Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Independent Travel and the Future of Travel Agencies

Ages ago, when I was a teenager, I liked to browse through the advertisements of travel agencies in the newspaper. I told myself, “If I have money, I will join this tour. I want to travel to this country.”

Many years have past. This never happens. Rather than joining a package tour, I have chosen to travel on my own. I booked my flights, hailed a taxi to the airport, and flew to another country. I traveled in that country guided by books in my hands, information provided by locals and other visitors, or my own intuition. I was, so to speak, an independent traveler.

Millions of people do the same thing. Independent travel is made possible because of these reasons:

(i) Availability of travel guide books such as Lonely Planet.

(ii) Advent of Internet makes it easy to obtain updated information.

(iii) English is widely spoken.

Why do I choose independent travel over package tour? Because it is flexible. I want to “design” my own itineraries and travel on my own pace. It also gives me more opportunities to interact with local people as well as travelers from other countries.

I expect independent travel to grow in popularity, especially among younger generations. This raises a question: what is the future of travel agencies which offer group tours to other countries? It doesn’t look too rosy if more people choose to travel on their own. Worst still, we can now book our flights online, thus depriving travel agencies another source of revenue.

Is their future bleak? Not really. Independent travelers do not eschew guided tours altogether. For example, in my recent trip to Northern Thailand, I joined a one-day tour to an elephant camp. Other tourists have taken part in guided trekking into the forest. Still others have tried mountain biking or bamboo rafting.

Note that these tours are usually short – from half day to two days – and are arranged by local travel agencies for inbound tourists. The tours advertised in newspapers which I mentioned earlier on are for outbound tourists and the duration is generally longer – between three days and two weeks.

When independent travelers are having time or financial constraints, or when certain destinations are not accessible by public transport, short guided tour remains a viable option.

To be sure, there are many people who don’t belong to the DIY-type. They, when go for travel, want professionals to take care of everything, from hotel booking to purchase of entrance tickets. Nonetheless, short, flexible tours for inbound foreign visitors should be where the action is.

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