Is your bucket list suddenly looking a bit more urgent? Joe Cummings’ is. In the latest episode of The Future of Travel, the prolific travel writer talks to David and Catherine about how keen he is to start travelling again, with a focus on seeing all the places he’s not been to—because you just don’t know when the next crisis will come.
In the short-term, Joe believes it will be the most daring and inquisitive among us who will start testing the boundaries of the infrastructure and the air routes to see where we can go—which places are accessible and safe to visit. However, he’s a little less optimistic about longer-term change. Having seen how quickly Thailand’s post-tsunami sustainability goals were reversed, he expects to see the same again, with positive initiatives quickly rewinding within two to three years.
David Keen 0:10
Hi, this is David Keen. At QUO, we’ve worked for the last 20 years with many of the world’s best known travel brands. During this unprecedented global crisis, our world of travel has changed, possibly irreversibly. This series will see us speak with many global leaders to understand how they see the future of travel.
Good morning, Joe Cummings, pioneer of travel in Thailand, particularly for the last 30 or 40 years, certainly one of the best known, let’s say, ‘travelers’ in Thailand. Welcome, Joe, to The Future of Travel.
Joe Cummings 1:04
Thank you. Thank you for having me.
David Keen 1:06
It’s our honor. And I’m as always with Catherine Monthienvichienchai, our Chief Branding Officer at QUO.
Catherine Monthienvichienchai 1:15
Joe, as a pioneer independent of intrepid travel, what is your take on the current crisis? How is this gonna shape the future of the way we travel? What’s gonna happen?
Joe Cummings 1:27
Well, I think no one really knows, because it’s so—nothing like this has ever happened. There have been political disturbances: war, coups d’etat, etc. that have interrupted travel for a short interval, but they’re usually in very restricted parts of the planet. And even the same with, say, SARS, and most of the other epidemics we’ve seen. It seems like they’ve been more geographically restricted, as I recall. SARS in particular was Asia, for example. But this one’s just swept the entire globe, and all of the measures that governments have taken to respond to it have created a collapse, basically [unclear] industry. So I don’t think anyone knows. I mean I have a few answers myself. You know, the short answer is, no one knows. We’ll see.
David Keen 2:18
Do you think the fundamentals of travel might change? Do you think the fear factor, the adventure, the inner adventure that we all have within us, that discovery, that leaving the village, as I always say—leaving your own tribe—will create resistance will hinder the future? Or do you think we’ll come back?
Joe Cummings 2:49
And I’m optimistic that it will come back. In fact, I think it might be enhanced in the short term, even. My optimism [unclear] to the extent I think everything is going to be almost completely normal within two or three years, but who knows.
But I think in the short term, the most daring among us and the most inquisitive will be out there testing the boundaries of the infrastructure in the air routes and all of that to find out where you can still go. Which are the first places are going to be accessible, which are going to be accessible and safe, I would say. So, I think, in the short term going to be… travel will be shaped by the people who are most bold.
Catherine Monthienvichienchai 3:36
And picking up on that, Joe, talking about those who are most bold. Do you think they’re gonna still adventure further and further away to new destinations or they’re going to maybe be a bit safer going back to places they know and trust and feel comfortable? Have we seen the end of that more intrepid traveler? Do you think people have courage yet?
Joe Cummings 3:55
I think not. No, because I think it’s another thing that’s, you know, if you want to call it a positive of staying home and being locked down, is that it gives us a chance to fantasise about travel. I know that’s what I’m doing. I’m fantasising about traveling. I’m not thinking about going back to places I’ve been, because I’m thinking, you know, how long would this last? And when will the next one come?
And so I’m thinking, no, I want to see the places I haven’t been. For example, I’m going to Sweden—or Denmark or Sweden next month. So I’ve never been to either place. And I’ve got a few others. My bucket list is suddenly looking more urgent. You know what I mean? And I’m sure I’m not the only one. So I think it might, in the short term, make people a little more adventurous.
David Keen 4:36
And on that subject: Do you think that the discovery that you were certainly at the avant garde, a pioneer leader in terms of certainly Thailand as everyone would know, all those years ago… Do you think that the backpackers, the younger people, will once again be the pioneers? Or do you think that role might shift towards, for example, the ultra-high-net-worth individuals for—where, for example, in the Maldives or Seychelles or another of these kinds of glamorous destinations. They’ve been the pioneers.
Joe Cummings 5:16
I think you’re going to see both of those, because those are sort of the ones—both ends of that spectrum—even though they might seem like opposites. But they sort of are not because they’re both being very—it’s either you have so much money and leisure time to plan and fantasise and think about the more extreme sort of travel. I don’t mean ‘extreme’ in terms of physical experience, but you know, sort of cultural experience, I would say. And then, on the other hand, backpackers—so-called backpackers—who are just used to always looking for the next place. So I think those two markets intersect in terms of their motivation a lot. So I think you’re going to see those people, those sectors really jumping in and just leaping right back in. I think it’s gonna happen very soon.
And one thing I wanted to say is that I have a feeling that we’re going to see more overland travel. Because the airlines have been so severely impacted. Either they won’t exist; the routes will exist; prices might be very high. I mean, at the moment, I know there’s a lot of promotions. Bit I can’t see that sustaining. I think we might see more overland travel, especially among the backpacker sector.
Catherine Monthienvichienchai 6:21
And what do you think about the future of destinations? I mean, famously, you’re the author of The Lonely Planet guide to Thailand. But the Thailand we’ve seen today, 40 years on from when you first wrote that guide, is obviously dramatically changed. It’s now a mass tourism destination. Do you see this virus as a chance to reboot Thailand, to reimagine the future of the country as a tourism destination? Do you think it’s had its day and people are moving on to less-discovered, more interesting corners of the world?
Joe Cummings 6:50
That’s a very good question. And I think it applies not just to Thailand, but a few other places, but we seem to have been totally adopted by mass tourism and, thus, less-interesting people. But the funny thing is I’ve just been in Trang in southern Thailand. And I was the only foreigner there for five kilometres on the beach that I was on. And talking to people locally, they said it’s pretty much like that even in high season.
So I still, there’s a lot of undiscovered Thailand left. But it does get the infrastructure in Thailand a chance to cool off a bit. I’m not that optimistic long-term, though, because it reminds me a bit of back in 2004 and early 2005 after the tsunami. Everyone was talking about how they’re going to redo—you know, be more ecologically conscious, environmentally friendly with infrastructure on the beaches. Because a lot of it was just… they had to start from scratch especially… Koh Phi Phi is a good example.
But it didn’t take long. It did not take two years, maybe for all of those hopes to be shattered. And it was just replaced by the same adverse, or that negative infrastructure. So I think in the long-term, this is going to be exactly the same with Thailand. But I still think there’s a lot to see in Thailand, and China is getting huge numbers. So it’s a really good sort of beginner destination still for [unclear].
David Keen 8:15
Do you think that the reasons and the purpose of why people travel and why people particularly are coming to Thailand or—or elsewhere in Asia, or wherever they’re going—their purpose might shift more towards mindset, physical wellness, changing why they’re actually going on vacation?
Joe Cummings 8:43
That’s another great question. I thought about that, too. Will people’s—the type of experiences they’re looking for change afterwards? Yeah, I would think spirituality might be a little more in focus for some people. You know, a large number of people that I think other people will be just wanting mindless beach escapes. People who have been locked down in cities probably are going to want to get to the great outdoors—to beach areas or national parks. So I think you might see those two trends for a while. And then again, I think everything is settled back into a normal—whether for good or bad—it’s going to be no change at all for the long term.
David Keen 9:23
I mean, as you quite rightly say, Joe, they were looking at, I think, what was it, 40 million. They were looking at 40 million travelers, particularly into Thailand this year, and it’s you know, while we know we have listeners all over the world, Thailand’s a really good barometer of this. Shifting the fulcrum, shifting the needle, with 40 billion—I mean today now they’re talking about 16 million, but it doesn’t really matter, as you said. It’s still a lot of people. Shifting the needle to purpose is a huge thing. I mean, even if you shift it a little bit, with 40 million people. If you go from wanting a mindless beach vacation to wanting something a little bit more cerebral, or something a little bit more —
Catherine Monthienvichienchai 9:24
David Keen 9:44
— meaningful is, [for] one, massive economically. You know? I think… my prayer, my hope, is that one of the great changes we’ll see is less of this massage stuff. Less of this kind of bullshit massage that’s on, you know, that’s just—you pick this and tinge with whatever. And if it actually evolves into something a little bit more spiritual, or a little bit more meaningful, to Catherine’s point.
Joe Cummings 10:49
I think that will happen. But I’m not sure for the long term. I just kind of see—I think of the tsunami, and everything. It was kind of an optimism born of the ashes. And it’s just [unclear]. But I think you will see, I mean—yeah people are more focused on nature and will be for a while. They’ve been more focused on nature and maybe internal experiences as well.
David Keen 11:20
I think, while the tsunami of course was one of the most terrible tragedies ever This is way more global. I mean, I remember very clearly the events of the tsunami. It was, you know, it was like a terrible accident. It was a terrible, terrible tragic accident. Right? But I don’t think it moved mindsets. It wasn’t gonna happen again, the chances of it happening were very, very slim. It happened. It didn’t change the mindset. I sense I know that this time it might be difficult.
Catherine Monthienvichienchai 12:03
I mean, I think that people have been cooped up in, certainly, parts of Europe in the US for possibly even longer than we have here in Asia been cooped up for so long under lockdown. But I think they’ve had more time to think about what it means to travel and what they’re missing by not traveling, and pretending potentially have the potential there’s more space for that shift in mindset.
Joe Cummings 12:25
Yeah, I think you’re right. I think I yeah, I think you’ve convinced you can this be? Again, maybe that now we’re talking maybe medium term and long, long term?
Catherine Monthienvichienchai 12:35
Yeah. You know, how short are people’s memories, I guess, is always that question.
Joe Cummings 12:40
I was just… I’ve been thinking for myself. I mean, it’s like now this slight relaxation of the lockdown, where you can now go out and have a bite to eat or whatever, after so many weeks, and not be able to do it. And the first time I went to a restaurant and met some friends a few days ago. Fortunately, in a restaurant that wasn’t too strict about all the barriers and stuff so it felt relatively normal. It was just the feeling was so… I was, it was ecstatic. We all felt the same way, which is like, I can’t believe we’re together. It was like we appreciated each other. We appreciated, you know, sharing food together in a way I never thought in my life, basically. And I’ve done that three or four times and that feeling is already fading.
Catherine Monthienvichienchai 13:20
Joe Cummings 13:22
The high of that first social interaction is—the glow is sort of, it’s waning a bit. So I’m thinking the same thing with travel.
Catherine Monthienvichienchai 13:31
David Keen 13:32
We had staff coming back to the office this week for the first time in about two months. And it was like the first day of school.
Joe Cummings 13:39
David Keen 13:40
It was that amazing feeling of seeing your friends after the long summer holidays. It was really joyous as well. Joe, in terms of travel and in terms of destinations and change. While you believe that there will still be a search, a yearning, for new destinations, how do you think—and you’ve obviously been on the other side of the fence as a writer, and you’ve always been, you know, as a pioneer at the avant garde—how do you think destinations can or should market themselves in a post-virus world?
Joe Cummings 14:27
Yeah. I think in the first instance, David, everyone’s going to be concerned. You already see this in the marketing. Travel suppliers are starting to market again. Trying to ensure that there’s a safe environment in terms of sanitation, you know, social distancing. So that’s gonna be a big part of that already. All hotels that are reopening or having, you know. They’re promoting the fact that they’ve been COVID-freecertified or whatever the terminology is. They show that their places have been either inspected or changed, modified in some way to respond to it. So that’s going to be a huge, huge part of it.
And I don’t know how long that will last. That’s probably going to last quite a long time. And I think that’ll impact the market a lot. I think a lot of people that are more, say, middle-level travelers who were somewhat—you know—they need to plan a lot. They need to have a lot of confidence that things are safe. Let’s say risk-averse travelers. They will be looking very hard at that kind of assurance from travel suppliers. So I think that’ll change the market hugely. It’s going to be very expensive, also, obviously, for travel suppliers.
In terms of actually changing the total experience to adapt. I mean, maybe for the as we were talking earlier, they might be, you know, more meaningful experiences. But I felt like actually, to be optimistic in reverse, in retrospect. I think that’s the way travel’s been going anyway. It’s becoming more and more experiential. Everyone’s trying to feed more meaning into the experience, whether it’s luxury travel, or budget traveler, or whatever. So maybe we’ll see more of that too. But I yeah, those two things: making it more meaningful, and making it appear as if it’s not risky to be traveling.
Catherine Monthienvichienchai 16:21
Potentially those destinations have maybe positioned themselves having a deeper purpose, a deeper connection to local experiences, authenticity. Those are the ones that will probably come through more successfully post-crisis?
Joe Cummings 16:36
I think so. I think so. Absolutely. That’s a good way to put it.
Catherine Monthienvichienchai 16:39
Yeah. And obviously, as a writer, Joe, you’ve been contributing and writing prolifically over the last few decades for Lonely Plant, amongst other publications. Lonely Planet itself just recently announced the closure to its offices. It’s obviously suffered very badly during this crisis. What’s your thoughts on the future of curated content of, you know, these kinds of traditional travel guidebooks versus user-generated content, versus social media in the sort of digitised world.
Joe Cummings 17:09
I think, well, digital content has already won that battle. I think print media has become sort of a niche, you know, a niche market. It’s for people… not just people who think that they prefer books, but it’s almost a status symbol in a way, nowadays, to use a book or listen to vinyl rather than streaming digital music. So I kind of kind of equate that. I think it’s very niche, almost luxury market, that wants to do print. And guidebooks don’t necessarily fit into that market at all. So I’m not very optimistic about the future of guidebooks, and I have not been for several years. It’s been declining for several years.
And it’s partially the fault of the publishers. The publishers have been playing it safe. When I started at Lonely Planet, they were really daring in the content that they committed, and the kinds of travel they promoted. And it just got very, very tame, very quickly, within 20 years or so. And not just Lonely Planet. All of them. Everything became a focus-group marketing kind of thing. It started to happen to me in my late part of my career with Lonely Planet. I turn in a manuscript and the editor would say, “Okay, you put this little town in Northern Thailand. We noticed Rough Guide doesn’t have it. Fodors doesn’t have it. Do we really need it?” Or “We did a focus group, and nobody mentioned this town. So I don’t think it’s really necessary. We need to economise on pages so how about we take it out?” See, in the beginning, they would never think like that. The philosophy in the beginning was get that town that nobody else has written about, nobody’s been to, and talk it up. So the guide books deserved to die.
David Keen 18:56
Do you see that as a tragedy?
Joe Cummings 18:59
Yes. I think there’s a loss of vision. I see it as a loss of vision on the part of the pioneers… of the publishing pioneers [unclear] guidebooks. Also I see as a big failure in making that crossover from print to digital. I mean, we had the same resources, guidebook publishers had all the same IT resources as anyone else in any other company. And yet I felt like the digital world adjuncts to their publishing just didn’t—wasn’t on par. So they failed that as well.
Digital is where it’s at. It’s so much faster and more immediate. And even curated… I still believe in curating content. The crowdsource information for travel is very faulty on TripAdvisor as we know. It is not very reliable—Google reviews. These crowdsource information avenues just aren’t that satisfying.
So the best-appreciated—maybe the best-selling, I don’t know—are digital sources online where there is someone responsible for separating the wheat from the chaff, so to speak. And then a lot of times it’s just personal blogs. I always when I’m planning a trip to somewhere, say I’m going to Tunisia or something. I’ve never been. I just look—I try to find someone that lives there that does a reliable-sounding blog, and I started taking notes from that.
David Keen 20:23
Yeah, I have to say, you and I’ve been, you know… we’ve known each other for a very long time and have worked together for over the last 30 years. And I believe like you that knowledge is the… without wanting to be an elitist, but someone who has greater knowledge whether it’s a local or someone like yourself when you were in Thailand 40 years ago. Someone who has that knowledge and has that inner wherewithal all the inside wherewithal. That rather than crowd-sourced knowledge, but maybe it’s, you know, unfortunately our generation is probably losing out to that. It’s a shame.
Joe Cummings 21:08
Yeah. Yeah. I think some people are still in the game. I meet young writers and young bloggers that are doing great work. And seems like it’s appreciated.
David Keen 21:20
Joe Cummings, pioneer of tourism and travel, certainly not just in Thailand, but across the Far East. Across Asia and the Far East. Really, it was an honor for us to have you on The Future of Travel. And we wish you well, Joe, thank you so much.
Joe Cummings 21:38
It was a great pleasure. Thank you. Thank you. Good day.