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See Change

American culture is changing, and travel is changing with it.

Both culture and travel have been disrupted during this current decade, and the disruption has been traumatic at times, causing pain that was especially acute for those of us working in tourism. As we move forward, it’s worth asking: Which of the phenomena that we see in travel right now are aftershocks of the trauma we’ve been through recently and which indicate a deeper cultural change?

I have spent a lot of time this year thinking about those questions. I took a deep dive into the data, read the research and interviewed experts inside and outside of tourism.

I found there are indeed cultural movements afoot that are bigger than the pandemic. Some of them, I believe, will affect our industry in profound ways.

I call it a “travolution.” Here’s what it looks like.

A Growing Need for Affordability

If you have traveled anywhere in the past couple years, you already know that the cost of travel is higher than it has ever been. High prices may be good for travel vendors but as costs rise, they impact who can travel and where they’re able to go.

Several factors are behind the high price of travel. The inflation felt in nearly every area of life has certainly played a role. Economists tell me annual inflation has hovered around 9% since the pandemic recovery began in earnest, although there are signs it is starting to level off.

Another factor is chronic understaffing. Travel businesses, like many other companies, have struggled to find and retain good workers. An issue even before the pandemic, staffing became a full-blown crisis in 2021. When travel companies are short on employees, they have to raise wages to retain workers and attract new ones.

Record-high demand is also in the mix. After the vaccine rollout in 2021, Americans began traveling voraciously to make up for lost time. That return to travel picked up momentum in 2022 and has continued into 2023. The intensity of post-pandemic travel enthusiasm is helping drive costs higher.

Inflation, understaffing and high demand are a sure recipe for rising prices. But there’s more to this story because the cost of travel was outpacing inflation before the pandemic began.

Let’s look at hotel prices, which are a good proxy for the overall cost of travel. According to data from STR and Cushman Wakefield, the average daily rate at U.S. hotels rose from $106 in 2012 to $131 in 2019 — a 24% increase in seven years that went far beyond the rate of inflation over the same period. And that trend continues: The average daily rate hit $148 in 2022 and is projected to be around $152 this year.

Such a price increase affects people in real ways. A survey released in December 2022 by online travel trade publication Skift showed that 34% of Americans expected to spend less on travel in 2023 “because of the high price of travel products.”

Those high prices are even more dramatic in some of the country’s most popular destinations. TravelPulse found that the average daily rate in October 2022 for hotels in Nashville, Tennessee, was $225. New York was $255. Austin, Texas, was $255.

High prices and high demand are producing an unsustainable situation. People flock to high-profile destinations and pay top dollar to get there. But when they arrive, they find these places crowded, understaffed and expensive.

I discussed this issue with Bruce Poon Tip, the visionary founder of tour company G Adventures, on a recent episode of our podcast Gather and Go. He had a fascinating perspective.

“Famous destinations are no longer tourist destinations,” he said. “They’re run closer to theme parks. You line up in rows just like you would a ride at Disney. So, people want to go more and more remote.”

I think he’s right. In some places, it’s becoming difficult for tour groups — or even middle-class families — to visit during peak season. As major cities and high-profile destinations become increasingly crowded and more expensive, some travelers will look for less costly alternatives.

A Growing Need for Community

There’s a loneliness epidemic in America, and it has implications that are troubling for our society. For the group travel industry, at least one of them has a silver lining: as loneliness grows, so does the value of community in travel.

Americans have fewer friends and social connections than they ever have before. The pandemic forced people home for months and added rocket fuel to the work-from-home revolution. But our isolation predates the pandemic. Families have been scattering around the country for several generations. Participation in churches and other civic institutions is lower than it has been in decades. And technology dependence — especially among millennials and Generation Z — is making it harder to build and maintain real-life friendships.

Last year, insurance company Cigna released a study demonstrating the depths of this problem. It found that 58% of Americans meet the clinical definition of loneliness. That included 41% of people over the age of 65 — a demographic most often associated with loneliness — and a staggering 79% of those ages 18-24.

This is not just a problem, it’s a full-blown crisis. And although it’s certainly a larger issue than the travel industry can solve on its own, we do have a role to play. In an increasingly digital world, travel is an inherently analog experience and those shared travel experiences build incredible bonds between people and accelerate the natural pace of friendship.

Consider the results of a recent survey of 2,000 American travelers by Exodus Travel. It found that 77% of respondents have made lifelong friendships when traveling. Twenty-five percent reported making a best friend on the road. And 71% believe travel can deepen existing bonds.

As lonely as they are, Americans are starting to wake up to the power of travel — especially group travel — to create much-needed community. On a recent episode of our podcast, I spoke with Ian Kynor of Contiki, a tour company that serves the 18-35 age group, about this element of the travel experience.

“The group experience is significantly powerful for our travelers,” he told me. “A community is formed through travel. And especially coming out of the last few years of the pandemic, the opportunity to get out of the virtual space and forge new relationships face-to-face is immensely powerful.”

As Americans grapple with the loneliness epidemic, our industry can position itself to help them create and nurture meaningful relationships.

A Growing Need for Diversity

There’s a growing emphasis on diversity in American culture today, and it’s changing what travelers want from the places they visit and the people who take them there.

America has always been a diverse place, but people from minority backgrounds have often gotten less than their fair share of American culture and the American dream. Although that has been changing slowly for several generations, events over the last few years have accelerated the pace of change.

One result of this change is that many travelers — and especially millennial and Gen Z travelers — are bringing a diversity mindset to their travel buying habits. They want to dig beneath the surface of the places they visit and learn about the underappreciated people who make them special. They see culturally authentic experiences as essential elements of travel. And they want their travel dollars to support communities that have been traditionally marginalized.

An online minority travel community called Nomadness recently released a study of 5,000 American travel enthusiasts. They found that 93% of minority travelers prefer to use local vendors and entrepreneurs of color while traveling. The average age of respondents was 43.

This is good news. But the not-so-good news is that the travel industry has some work to do in delivering the kind of diversity consumers want. Most tour groups tend to patronize well-funded businesses instead of community-based startups. And there are tourism and hospitality entrepreneurs of various races all over the country who often struggle to get traction in a crowded marketplace.

Tourism diversity advocate Stephanie Jones told me on a recent episode of our podcast that much comes down to destination marketing organization not being aware of their cities’ own diversity.

“A lot of DMOs don’t even know who the Black stakeholders are within their destinations,” she said. “They’re leaving out marketing diverse tourism products and experiences that inbound travelers are often seeking to have. Those authentic experiences often exist in off-the-beaten-path communities.”

There’s a moral argument to be made for increasing the participation of diverse communities in the tourism industry. And there’s also a business argument.

Consulting firm Accenture surveyed 2,700 airline, cruise and hotel customers last year and found that 31% of respondents were “likely” or “extremely likely” to switch to a travel provider that emphasizes inclusion and diversity. For younger travelers, the rate rose to 49%.

Travelers will increasingly seek opportunities to explore and support minority communities in the places they visit. If your organization isn’t delivering the level of diversity they’re looking for, they will happily take their business to someone who can.

A Chance for Change

Affordability, community, diversity — the need for all three is a very real part of our culture right now. And culture is going to change travel. But I also believe that travel can help change the culture.

That’s good news, because modern culture is a mess. We’re surrounded by people struggling with financial instability. Depression, anxiety and loneliness are causing a significant mental-health crisis. And growing political polarization, racial tensions and mistrust in institutions is straining the fabric of our society to its breaking point.

But if I have learned anything during two decades in tourism, it’s this: Travel can be more powerful than we realize. Meaningful travel experiences can open people’s minds and change their hearts.

No matter what role you play in the travel industry, your work is much more than a way to visit cool places or pay the bills. Your position in tourism gives you the power to create travel opportunities that transcend financial constraints. You can help people find community and grow friendships. And you can build bridges between people of different backgrounds and political persuasions.

Can travel singlehandedly fix what’s broken in our culture? Probably not. But on our trips, in our businesses and in our communities, we can help nudge it back in the right direction.

That’s a travolution I can believe in.

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.