13 Big Questions on the Future of Travel

Nowadays, there are more travelers on the road than ever before, visiting places that were once off-limits and sharing their experiences in ways the Baby Boomer generation could have never imagined.

In a world that’s constantly evolving, it’s important to ask big questions about the future of travel and how we’re changing our planet by exploring it en masse.

That’s why National Geographic Traveler asked 13 luminaries in their spheres–from Rock and Roll Hall of Famer David Byrne and intergalactic pioneer Richard Branson to legendary travel writer Pico Iyer and our very own Digital Nomad Andrew Evans–to tackle 13 subjects we think are worth talking about as we count down to 2014.

What’s the World’s Best Green Place?
“The largely Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan has banned plastic bags, pledged to go fully organic, and constitutionally protected more than half of its pristine forests,” says Traveler editor at large and sustainable tourism expert Costas Christ. “But keeping modernity at bay is a huge challenge. I was there last year and recommend travelers go now—not to see it before it is too late, but to witness a country in the midst of a transformation that could become a model for living on a more sustainable planet.”

How Do We Keep 
the Romance in Travel?
“There are high-rises in Lhasa now, brothels along the main roads, karaoke parlors. There are tourists from everywhere; from most parts of Tibet’s capital, you can no longer see the Potala Palace. But the spirit and intensity around, say, the central Jokhang Temple only grow more heart-shaking as modern buildings come up around it,” notes celebrated travel writer and novelist Pico Iyer. “Recalling the quiet town of two-story whitewashed houses I saw in 1985 sometimes makes me wistful, but what makes us travel—the confrontation with the foreign, the wondrous, and the elevating—never gets old.”

Will Tourism Sink Venice?
“The short answer is yes,” says Elizabeth Becker, author of Overbooked: The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism. “Today Venice has a population of 60,000 and is visited every year by up to 20 million people. Politicians have ignored locals’ pleas to bring some sanity to the tourism trade: Cruise ships are allowed to dock in car-free Venice, polluting the air. But citizen groups are challenging their political leaders to enforce laws against more tourist lodgings and to prohibit fraud and corruption—giving citizens breathing space to reclaim their way of life.”

Does a Gene Make Us Travel?
“Certainly no gene or even batch of genes can make you travel,” says David Dobbs, author of “Restless Genes” in National Geographic’s January 2013 issue. “However, there’s a growing view that human genes and culture, shaping one another across millennia, have been crucial in making us the passionate travelers we are, giving us the ability and drive to move out of Africa 60,000 years ago and then all over the planet and beyond.”

How Can I Go Beyond the Bucket List?
“The best travel surprises us, pushes and pulls us away from our expected reality,” at least according to National Geographic Traveler’s Digital Nomad Andrew Evans. “Bucket lists–and the marketing assault that accompanies them–substitute surprise with a purchased product. But you can never predict Paris or count on Kolkata to deliver what you ordered,” he says. “There is nothing wrong with making lists; just don’t make it a shopping list. The blank page leads to an open road.”

Is Biking the Answer?
“As more and more cities adopt bike-share programs, cycling will be seen as the cheapest, most convenient, pleasurable, and practical way to see a city,” says Talking Heads front man David Byrne, who also authored Bicycle Diaries. “There are places that are super bike-friendly—Berlin, Copenhagen—but where’s the thrill in that? What’s exciting is when you zig and zag past snarled traffic in Istanbul or Rome—cities that aren’t known for bikes but have bad traffic and small side streets perfect for shortcuts.”

Where is the Creative Class Heading?
Calgary and Houston are two cities to watch as emerging travel destinations, especially Houston because of its significant airport presence,” says Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class. “Cities with large, well-connected air hubs have a larger impact on economic development. Other emerging creative-class cities include Nashville, Vancouver, Denver, and Portland, Oregon. Each of these cities has the characteristics that are appealing to knowledge workers: walkable city centers, tolerant and open environments, and thick cultural and entertainment amenities.”

Which Emerging Places Are Keeping It Real?
Nicaragua [has] been getting increasing attention, with an apparent yen to become the new Costa Rica. Northern Mozambique has been trying to emerge for some years now. In Mexico, the state of Campeche is working hard to become more than a day-trip,” says National Geographic fellow Jonathan Tourtellot, director of the Center for Sustainable Destinations. “The destinations to watch are ones where there’s a group effort by the tourism industry, government, conservation groups, and locals to attract tourism that sustains the place’s geographical character.”

Is the Wild North the New Wild West?
“The Arctic is changing,” according to Andrew Zolli, National Geographic fellow, futures researcher, and curator of poptech.org. Climate change opens up more travel routes, brings more tourism, more commerce, more geopolitical competition—more everything. And it’s not just the Arctic,” he says–“changes coming to the ‘three poles’ [Arctic, Antarctic, and Himalaya], as the Chinese call them, have global significance for every aspect of human civilization.”

What Will the Airport of the Future Look Like?
“Once a place of departure, airports and their immediate environs are becoming destinations where travelers meet, work, shop, eat, sleep, and play without going more than 15 minutes from the passenger terminal,” explains John D. Kasarda, director of the Center for Air Commerce. “The ‘aerotropolis,’ a city built around an airport, will become a powerful magnet for business travel, medical tourism, and leisure pursuits,” he says. “Amsterdam Schiphol, Dallas–Fort Worth, Dubai, Hong Kong, and Incheon, in South Korea, are airports leading the way.”

When Will Interplanetary Travel Take Off?
“Private spaceflight is going to vastly increase our knowledge of how humans can safely go to space,” says Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic. “But our first voyages are just a beginning. The expertise and technologies we develop with frequent spaceflights will teach us how to go farther. Considering what’s happening now in low-cost satellite launching, I’m confident that interplanetary travel can and will happen in my lifetime.”

Can Scientists Create 
Real Jurassic Parks?
The Bad News: “Since the Jurassic period ended 145 million years ago, the DNA of the great reptiles of that age is long gone, along with any hope of resurrecting them,” says Stewart Brand, co-founder of Revive and Restore. The (depending on how you come down on the issue of cloning) good news? “The Pleistocene epoch ended just over 11,000 years ago, and DNA from animals of that period can still be recovered from some fossils. Creatures that went extinct then might be brought back to life using new genetic engineering. We may see woolly mammoths and saber-toothed cats in zoos in a couple of decades.”

How Do We Make the World a Friendlier Place?
“The world is a lot friendlier than we’re led to believe,” maintains Matthew Harding, founder of wherethehellismatt.com. In a country like Yemen or Afghanistan, where you don’t hear a lot of good news, I’ll meet people who work to put me at ease and show me they’re glad I’ve come. When you go as a traveler, pretty much anywhere on this planet, you’ll be welcomed. That doesn’t mean there isn’t danger. But you can choose not to be controlled by fear. Then you’re open to new experiences.”

George W. Stone is an editor at large at National Geographic Traveler magazine. 

What’s your “big question” about the future of travel? Tell us in the comments section below for a chance to have one of our experts here at National Geographic Travel respond: