Often when I walk around new cities that I’m visiting, in the moments where I find myself dodging selfie sticks strapped to huge glowing phones or hear my own phone ding with an email, I just sigh and wonder what travel would feel like in a world before we were so attached to technology. While there is a part of me that longs to see the streets of old cities in the height of their glamour, free of gadgets, I honestly cannot imagine travelling today without technology. Over my years of travelling, I think that it’s made the foreign feel more familiar. From using Airbnb to book people’s homes instead of hotels, online reviews to find the best food spots and Uber amazing me by working in almost every destination, technology can keep us connected with what feels familiar.
Most of my travels over the last few years have been trips I have taken alone. When you’re by yourself in a strange place, travelling alone can often be daunting. But now, thanks to smartphones you can hear a voice from your phone that tells you where to walk and what you can expect at the end of each road. As I’m about to embark on six weeks of travel, I’m thinking about how technology will impact every aspect of my time away. Will I be able to switch off from my work emails? Will I bore people on my Instagram of multiple beaches and blue skies? Will I actually experience the trip how I would have in a time before technology? I just don’t know.
I was in Venice recently, sitting in the garden of Peggy Guggenheim totally alone under a blue sky when the huge ancient bells from the church next door started ringing. It was achingly beautiful and I wanted to witness it with someone. So I picked up my phone and video called my family ten thousand miles away in Australia and we watched the birds depart the trees with each bell strike. It made the moment even better but I wonder what could have happened if I didn’t have the technology to share that moment with anyone but myself. Does technology take the chance of what could have been by always giving us an easy option to connect to something or someone? Are we less inclined to speak and socialise to people on the streets of where we’re travelling because we’re relaying our holidays to our social media minute by minute?
Statistics say that social media is now the reason we choose where we travel with ‘Instagrambility’ the number one factor in millennials choosing where to go on holidays. New innovations in technology are adapting to this. Being a tourist and travelling has completely changed in the last twenty years. With the ‘experience economy’ at the forefront of these changes, apps like Trippin coined by Refinery29 as ‘The Travel App for People Who Don’t Want to Be Tourists’ and Airbnb’s new ‘Experience’ are tapping directly into selling a personalised, customised and sometimes even algorithms driven package to us. Technology is now claiming to know better where you should travel than you do; by extending the experiences that they offer, these apps can make travel technology something that connects rather than alienates.
A truly unique travel experience is the only thing that is difficult to put a price on, so brands will always seek out ways to deliver it authentically. Companies like TravelLocal use the ability to connect communities online when people prepare for their trips, and apps like Instagram enable us to search on the ground when we’re there using the ‘geotag’ tool. Even Tinder lets you set cities so that by the time you’ve landed you can have a date for the night you arrive in some strange city. What all of these platforms are all attempting to achieve is ultimately the same goal: connecting us to people as much as to the places we’re going to.
More than often the reasons we travel are different, we can take the same trip twice and each time come away with differing experiences due to our initial motivations. But either way, if we’re travelling to get lost or going out of our comfort zone to try and find something, technology can now help us do both. It can help you skip the queue at a world famous monument by buying an e-ticket, but more than anything, it can also connect you to that person 10,000 miles away that you want to share the moment with. The unnamable thing that travel gives you can never really be locked down because it’s a feeling framed by experience. Tech companies whose products accompany us through our travels are selling something infinitely more calculated than connection: they are providing us with a personalised experience.
Can’t decide where to go for your next summer vacay? Why not let your DNA dictate your next destination. From learning which strain of weed to smoke to what music you should listen to, Airbnb and 23andMe are the latest in strange collabs with DNA analysis. On May 21, the global hospitality and homestay service and the world’s first at-home DNA testing kit announced they are making a foray into the ever-rising demand for heritage travel. They’re now offering users the chance to go from a curious trip down ancestry lane online to a literal trip down ancestry lane.
Heritage travel has been hotter than ever due to the ease of technological access to our past and the opening of the genetic market. More enriching than your regular escape to Ibiza, heritage holidays provide an emotional experience to explore your ancestral roots as well as take a week’s worth of Instagram-worthy photos. Before, these excursions were meant for religious purposes such as pilgrimages to Mecca for Muslim travellers or a Jewish birthright trip to Israel, but according to Airbnb’s consumer trends spokesperson Ali Killam, heritage travel has been a top travel trend since 2014.
After filling your genealogy reports on 23andMe and sending it in, you will be able to click through Airbnb homes and experiences that reside in your ancestral homelands. According to 23andMe, users have at least five (out of eight) different origins within their report, which leads to ample options for your travel itinerary. Compared to sifting through dusty records and studying family trees, it’s a unique and easy way to learn about your heritage. Not to mention an offbeat approach to your vacation plans inspired by your genetic code.
According to press releases on Airbnb and 23andMe, their aim is to provide “an exciting opportunity for customers to connect with their heritage through deeply personal cultural and travel experiences.” Although some see it as a unique escapade, others find this partnership uneasy. Using DNA to capitalise on emotional experiences may feel demeaning and diminish the significance heritage trips could actually be. Not to mention the level of legitimacy of your genetic reports and the authenticity of these travel options.
As we become increasingly wary of how our data is used the thought of our genetic data used for ulterior motives comes to mind. This slightly whispers back to U.S. President Roosevelt’s 1942 order for Japanese Americans to register their identity and begs the question: Could this be a new form of racial registration but with a different face? The ethical implications of having your cultural and racial identity monetised should also be questioned. If it is used as a cultural or racial registry, this not only affects the people who have done the test but also their relatives—which was proven through the capturing of the golden state killer, where police found him through the genetic code of a relative who used 23andMe. Although both parties have stated they won’t be sharing personal information with the other, being sceptical seems like a safe option.
Or maybe we should just take this collaboration at face value. As one Reddit user asks in the 23andMe thread discussing this topic, “Why are you complaining?”. There also are some positive implications that could come from this new way of travelling. People who are adopted or people from disconnected communities from their ancestral home, such as the African American community, could learn more about their geographic history. For those who have no idea where they came from this may be a stepping stone to their personal journey, but then again, how personal can you get with a pre-packaged holiday?
If both companies communicate this collaboration as a way to explore your roots from a physical standpoint then it may not seem so contrived. Instead, it seems that Airbnb and 23andMe are trying too hard to pull at your heartstrings and not telling it like it is: a fun new way to pick your next travel destination.
Your approach to this new way of travelling now depends on how you perceive society. Some may think, as we have already given up so much of ourselves to digital data, what’s one more thing? Others may see it as another way for companies to use and sell our data. So where exactly is the limit? Just like many other questions, there’s no right answer just yet. We’ll find out in the future. In the meantime, hopefully give your long lost cousin a good Airbnb review cause you know, ‘family’.