transplanted in China. The amenities of our world are now everywhere. For example, while Calgary struggles to compete one ring road, Beijing has six, with the outer one 120 miles in circumference! Also, driving at 70 mph in our bus we were practically blown off the road by a bullet train that must have been travelling over 100 mph. The old world everywhere is getting very new!

Local travel has changed in so many ways as well. No more little Mexican chicken buses (except maybe in Mexico), but rather modern diesel driven coaches, monorails, subways, elevated trains and modern airports. I think a new state of the art airport is opened every month. I remember waiting for a plane in Balikesir, Turkey in a brand new terminal in a town I had never heard of before. In China, we flew on three Chinese airlines, which all departed on the scheduled minute and landed on the button. And customer service was first rate. Not the kind of experience, I had in earlier flights in Sierra Leone where I had to pay six bribes just to get to the waiting lounge and hope our plane would show up! Travel in foreign countries has gotten so much easier!

On the downside, from my perspective, is the globalization of our consumer market. Franchises from North America and Europe have circled the globe. Not only monsters like IKEA and McDonalds, but smaller operators like Payless Shoes and Boots Drugstores are available everywhere. The small independent merchant is slowly being forced off the street and can no longer eke out a living selling bottled water, or packs of Kleenex, or a cob of corn on a corner. The unique ambience, that I loved in my early travels, is vanishing. The ideal of most lower and middle class Asians is to become more like the westerners they see on TV and on the Internet. I can understand the lure of many of our perceived wonderful life style amenities, but the cost and quality of life issues that are attached are not even considered. But you can’t stop “progress” and you can’t define someone else's dreams.

I have loved travelling for the past fifty plus years, still love it, and am glad to have experienced it in all of its forms and shapes. Observing the continual and ongoing changes is even part of the adventure.

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