In a global world, we can travel for leisure to practically any part of any country, if we have the money and the time. Our expectations of how, where and why we travel continue to change as technology allows us to plan, connect, share and experience destinations in new ways. Yet, travel brings with it health risks for us and increased risk of disease spread. Emerging technologies also signal new ways of thinking about tourism, and the potential to allow us to have rich, immersive tourist experiences without leaving home – with the added benefit of reducing health risks.


Tourism might mean something entirely different in the future. Today’s media rooms at home could morph into Star Trek type holodecks which let us customise our experiences and return to our favourite places as often as we want.

A connected, trackable and shared world brings with it privacy concerns. Using sensors for early identification of disease while travelling has obvious public health benefits, and while our concept of personal privacy has been shifting for some time, whether social attitudes will accept the degree of intrusive surveillance that is a real possibility with the internet of things is an unknown.

Travel and associated disease spread will probably never cease, but today’s ideas about what tourism is and how we travel to new places to have new experiences, and to connect with friends and family, face disruptive change in the not too far distant future.

What is changing?

Mobile devices are changing the face of tourism. Social, connected and enhanced tourism experiences are already a reality. We facebook and tweet our travel plans and experiences, share reviews of places, sights and hotels, and use augmented reality apps to give us the information we need from our mobile devices rather than a guide book. New mobile health apps allow us to monitor our health while we travel. As personalized health becomes a reality, and more and more of our health data is held in the cloud, tracking disease emergence and spread will help governments and regulators be prepare for the next outbreak.

Sustainable tourism is rapidly becoming the norm, slow travel and local travel are growing in strength.

The environmental impact of travel is significant. Social attitudes towards the need to travel because of its environmental impact are seeing people decide not to travel or travel in different ways. Sustainable tourism is rapidly becoming the norm, slow travel and local travel are growing in strength. A new form of travel, space travel brings with it unknowns in terms of environmental and cosmic impact, as well as more known and potential health risks.

New nano materials are improving the design of aircraft, making them lighter, quieter, self cleaning and with lower carbon emissions, with the potential for lower cabin pressures to make flying more comfortable. Conveyances, including planes and cars, may also be smaller in the future, reducing the risk of catching and transmitting disease.

Sensor technology embedded in conveyance structures will help monitor structure integrity and in the future may also monitor health indicators like bacteria, viruses and other bio-hazards. Flying in particular could be healthier for us, and allow disease to be diagnosed before landing so preventative action can be taken and prevent an outbreak on the ground. Planes and cars could also become wellness pods, allowing us to monitor our health status, and choose treatments and options to stay healthy while traveling.

Smart building materials mean that airports, stations and ports will have sensors embedded in walls, tracking us as we transit, checking not only for forbidden items, but also for signs we are sick, or whether we have potential travel health risks by checking our electronic health passport or embedded nanobots, as well as ensuring we have a ticket. Boarding may depend literally on a clean bill of health.

Holographics and haptics technologies have the potential to change how we understand travel too. There are already virtual tours of the world’s great museums and art galleries and google now lets us see the inside of Japanese underground caves and the beauty of Antarctica. If the user experience for these types of virtual travel experiences continues to evolve using gaming and other emerging technologies, immersive travel experiences will be possible – without leaving home. Haptics is already bring used in robotic surgery and training simulations and also offers the potential to provide in-flight treatment for travel emergencies.

Why is this important?

We can fly around the world in under 24 hours which is less time than the incubation period of most diseases. The confined and crowded spaces in which we travel are a perfect breeding ground for bugs and germs. Disease spread through air travel is a major global challenge, attracting the attention of regulators in all countries.

New and emerging technologies will allow us to have the rich travel experiences we desire without risking our health or environmental health. Global disease spread could be much reduced. If we do travel, our conveyances will be healthier and safer and probably smaller. But if social attitudes about reducing the environmental impact of travel converge with these technologies, travel of any kind may be something done only in an emergency, rather than for work or leisure.

As with any disruptive technological shift… changing how we think and our expectations will be a major driver for the success of new travel forms.

As with any disruptive technological shift, however, changing how we think and our expectations will be a major driver for the success of new travel forms. If we cannot bring ourselves to accept a virtual tour, a haptic hug or a hologram of our friends and family in distant places as ‘real’ and as good as ‘face to face’, then we will continue to demand the ability to travel globally, but our health status will be a major determinant of our ability to travel.

Whether our understanding of face to face and immersive shifts enough to embrace new technologies remains to be seen, although the decision will be taken out of our hands if the global disease spread increases and the forecast environmental collapse becomes a reality.

By Maree Conway

About the author

Maree Conway is an associate of Shaping Tomorrow who also runs her own strategic foresight practice, Thinking Futures, which helps people to think long term, to move beyond business-as-usual thinking, and to build robust, sustainable strategies for the future. She uses a combination of desk and original research plus workshops to challenge their current thinking and see beyond the constraints of today. With Shaping Tomorrow she runs a series of educational futures ‘webinars’ on using various futures tools and techniques, provides ongoing Horizon Scanning on a range of topics, and specific research support for projects such as a ‘Issues affecting long-term animal health management’. In 2008 she conducted a yearlong review of ‘the state of futures’, and previously spent 30 years in the university sector providing strategic support.