SINGAPORE: A week after my 25th birthday, I received a mysterious package at my door. "Open only at the airport" was stamped on the envelope.
It contained the details of my holiday - a trip I was taking the following week and had no idea where and how. The night before, I packed as suggested by a "teaser email", which included hints of the weather, list of activities I can expect and the exact time I was supposed to arrive at the airport.
On Aug 4, 8.23am, I walked through the doors of Terminal 4, found a seat, sat down and then carefully opened the envelope. The destinations: Lembang and Sukabumi, two places I have not heard of. I later found out that they are two towns in Indonesia.
RISING DEMAND FOR CURATED AND UNIQUE TRAVEL EXPERIENCES
A few years back, the idea of not knowing where you are headed for a holiday might shock people. But the experience seems to be what the growing number of adventure travellers in Singapore are looking for.
Anywhr, the company which planned my trip, has seen the number of bookings grow from hundreds when they first started one and a half years ago, to “a couple of thousands” a year according to co-founder Zelia Leong.
READ: Singapore travel start-up Anywhr maps out surprise trips for vacationers
The 2018 Skyscanner APAC Travel Trends report published in January showed that nearly one in two Singaporeans are adventurous travellers.
While the top destinations for Singaporeans have remained constant for the last several years, they are eager to explore new destinations and try out new activities while travelling abroad, the report said.
When asked for their travel plans in 2019, 82 per cent said they were planning to visit a new destination for the first time this year, citing off-the-beaten-track destinations like Ethiopia, Guatemala, Iran and Yemen, to name a few.
Even the 18 per cent who planned to revisit a destination said they would experience it differently, including doing a road trip to explore parts of the country unknown to them.
They want a unique travel experience.
"It really sets the base of like wanting to venture out alone and also to less crowded places where you can really experience the local culture and be yourself," said Ting Xuan, a 25-year-old counsellor.
"Every time I travel, I will try to make it less touristy as possible. For me, I prefer to go to places where there are very little tourists and it is not very well-explored. When I travel, I always look out for hidden gems and my itinerary is very flexible so I don't have a fixed plan and itinerary of where I want to go and what I want to do."
She has now taken around 20 solo trips, as they made her feel "brave and strong" and counts a month-long trip to Indonesia as the most memorable.
"I went to climb Mount Bromo. It is very touristy and it is easy to take a tour but I want to do it myself," said Ting Xuan. "So I took a 17-hour bus ride there and along the way, a lot of people will try to scam you because obviously you're a tourist so I need to learn how not to get scammed."
NOT JUST THE YOUNG
Even her parents, who used to engage tour agencies, are changing their ways of travelling. Ting Xuan said that, to her surprise, her father has started planning and going on one-month backpacking trips on his own.
This is also reflected in Anywhr's changing demographic. While the company saw more young female solo travellers using their services at the beginning, their traveller base has increased to the likes of families with children as young as four months, and newly-weds going on their honeymoon.
Their oldest client was a man in his 60s, who engaged them to plan his solo trip, so he could tick off an item on his bucket list.
“He said that he wanted something that he didn’t get to do when he was young, so he used this trip as an opportunity to finish what he didn’t manage to do when he was young. He wanted somewhere more adventurous and rural to experience all of that,” said Anywhr trip curator Lian Hui Ee.
Dr Wong King Yin, digital and tourism marketing lecturer at Nanyang Business School, said the increased affordability and accessibility of travel was a factor.
“When you think about our grandparents’ generation, maybe they will only have their first overseas trip at 40 to 50 years old. For my generation, maybe 20 years old is the norm for people to go on their first overseas trip. Nowadays I heard that some kindergartens, they are going overseas for their graduation trips,” said Dr Wong
In the past, people have the mindset of, I have some checkpoints at a travel destination, and I just need to go through these places to make me feel satisfied during the trip. But now it has become something that people don’t feel satisfied with anymore because when they go to those places, a lot of people have been there.
She said when so many people are able to travel, popular tourist spots have become crowded, which ruin the experience for some travellers.
“So all these cause the preference of consumers to change and they will look for a more personalised experience, rather than just a checklist or a checkpoint kind of travel experience,” she added.
GOODBYE COOKIE-CUTTER TRAVEL PACKAGES
Tour agencies that offer a “checklist” travel experience are taking a hit.
Hundreds of thousands of holidaymakers were stranded on Sep 23 by the collapse of the world's oldest travel firm Thomas Cook, sparking the largest peacetime repatriation effort in British history.
The liquidation marks the end of a British company that started in 1841 running local rail excursions and grew to pioneer the family package holiday across Europe, America, Africa and the Middle East.
READ: Hundreds of thousands stranded after British travel firm Thomas Cook collapses
Here, the Singapore Tourism Board’s (STB) Travel Related Users' System (Trust) figures show that 103 agencies closed in 2013, 116 in 2014, and 119 in 2015. The number shot up to 149 closures in 2016.
"The rate of voluntary licence cessations has remained fairly consistent," said director of travel agents and tourist guides Kenneth Lim. "An average of 120 to 140 travel agents cease their travel agent licence voluntarily every year for various reasons such as change in business focus and retirement."
There were 267 more closures in the last two years, said STB.
READ: Brick-and-mortar travel agencies in Singapore working hard to remain relevant
Dr Wong said the closures are to be expected if tour agencies do not keep up with the times.
“In the past where you joined a tour with a travel agency, they will bring you to buy souvenirs and they would basically just waste a lot of your time. If they don't pay attention to the trend and what customers really want, then they will definitely close down,” she said.
Chan Brothers Travel, which has been in the market for 54 years, said that they are using technology to be “even more interactive, personable and relevant” in a time where consumers have more options in planning their holidays.
“Compared to other online booking platforms which may not have the advantage of having a face-to-face relationship with their customers, we thrive on said relationship and are deepening this further in all aspects of our business,” said the company’s marketing communications executive Victoria Chong.
For example, it launched an eTravel Advisor app in 2016, which offers prospective travellers tour information and other functions, including pre-departure briefings and post-tour feedback. In early 2017, they added a Webchat system and a WhatsApp hotline to answer prospective customers’ questions immediately.
Ms Chong added that they have modified their travel packages to meet Singaporeans’ growing appetites for new travel experiences. Offbeat destinations such as Africa, Central Asia, Latin America have been added and for classic choices like Europe, they are also exploring “unassuming gems” along the lines of the Caucasus and North Macedonia.
For Anywhr, a personality quiz was their answer to standing out. The quiz, which travellers complete before confirming their trip, was a new addition to the website.
"If you look at our website now, nowhere says 'surprise'. Now it's all about personalisation, like you take a quiz, you do your personality test, and then we have a trip curator planning a trip just for you," said Ms Leong.
"So the 'surprise' used to outshine all the other factors, and now we don't mention that at all because we realised that the travellers mainly use us for the planning and our expertise of less travelled destinations."
As the travel industry continues to evolve, this may mean that even innovative companies would have to constantly tweak their offerings to remain competitive.
“At least they can survive for a few years because of the novelty, which a lot of young people will definitely want to try at least once, but after that, I think they definitely need to evolve to provide even better services,” said Dr Wong.
“We can expect if people see that, okay, this is the type of travel agency can survive and can make some profit, a lot of new trends will come into place to compete with them. And that is the time when everyone wants to differentiate from each other.”