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Research: Tourists Aren’t Ready For Digital Detox

A survey of American tourists has revealed some interesting results about travellers’ relationship with their mobile phones. Hint: we’re more addicted than you think. 

One travel industry trend that’s been well documented – by us and others – is the desire for authenticity.

This trend arguably has several distinct causes. Among them is the relentless presence of technology in our lives. Internet access in the palms of our hands has caused a change in dynamic. It’s made the world feels closer than it’s ever felt before. Nowhere is off limits.

On a day to day basis, it’s also changed the way we travel for the better, at least in practical terms. You can read some of our stories that discuss the intersection of travel and technology here:

Many of these stories explore our relationship with technology and how it impacts the travel experience. Sometimes there’s room for debate, such as with Google’s Pixel Buds. Real-time translation is obviously useful, but does it take something fundamental away from the authenticity of random encounters abroad? That’s just one example.

Either way, with an increasingly connected world comes the desire to remove oneself from it, to escape the madness. More than anything, that’s embodied by the search for unique, bespoke and authentic experiences – which is as competitive as ever.

Second, it’s shown in the wellness travel industry rise, in which the desire to switch off and remove ourselves from the pressures of modern technology – and the intensity of that 24/7 connectivity – is a leading driver.

So what do tourists really think about technology and much it should be present during a vacation? Are we just addicted to our devices, or do they genuinely add something to our time away from home? These are a few of the big questions that a joint survey from Asurion, a mobile device insurance company, and OnePoll, a UK-based marketing research company

Here are the headlines.

A digital detox is a step too far for most tourists

Vacations are supposed to be the place where we get away from it all. But apparently ‘it all’ doesn’t include smart phones and social media.

According to the Asurion study, Americans check their phones an average of 80 times a day while on vacation. Some check their phone more than 300 times each day, according to new research.

A study of 2,000 Americans found that while we want to relax and get away from our daily routine, we don’t want a break from our phones.

Whether on a beach, by the pool or in a museum, results showed the average American checks their phone five times an hour – or once every 12 minutes while on vacation. And nearly 10 percent said they check their phones more than 20 times an hour.

The study by global tech services company Asurion found we might like to relax on vacation but we certainly aren’t looking for a digital detox – 53 percent of Americans have NEVER unplugged while on vacation.

In fact, Asurion’s 2018 study conducted by OnePoll shows that we are on our phones during vacation just as much as during our regular day-to-day life. Asurion’s 2017 survey insights into day-to-day phone use found that we check our phones 80 times a day as well.

So how long can we stand to be away from our phones while indulging in some R&R? Four hours is the average. In fact, Americans are so dependent on our phones that one in four said they’ve either climbed a tree, hiked to the top of a hill, or canoed to the middle of a lake just to get cell phone reception during vacation.

“The results reveal that while people enjoy taking a vacation from everyday life, they don’t necessarily want to take a full break from their phone, which serves as their main connection to friends and family, and is a practical tool to help get around when travelling,” said Bettie Colombo, Asurion spokesperson.

So what’s driving our phone attachment on vacation? Friends and family are the biggest factor, with more than 46 percent saying they want to stay connected with friends and family, or to share their experiences. In second place, nearly 20 percent said that their phones help them to be a smart tourist and get around unfamiliar locations.

Mentally, it can be difficult to take a break from social media even while lounging poolside, and Americans agree – with 68 percent admitting they check social media when on vacation.

And Americans will go to extreme lengths to get cell phone reception or squeeze in more screen time. Nearly half of respondents reported tripping or bumping into things on vacation because they were too distracted with their phones.  And more than 10 percent reported missing their vacation destination while travelling because they were focused on their phone screens.

So, for those looking to just catch a break from their phone while on vacation, Asurion tech experts offer the following suggestions to help find life-phone balance while staying connected:

  • Set your phone on Do Not Disturb for select hours when you don’t want to be contacted.  This allows you to use your phone when you really need to, while blocking calls that distract you from your vacation.  This can be done on iPhone by going to Settings > Do Not Disturb. Android users can activate Do Not Disturb by going to Settings > Sounds and Vibration > Do Not Disturb. From there, you can pre-schedule how long you want the DND setting in effect, and allow repeat callers to get through (in case of emergency).
  • You can also block out everyone while still allowing for crucial calls and texts from your closest friends and family. Under the Do Not Disturb setting, iPhone users can allow their “Favorites” list to get through. Android users can create a custom list of friends and family who can reach them.
  • Need extra help weening yourself from checking your phone too often? There are many apps available to help users break their screen dependency and reduce distractions.
  • The Forest app (available for both the iPhone and Android) uses gamification to help you break the screen habit by setting a timeframe (up to two hours) when you don’t want to use your phone. During that time the Forest app plants a digital seedling that slowly grows into a tree on your phone screen.  The tree withers if you check your phone before your time is up.
  • The Flipd app removes your phone distractions by locking you out of your phone apps during a timeframe that you designate. Or it can also do a “light lock,” which encourages you to stay off your phone, but still allows you to use it if you want to.
  • You can also manually move all your phone apps into one digital folder on your phone.  By not seeing the apps, you’ll be less distracted and tempted to use them, but will still be able to use them if you need to.

Top 5 Things Most Likely to Make Americans Pull Out Their Phone On Vacation

  • Capturing a photo
  • Researching directions
  • Picking up a phone call
  • Responding to texts
  • Looking for a place to eat

Top 5 Phone-Related Accidents On Vacation

  • Bumping into something
  • Tripping
  • Missing your destination
  • Falling down
  • Walking into traffic or a dangerous situation

Bad news for digital detox advocates

Plenty of travel companies are developing trips to cater for people who want to leave it all behind – ‘it’ being absolutely everything, and including mobile phones. These digital detoxes might sound marketable in principle, and perhaps they are, but the pool of willing participants may be shallower than we’d like to think.

The facts don’t lie; tourists won’t give up their phones easily, so why make them?

Talking Points and Final Thoughts

For some people, the results of this study will be a little worrying. Are we really this reliant on our mobile devices? Do we seriously need to check our mobile phones 80 times per day, or keep in touch with social media during our vacations?

These are big questions that go way beyond the travel industry and into wider society, where our relationship with technology is arguably more of an addiction than we care to realise.

However, that doesn’t stop smartphones from being a useful addition to the travel toolkit. That’s part of the problem here: phones these days are everything. Your map; mode of communication, news hub, social media tool, gaming device. How healthy that relationship is can only be determined on an individual basis.

Which leaves us asking one fundamental question: Do these statistics negate in any way from the travel experience? Of course it’s hard to give a definite answer either way. Even the people surveyed in the study claimed to use the same technology for getting directions, checking out local places to eat, translation tools and the like. All of these are overwhelmingly positive and improve peoples’ time away.

Smartphones also allow travellers to capture memories with photos and videos at the touch of a button – the importance of which can’t be understated.

The point to consider from the survey results is this: Sure, we use our phones a hell of a lot, even when on vacation. And whether or not an element of that use is dopamine-driven, there are plenty of valid reasons for avoiding a complete digital detox on holiday.

One final thing to think about: The Asurion survey only dealt with American tourists, so we can’t generalise these results to travellers on the whole. With America being the globalisation capital of the world and the hub of social media giants like Facebook and Twitter, more moderate results might be found with different nationalities.