Travel News

New frontiers

From hypersonic planes to SMS check-ins, Emily Ross reports on where the travel industry is heading.
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The future of travel is set to change as rising oil prices see airlines haemorrhaging billions, cutting routes and raising fares to protect their profit margins. After a cruisy few years of bargain airfares and cut-price hotel rooms, the writing’s on the wall: travellers will need to dig deeper to indulge their wanderlust.

In a bid to save on fuel costs, airlines such as Jetstar are offering reduced fares for passengers carrying hand luggage only (beware the newly emerging airline pest, who carries way above the normal carry-on allowance and attempts to wedge it into the overhead carriers, depriving others of storage space).

Others, including Europe’s biggest budget carrier, Ryanair, are charging $21 for the first piece of baggage checked in to the cargo hold and double that for the second and third pieces (but Ryanair offers a free 10kg hand-luggage allowance). There’s another $8 fee for customers checking in at the airport (online check-in is free and offers priority boarding).

With measures such as these becoming more common, The New York Times was prompted to ask recently: “What’s next, pay toilets?” Yet for all the doom and gloom on the airline front, it seems the cashed-up traveller is oblivious to the credit squeeze.

Our desire for bigger, better and more outrageous travel experiences gains momentum by the day, and the movers and shakers in the travel industry are only too happy to give us what we want – whether it be trips into space courtesy of Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic; flights from Sydney to London in just five hours; or spas offering everything from sensory showers (does Madam feel like a tropical rainfall this morning or the feeling of being in the chilly Scottish rain?) to facial treatments containing ingredients such as nightingale droppings.

Richard Branson, perhaps the master of pushing the travel barriers, is amazed that things have come this far. “It seems almost unbelievable, but it is the reality,” the entrepreneur says of the SpaceShipTwo mothership he has designed with spaceship innovator Burt Rutan.

SpaceShipTwo is expected to take its first supersonic commercial flight in November 2010 at a cool $208,400 a seat. The three-hour ride will include time to float around the cabin in zero gravity and take in earth through panoramic windows. Branson has already been inundated with queries from loved-up couples wanting to join the 100 Mile High Club in space.

English firm Reaction Engines, meanwhile, is working on the Lapcat A2 plane, which is expected to be able to travel 20,000km non-stop and make the journey from Europe to Sydney in less than five hours. Like Branson’s SpaceShipTwo, it will take off and land like a standard jet, but the hypersonic plane will be lighter and use less fuel than today’s jets. It will also be windowless. The A2 is anticipated to be operational by 2032.

In line with rapid developments on the air travel front, so too will things change at our airports. At the recent Airport Show in Dubai, Thomas Marten, vice-president of government and security solutions at Societe Internationale de Telecommunications Aeronautiques, a multinational IT company specialising in services to the aviation industry, predicted that within five years biometric passports will be standard. Biometrics recognise humans based on unique traits such as their iris or fingerprint, and some airports have already introduced fingerprint recognition in a new e-Gate smart card that allows holders to speed through the immigration process.

Swedish travellers are already able to check in on Scandinavian Airlines‘ flights with fingerprint ID – they simply scan their prints during check-in; that scan then becomes a barcode on the boarding pass. The system has been trialled by Lufthansa, while French and Japanese officials are looking into introducing iris-recognition technology. Paperless check-in for passengers with web-enabled mobile devices, such as that used by US airline Delta, is another growth area. An electronic boarding pass is sent to passengers, who go straight to security where it is scanned and ID checked. Air Canada has adopted its own paperless SMS check-in system, and Continental, Asiana, Northwest and BMI airlines are trialling the same.

In accommodation trends, our desire for designer-led boutique hotels knows no bounds, and the choice has never been more eclectic, with world-famous designers leading the charge. Missoni is set to put its first hotel in newly cool Edinburgh (expect bright multi-coloured modern interiors in keeping with the vibrant company aesthetic); while Giorgio Armani works on his own hotel in the $20 billion Downtown Burj Dubai – 175 rooms decked out in Armani Casa complete with zebrawood and Venetian plaster details. The designer is said to be still considering whether to include an airconditioned beach in the development.

And this is not just an international trend. As the likes of Missoni and Armani follow contemporaries such as Bvlgari, Versace, Christian Lacroix, Ralph Lauren, Byblos, Salvatore Ferragamo, Todd Oldham, Philip Treacy and Oscar de la Renta into the world of hotel design, local developers have cottoned onto a winning formula.

Melbourne-based A Hotels is responsible for the newly opened Storrier Hotel in Sydney, one of seven planned hotels named and themed after Australian artists. The company will take on Melbourne in late 2009 and early 2010, with the opening of four hotels, with the monikers of John Olsen, Brett Whiteley, Jeffrey Smart and David Larwill.

A Hotels will next put its efforts into creating a 20-storey Design Hotel in 2010, each floor conceived by a different architect and interior designer, similar to the popular Hotel Puerta America in Madrid. “We see [boutique, designer properties] as the way forward,” says Will Deague, A Hotels owner and developer. “Gone are the days when people just expected a pillow menu. This is the way the industry is moving.”

It would appear to be the right strategy. The Storrier, open for just a few months on the edge of Kings Cross, is already attracting an international arts and entertainment clientele.

It’s not just celebrity designers wanting to get into the hotel act. U2’s Bono and The Edge were early starters with The Clarence in Dublin in 1996, and since then Gloria Estefan has put her name to the Costa d’Este Beach Resort in Florida; Steffi Graf and Andre Agassi are linked to the Fairmont Tamarack in Idaho; fellow tennis player Juan Carlos Ferrero has Hotel Ferrero near Valencia in Spain, while Lenny Kravitz custom-designed a two-floor penthouse suite, complete with recording studio, at The Setai in Miami.

Chic restaurant chain Nobu is developing Nobu Hotel and Residences, a 62-storey tower, near the New York Stock Exchange, and plans a Nobu hotel on the Mediterranean in Israel. Investment partner Robert De Niro has already opened his new 88-room hotel The Greenwich near his Tribeca office in New York. Not to be outdone, director Francis Ford Coppola has three exclusive boutique hotels in Central America and is working on a new hotel in the groovy Palermo district of Buenos Aires. Daughter Sofia is involved too, so expect impeccable style.

Then there’s Brad Pitt’s gig as design consultant on an 800-room environmentally friendly hotel in Dubai. Many hotels, in turn, are encouraging their guests to live like celebrities. The Sydney Hilton aimed its sights at the bling market with its recently introduced Million Dollar Package – hand over a cool mill and get a two-night hotel stay, a 12.16-carat diamond, a new convertible Bentley Continental GTC, tailor service, a party for 100 friends, a private dinner cooked by Luke Mangan, Dom Perignon show bags and spa treatments for the whole entourage. “We’ve had loads of inquiries,” says Hilton spokesperson Carla Webb, who predicts the first taker will be a local who has enjoyed success in the recent resources boom.

But at the other end of the spectrum, it seems one of the things most desired by today’s stressed-out businessman and woman is a chance to get back to basics – no matter what the cost.

“The future of travel is luxury and true luxury is nature,” says New Zealand-based millionaire developer Nigel McKenna, founder of Melview Developments. McKenna plans to capitalise on this demand for pristine natural environments by building a resort set in 263 hectares of vineyards in Central Otago. He will also transform Queenstown with a no-expenses-spared development at Kawarau Falls that will include InterContinental and Westin hotels. He has already attracted investment from the likes of London’s BlueSky Capital, which is putting up $300 million for the Kawarau project.

The recently opened Six Senses Hideaway at Zighy Bay in Oman, meanwhile, has ensured that it retains its position in an area of unique, and isolated, natural beauty, built between mountains and the sea on the Musandam Peninsula. It is a retreat protected from busloads of tourists, and nobody else can develop in the area.

Australia’s newest luxury escape, Southern Ocean Lodge on Kangaroo Island, too, is an experience based entirely on its dramatic, remote surrounds. And guests are happy to fork out the $1800 per night, per person for its premier suite.

The Australian dollar, however, is creating serious problems for local tourism operators as our nation starts to look like an expensive destination against other currencies. Independent consulting firm Access Economics forecasts that the Australian dollar will remain buoyant until the 2009-10 financial year – great for those of us travelling offshore, but a nightmare for local operators who also have to contend with shrinking domestic air schedules.

The tourist sector can’t do anything about oil prices and it can’t control currency fluctuations but it’s a safe bet that operators, agents, airlines and hoteliers will find increasingly clever ways to boost business.

The Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group (MOHG) is channelling billions of dollars into new development, with another 18 hotels in the pipeline covering everywhere from Boston to Beijing, but it realises that new hotels alone won’t cut the mustard with an increasingly demanding customer.

“No luxury hotel can afford to rest on its laurels,” says MOHG’s chief marketing officer Michael Hobson, who reveals that new initiatives to be introduced include “guest-centric technology” and sleep therapy services aimed at exhausted guests wanting more than pillow menus and chamomile tea.

The Six Senses Spa at the MGM Grand in Macau, meanwhile, has introduced a sensory shower that lets people choose between a tropical rain and a chilly mist, and Shizuka spa in New York now offers clients the Geisha Facial, which, for a mere $100 extra, includes a mask made with nightingale excrement (which is first sanitised with a UV treatment, then mixed with rice bran).

It’s travel, Jim, but not as we know it.

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