The modern travel industry is a product of the Baby Boomer generation. Like crop-topped pioneers or "Love Story"-toting conquistadors, boomers blazed trails out of Paris and Rome towards the rest of Europe, hiked the Hippie Trail and held the outstretched hands of Maharishis. That they opened the door for future travelers is not up for debate, but the effects of them jamming that door open with a wad of cash are both deleterious and increasingly dire.
A long article published by The New York Times over the weekend detailed all the ways -- big font, family focus, kitted out tents -- that hotels and tour operators are now catering to aging boomers. The long and the short of it: Boomers want to leave behind the madding crowd, but they don't want to rough it.
This conclusion is hardly surprising to anyone with stamps in their passport. Luxury accommodations with copies of AFAR stacked neatly in their lobbies have been cropping up in the obscurest corners of Asia, South America and Africa for a decade. These lodges, like the St. Regis in Lhasa, give travelers the chance to visit stunning places without having to forego a warm shower or a slow internet connection.
The question of how much development is a good thing is nothing new, but the boomers new willingness to err on the side of room service will likely change the answer -- at least for those looking to cash in on wonder. The fact is that the Hippy generation's extra-human ability to take umbrage and fixation on the idea of authenticity has saved innumerable endangered pieces of art, political ideas and places. If the shrill think of protest is supplanted by the calm acknowledgment that paradise really could use more parking, the entire world is going to end up looking like Aguas Calientes.
Aguas Calientes, the gateway to Machu Picchu, is a perfectly lovely town in the way that JFK's Terminal 4 is a perfectly lovely international terminal. Thanks to the hotels that have popped up to serve an aging clientele, cappuccinos are as numerous as pisco sours and foot traffic moves at a mildly infuriating pace. The problem, it is worth noting, is not the boomers themselves, who tend to be deeply sensitive to local culture and eager to "have fun" an activity that shall remain in square quotes, but represents the right impulse regardless.
The problem is that the infrastructure set up to make the boomers comfortable facilitates the arrival of checklist travelers. Though the classic image of the checklist travelers is a slightly racist caricature of Asian tour groups, they come in all forms. They have digital cameras, a limited desire to understand marvels in context and places to go. They tend to move in herds and spend money without doing research, driving prices up and expectations down.
There is a definite "Upstairs Downstairs" vibe in Aguas Calientes that is likely off-putting to many boomers even if it is their (generationally speaking) fault.
The quandary that emerges is how to keep boomers traveling without facilitating the destruction of delicate places. The answer is likely enormously complicated and formula-intensive, so instead of chasing it around a la Tom and Jerry, let's focus on a simple strategy that could certainly help.
Stop equating travel and vacation.
Traveling is moving through the world with purpose and awareness. Vacationing involves massages, cappuccinos and spas. They both have their place, but there is absolutely no need to do both at the same time. Smart tourists, especially older ones, know what adventures they're up for and can predict when a bit of tough fun is likely to turn into an ordeal. By making a decision to seek out either adventure or ease, boomer travelers can help protect the places they want to be from the people that tend to follow them.
Boomers should, after all, be trail-blazers not trail-pavers.