Non-Travel: Designing the Contemporary Travel Experience
Part of Vital Signs
The experience we have of a place is a combination of what we see, read, and hear about it. From social media to virtual reality, today we have even more ways of traveling the world, both physically and imaginatively. As digital technologies become more advanced, the depiction of space becomes more immersive and new forms of narrative emerge. This allows us to experience travel through other people and ultimately become the traveler ourselves.
This research examines the images, objects, and tools—or “devices”—that allow us to experience travel without the need to move. Through a qualitative analysis of these devices, we can understand how they create a myth of travel and reach a definition of “non-travel,” allowing us to better understand and talk about the contemporary experience of travel. Does non-travel mean it is now possible to take a virtual holiday, and would we want to?
“How would you like to spend a relaxing week in the Alps while staying at home and finishing off all the work that otherwise would be left undone?” This is the first question posed on the homepage for Hotel Vue des Alpes to entice the potential visitor to book a relaxing five-day stay at its remote spa hotel. Reservations are essential in order to enjoy the unobstructed mountain views from one of the nine rooms’ private terraces, and can only be booked online. There is no 24-hour reception at this hotel. In fact, you’re unlikely to bump into any other visitors during your stay. Even housekeeping will be discrete.
That’s because this hotel is a member of the Virtual Tourism Organization, an institution as fictional as the rooms that are rendered at the Vue des Alpes, but no less accommodating. Who wouldn’t want to enjoy the consistently moderate, sunny climate, or spend their days exploring the 20 square kilometers of local hiking trails, and taking in the “stimulating, generated scenery”? Since the opening of the hotel in 2001, digital tourism has led to the gradual development of the area, including a new funicular taking visitors to the top of the also-fabricated-Gleissenhorn. Every time I’ve looked, the hotel is fully booked for at least the following few days.
On my recent stay at the Vue des Alpes, I kept finding myself distracted by the practicalities of life beyond the screen. I didn’t find it as restful as the website had suggested. I felt that the hotel was in desperate need of some renovations. Technology, and especially the quality of digital imagery, has improved remarkably in the last fifteen years, but like many 1970s style hotels in Europe, this hotel is stuck in a time-warp of turn-of-the-century three-dimensional visualization. This doesn’t mean the project is any less alluring. A vacation available to everyone, and at no cost, is not to be shrugged off lightly. If we can enjoy the many advantages of visiting a foreign place without having to deal with the inconveniences of physically moving location, is this not the future of travel?
Although the quality of the three-dimensional model of Hotel Vue des Alpes lacks a level of realism necessary in order to convince us that we truly are in the Alps, it highlights an important trend evident in a wide range of objects and images today: the experience of travel that does not require us to move—or, what I term, “non-travel.” This form of travel is elicited through “devices”—the physical and digital tools that are involved in travel itself. They embody the experience of a place even if we are not physically in it. The success of a device is partly due to how much we feel we have been transported to the place as opposed to seeing the place through the given medium.
Travel is a form of “active memory construction,” and hence the reason why we have historically returned home with souvenirs that can hold these memories. The souvenir has many functions (as a fetish, or as a nostalgia or narrative trigger, for example,) but “the most striking characteristic of a souvenir is its openness, its readiness to carry the mind in all directions.” Building on this idea, we can consider how the experience of travel has used early souvenirs of travel as devices of non-travel.
When the young aristocrats of the eighteenth century returned from their Grand Tour they bore souvenirs of their travels, such as the widely admired prints of Roman monuments by Piranesi, which were designed to provide the “tourist perception” in a form that they could take home to show where they had been and what they had seen. Sir John Soane’s Grand Tour is infamous for the thousands of paintings and artifacts that he returned with; a visit to the Sir John Soane Museum can span “continents and millennia.” The world exhibitions of the 19th century were intended as “society’s representation of itself” but became tourist attractions in themselves, advertised as a trip “around-the-world-in-a-day” without any of the inconveniences of the Grand Tour. Historian Alexander Geppert has studied these exhibitions, and the special low-cost tours put on by Thomas Cook to visit them, and considers them one of the first examples of tourism that was “possible without travelling.”
In 1794, Xavier de Maistre’s journey around his room spawned a new genre of travel writing known as room travel. This was made possible through the objects that he had collected on his travels: “Objects are the familiar strange compass points of his travel account and his life, which as it flows from the objects, allows itself to be told.” While de Maistre traveled through the objects and wrote about them, the writing that was produced through his, and others, room travels as well as the vast amount of travel writing that was written otherwise, led to a new form of traveling without moving that could be done through reading. The armchair traveler is someone who stays at home but experiences travel by reading books about different countries, cultures and customs. Guidebooks hold a special position in this form of travel, with details about the place, how to get there and the practicalities while there. Reading allowed individuals to experience another place without having to deal with the challenges of actually traveling.
The birth of photography had a profound impact on tourism. Before the invention of the camera in 1840, “places did not travel well;” paintings were time-consuming to produce and costly to transport. Photography found a natural companion in travel and helped to stimulate the desire for travel. It wasn’t until the 1880s, however, when Kodak launched its first user-friendly, lightweight, cheap camera, that photography became a tourist activity. Photographs become part of the tourist experience itself; “evidence not only of what’s there but of what an individual sees.” In her seminal work, On Photography, Susan Sontag remarks that tourists feel obliged to put the camera between themselves and what they encounter, creating objects that transform places into graspable objects that can be passed from one to another.
With the shift to the visual, the quintessential character of the flâneur was born. The male dandy exploring the Parisian streets in the 19th century was first evoked in the poetry of Charles Baudelaire. The flâneur had a unique perspective on the city—he could be both detached from and a part of the crowd. This meant he became a tool for interpreting the changes that were happening in the modern city, an idea that Walter Benjamin developed further in his work. In 1860, The brothers Edmond and Jules Goncourt wrote that the landscapes of Paris were changing so drastically that they felt like foreigners in their own city. The flâneur, therefore, did not have to physically travel, in order to see new places; he could “cover vast imaginative spaces” without traveling far.
Since Benjamin’s time, the figure of the flâneur has been appropriated, dissected and redefined countless times to “illuminate issues of city life irrespective of time and place.”His detachment lends himself to being associated with the traveler. For Sontag, the photographer is yet another manifestation of the flâneur “armed” with a camera. There are many other parallels to be drawn between the activities of the flâneur and the tourist: the physical abode of the city, the “comparative affluence,” the desire to learn through other cultures and the drifting nature of their movement.
In the early 21st century, the proliferation of online media, digital applications and wireless internet has had a profound impact on the accessibility of information and tools available to travelers. It has even meant that many places can be visited directly from a laptop, tablet, or smart phone. Digital tourism is the term given to the travel experience that is enacted entirely through online media. Google Street View is just one example of a software that allows us to explore foreign cities; many institutions have even made it possible to visit the inside of buildings as well. Technologies like these are changing not only our experience of travel, but also the way we plan and share information about our travels.
As technology continues to impact the way we travel we can expect any number of the following to become commonplace, and we will have an even more personalized experience of a foreign place with the swipe of a finger: geolocation, better connectivity possibilities, wireless energy, personalization, frame-of-mind recommendations, and Augmented Reality.
The impact of digital technologies on our daily lives as well as our travel experiences is pivotal in how we understand the contemporary experience of non-travel. In the fifteen years since Hotel Vue des Alpes was built, three-dimensional representation technologies have improved exponentially. The field of virtual reality (VR) has been one area to profit from these developments, and VR headsets and applications are currently a booming industry. Travel in particular lends itself to being experienced through VR, and has numerous possibilities, for example, in education (making class fieldtrips more affordable and easier to manage), tourist industry (it would be easier for an agent to sell a holiday if they could give a consumer a taste in advance), and socializing (will you be able to meet new people in VR while traveling?). VR also represents an important moment in technology where the effect of narrative, presence and interactivity have reached a capacity to engage the user in a more immersive experience than previously possible with traditional panoramic photos.
My research looks at how we perceive and enact travel today through analysis of the designed images and objects that we actively engage with, and which encourage or enable us to travel—whether that be physically, imaginatively or a mixture of both.