The map is not the territory: is the web killing travel?

17th October 2013 | by Nick

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Guidebooks are changing their format from paper to app, and in some cases stepping aside altogether, bowing to an ever-updating internet as the superior travel research tool. It's clear that the 'art of travel' is changing, and some would say in the wrong direction.

Travel websites, image galleries, tour operator sites and living-the-dream backpacker blogs make a cake-walk of researching even the planet's most remote destinations, covering the logistics of reaching them - and what to seek & do on arrival - to a dizzying depth of detail.

My friends and I used to swap tales and timetables with travellers coming in the other direction; now the web communities link me to restaurant menus, advise me of the best bus company, and make certain I don't get stuck in Ninh Binh for a minute longer than I've carefully planned for.

If I let them, they'll even tell me which room number to request at the hotel I've selected from a certain unmoderated, unbalanced hotel review website - which shall remain nameless!

Travellers with high expectations and little time or energy may, understandably, see all this accessible info as a good thing, an enhancement. One traveller I spoke to last week was exasperated at her laissez-faire companions for 'zenning' a couple of weeks in notoriously complicated China, only to crab and complain once they'd rocked up at whatever tourist attraction they'd drifted to that day to find it - packed with tourists - and too expensive for their budget.

If you want to get the most from your travel, she told me, it's worth spending 30 minutes online just looking a few things up before you commit to that eight hour bus journey.

Others, however, might grieve that surfing serendipity on the road appears to be a dying art form. After all, why shouldn't a 19 year old backpacker from the suburbs head off around the world for a year, growing into an adult on a bizarrely upmarket version of the ancient aboriginal walkabout? Why shouldn't s/he check into the wrong 'Easy Guesthouse' in Varanassi (those who visited in the 90s will understand the awkward significance of that error), or lose two days in La Paz awaiting the, it turns out, not daily bus service to Cuzco... or run out of travellers' cheques on Thailand's Koh Pha Ngan and resort to selling off their favourite clothes to cover the hut tab?

Please note - none of these things happened to me! But isn't this what shapes us into who we are? Aren't these precisely the types of travel experience we remember the longest? We are often encouraged to turn our 'mistakes' into life lessons; surely this is exactly what travel is all about?

Now I look around bus stations, cafes, hostels, and am often greeted by the tops of heads, as groups of friends huddle over screens, tapping and swiping furiously as they tell of the adventure they're having, the experiences they've had, the places they're - well, not seeing, because they're looking at an iPad.

Surely that can wait? This could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Get back out onto the streets of Hanoi! Jump on the upriver ferry on the Chao Phraya, or go see some of Bagan's outlying temples. Facebook can wait! Your colleagues, friends and family will manage without that steady stream of envy-inducing Instagrams.

At the other end of the spectrum sit the short-on-time and often wealthier travellers who want to experience two weeks in Vietnam or Myanmar, rather than spend them drifting through a string of beach resorts in Thailand. Often such holidays come at a greater financial cost, and tend to inspire the urge to pack all you want to see into quite a brief timeframe. Now this does require research, and often the expertise of a specialist operator.

Even so, on a weekly basis I speak to people who've simply researched too much.

They plan their trip in such finite detail that I fear they'll only be disappointed on arrival. How can two days in any destination live up to the expectations set up by 100, maybe 1000, previous travellers, all with subjective experiences?

We all need time to unpack, settle in, and wander the streets, getting lost in the new sounds, smells and foreign phenomena. We need to lose our sense of direction in markets, people-watch, take coffee with a local.

Plans made to military detail rarely factor in time for spontaneous coffee.

These, I admit, may seem strange and potentially damaging musings for the owner of a travel business - one that relies to a great extent on the internet for potential clients - to indulge in. However, as travellers running a travel company, we feel an imperative to preserve as much as we can of the romance and 'unknown' in the holidays we create, which we do by building a well-informed framework which clients can follow, filling in the details themselves with real-life, on-the-ground experience - and by ensuring that expectations are managed correctly.

The map is not the territory, as Alfred Korzybski suggested, and do you honestly want to spend your journey battling self-imposed preconceptions for the freedom to experience any given moment for what it is?

The internet is a wonderful - some say miraculous - phenomenon which few would want to lose. Few would disagree that it can enable much that is positive and enriching. However, there are surely occasions when using the web a little less - perhaps even bravely putting it aside altogether - would be progressive; an act that in itself will enhance and improve our daily lives and, in this context, our experience of travel.