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‘Imagination Travel’ Is Better Than It Sounds

With global travel down for years to come, using our imagination is going to be key to having new experiences

Early in quarantine, I thought the idea of a virtual tour of a museum or tourist attraction seemed completely uninteresting. Five months into the pandemic with another lockdown forthcoming here in L.A./California, I’ve exhausted my other activities to the point where I’m finally game for a video walkthrough of the Louvre. It’s gonna be a long time before you can comfortably travel anywhere beyond driving distance, and even longer before anyone does so for leisure. The future of travel for the foreseeable future, then, is something called “imagination travel.” 

A recent market insights report from trend-predictor The Future Lab asserts, “The virtual travel market of our post-pandemic future will swap clunky technology and headsets for the power of human imagination.” According to its authors, Holly Friend and Livvy Houghton, experts predict that international tourism will decline 80 percent for the remainder of 2020 compared to previous years, and that it may not be until 2023 that international air travel becomes normal again. 

As such, they reason that three types of “imagination travel” will become more popular: subscription tourism, where people purchase local goods to try or watch regional cinema from home; “static discovery,” which is basically just reading and browsing the web; and local staycations. Considering imagination travel through those three lenses, it sounds far less ridiculous — most of us are technically participating in imagination travel already.

While I hadn’t thought of it much as an act of imagination, I have indeed been reading more books. My subscription-box spending has gone up, with surprise-filled boxes of makeup and other beauty products replacing my compulsive trips to TJMaxx. And less traffic has allowed me to see parts of L.A. usually too cumbersome to get to. If it’s going to be another three goddamn years before I feel safe flying to new countries again, it seems perfectly reasonable to predict that these practices will increase. 

The idea here is that the future of travel isn’t actually very high-tech at all, despite the emergence of virtual reality equipment over the last few years. In a sense, the short-term future of travel is actually centered in our material reality. Still, that doesn’t mean it can’t have some technological component — as Friend and Houghton mention in the report, apps like Randonautica, which sends users to a random set of coordinates in their area, have seen dramatic growth over quarantine. People are even finding browsing Google Street view fulfilling, or staring through the view strangers have from their windows with sites like WindowSwap

But perhaps most significant to the concept of imagination travel is that it requires our own creativity, and that various apps and services will do their best to figure out how to help consumers cultivate that. Using our imagination to “travel” might seem more like a sad reminder of our current state of affairs than an enriching experience, but maybe it’s just because we’re looking at it wrong. It’s not about actually pretending, like we did as kids, but applying that same sense of curiosity and play to our day-to-day life. 

If we really are going to be stuck in place for the next few years, it’s at least worth a try.