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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.

Instagram Algorithm Raises Questions Over Travel Authenticity

If there’s one thing that all travellers want to do, it’s fit in. Nobody wants to be the tourist, to feel like an outsider in a new place. Instead, the desire is to blend in with those surroundings, to be one of the locals. Part of being a local is doing as the locals do, skipping the tourist traps and finding the hidden gems that only people who know the city well will have discovered.

If this need for a genuine experience is one of the permanent threads running through the narrative of the modern travel industry, others include the need to remember, record and share our experiences. We all want to have memories to look back on, even if it’s a postcard, a few old photographs or a 10-second video. And we all seem to want to publicize these trip highlights and share them with friends and family.

So blending in with the locals and sharing memories are two things that modern tourists seek. It’s about time that someone ties these two desires together, right?

New Tech Detects Attractions By Tracking Locals’ Instagram Activity

Programmers from ITMO University, Russia, have come up with an ingenious, indirect way for locals to give advice to tourists. The research team has developed an algorithm that scans local Instagram accounts to come up with a list of the most popular museums, cafes, streets and parks. By using data from locals, tourists can be sure they are getting as authentic an experience as possible.

Results of the research were presented at The International Conference on Computational Science and published in the peer-reviewed journal Procedia Computer Science.

Clearly, this is an interesting combination of social media, artificial intelligence and travel software. It merges the popular platform used to store and share memories, Instagram, with the desire many tourists have to get off the beaten track.

Let’s go back to the craving many of us have to capture and share our favourite holiday moments. Social networks like Instagram are becoming increasingly popular for that exact reason. The platform currently has over 700 million monthly active users around the world. 14.4 million of those are in Russia, where this study was conducted. There are two examples of why people would post an update about a specific place: because it’s their first time there or because they visit often.

You might be thinking that the algorithm might have an obvious flaw: tracking both locals’ and tourists’ Instagram activity instead of just locals. But the team at ITMO (Or more specifically from the Uni’s eScience Research Institute) found a way to distinguish between Instagram users living in St. Petersburg and visiting tourists based on how they use social media. By doing this, they were able to provide off-the-beaten-track locations that were most loved by St. Petersburg locals.

Of course, popular locations for locals and for tourists differ, but it was important for us to know just how they differ. Guides usually offer tourists a list of 10-15 attractions. However, locals usually know more. By identifying their favorite places, we can significantly diversify such guide books” – Alexander Visheratin, engineer and Head of Research at eScience Institute at ITMO University.

An important thing to factor into any tourism guide is that sites, scenes and destinations change over time. What’s popular today may not be popular tomorrow. As such, a service that works in real time and offers tourists an insight into recent trends could be invaluable.

“Instagram is a dynamically changing environment. Some places gain popularity while others lose it. Sometimes new restaurants or cafés open. Therefore, the creation of a recommendation service which follows photographs of interesting places in real time is a logical continuation of the current results. This is what we are currently working on”. – Ksenia Mukhina, lead author of the study.

ITMO University instagram travel technology

Visualisation of Saint Petersburg residents’ favourite places, according to analysis of public and geotagged Instagram posts, versus those of tourists. Photograph: Ksenia Mukhina et al/ITMO University

Is Authenticity Permanent?

Travellers’ quest for authenticity brings about an interesting philosophical question. At what point does a sight or destination lose its authenticity? The whole notion of ‘off the beaten track’ is that it’s a tourist-free zone, a place where locals get together and do locals things. Do technologies such as the one developed in St Petersburg threaten to undermine the authenticity it helps tourists to discover?

The answer is not straightforward. Take a quiet church or a secluded park. Part of the magic of these little-known destinations is their secrecy and their atmosphere. A horde of tourists would quickly see both of those things dissipate.

And this kind of phenomena could happen on a much bigger scale. We’ve recently written about issues with over-tourism in cities such as Barcelona and countries like Iceland. Although there are many factors at work in both examples, part of the issue is that locals feel like they are being crowded out, like their usual places are being overrun with tourists.

It’s a fact that authenticity can be damaged, if not lost completely, by too much tourism. A key for technologies such as that developed in Russia is to find the right balance: to give travellers the local experience they seek without putting locals off themselves. Arguably this is just a case of simple numbers. But it’s also about education. These technologies don’t only have to locate secluded spots. Maybe they can also advise on how to behave like a local. Maybe don’t take selfies in that peaceful church? Or don’t play music out loud in that pretty park only the locals know about?

After all, blending in is as much about how you behave as the language you speak.

The Power of Community-Driven Content

We’re big fans of community-driven content here at Travelshift. But the technology described above is slightly different to what we usually specialise in. Our marketplace platform gives sellers the ability to invite locals with expert knowledge to blog and contribute to a thriving community of influencers.  As well as boosting SEO with bundles of unique, informative content, travellers can learn from authentic stories, hints and tips.

The notion of passively filtering Instagram data is not one we have considered before. But this study shows how it can be done to effectively make every Instagram user a participant in one enormous content community. By tracking hubs of activity in real time, tourists will never be far behind the latest trends and popular locations.

Gap in the Market Volume 4 – The Cruise

Cruise ship travel

After delving into a number of different market sectors, it makes sense that we now hop aboard the luxurious world of cruising and discover more about what is another growing travel industry niche. Gazing up at the epic cruise ships of today, it’s easy to assume that the idea of travelling over water for the sake of it is a relatively modern concept. But it isn’t. When you think about it, the pleasure cruise has been a constant throughout human history; from ancient Egyptians floating down the Nile to trips on the Thames for the Victorians.

Read more

Gap in the Market Volume 2 – Wellness Travel

wellness and spa

Wellness and spas go hand in hand.

Each week we’re going to be digging deeper into a different travel industry sector, with a view to both inspiring and informing new startups in the business. Today we’re taking a closer look at the world of wellness, a travel trend that has grown rapidly in recent years. As people have started to grow more conscious of how they eat and exercise, the importance of relaxation, and the ramifications of high stress levels, wellness tourism has gone from strength to strength. Let’s try and understand the why, the how, and what’s in store for the future in this sector…

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The Ultimate Underdog Story – Can Travel Startups Learn From Leicester’s Success?

Leicester city underdog winners

On the face of it, there’s no obvious link between football and the travel industry. But two seemingly disjointed topics has never stopped us from drawing parallels in the past, so here goes. Luckily we’re all about looking into things a little bit deeper.

You may or may not have heard that something magical happened in the world of football this week. More specifically, it happened in the world’s most watched sporting league, England’s Barclays Premier League. Leicester City, a relatively obscure club that started the season at 5000-1 to win the title, did exactly that. 5000-1! Not only have they broken the monopoly of the traditional powerhouses of English football, they have done so with a tiny fraction of the resources and a squad that barely avoided relegation this time last year.

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Are Virtual Reality and Tourism on a Collision Course?

How will virtual reality impact upon the travel industry?

On the face of it, virtual reality and tourism don’t belong in the same sentence. One is an emerging technology that has only come in to being in the past few years, while the other is essentially a concept that has been around for as long as humans can remember. Sure, our Neanderthal ancestors didn’t spend too much time booking food tours in romantic destinations, but the notion of travel, and the curiosity that drives it, has always been present.

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