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Update in July 2022 on this April 2021 travel industry forecast.  Paris is heaving with tourists, Barcelona the same, while many flights between Europe and the US are packed to bursting. As I predicted would happen, a rapid bounce-back has taken place.

Along with manufacturing, retail and banking, the travel industry will be a fundamental engine of future globalisation, despite the huge impact of the COVID pandemic in 2020 and 2021. The reason is that human beings are genetically programmed to travel as hunter-gatherers, and have an irresistible urge to explore. (Written April 2021)

And as experience showed in 2020, whenever local, national or regional restrictions ease a little, huge numbers started booking trips almost immediately.  This was all helped by global COVID passports - showing evidence of COVID infection in the past, or vaccination or very recent negative tests. 

* "Life with AI - How to survive and succeed in a super-smart world" - Patrick Dixon's latest book on AI is published in September 2024 by Profile Books.  It contains 38 chapters on the impact of AI across different industries, government and our wider world, including chapters on the future impact of AI on the travel industry including tourism.

Just as I predicted in April 2021, we are now seeing pent-up demand, as people look to spend more than usual on holidays using saved up budgets during lockdown.

Therefore, whatever happens in the current pandemic, to the global economy, or in other world events, in general terms over the next 30 years we can expect the number of people travelling each day to grow dramatically as wealth increases, and as real costs of transport continue to fall.

Consider this: 85% of humanity lives in emerging markets, and most people in the world are still dreaming of taking their first flight one day.The greatest growth in travel will be within Asia, and in people from Asia visiting outside their own region. We will see a rapid increase in the number and size of regional airports, high-speed rail networks, and new roads.

I said back in 2020 that whatever happens re COVID, to the global economy, or in other world events, in general terms over the next 30 years we can expect the number of people travelling each day to grow dramatically as wealth increases, and as real costs of transport continue to fall.

85% of the world lives in emerging markets, most have never flown in a plane

Consider this: 85% of humanity lives in emerging markets, and most people in the world are still dreaming of taking their first flight one day.

The greatest growth in travel will be within Asia, and in people from Asia visiting outside their own region.

We will see a rapid increase in the number and size of regional airports, high-speed rail networks, and new roads.

Future of rail – faster speeds, long distance, hyperloop

The same applies to rail travel.

Twenty-four nations have already built high-speed rail links, and the length of high-speed track is doubling every decade.

At present 98% of all trains running faster than 195km/hour are found in Western Europe or East Asia (90% in China, France, Japan, Germany, Italy, UK and Spain combined), but high-speed rail will become more widespread.

In less than 15 years, China built over 25,000km of high-speed track to become the world leader, and is laying 7000kms a year of new rail, of which half will be high speed.

Much of this was imported technology, with trains from companies like Siemens. However, the next wave of expansion will be almost entirely Chinese, and Chinese rail expertise will be exported globally.

This is part of long term Chinese government strategy to dominate high tech industries globally.

Even COVID pandemic cannot resist power of this longer term trend

Future investment in high-speed rail will be held back in Africa by unrest, in Russia by economics, in the UK by planning restrictions, in China as the backbone of a national service is completed, in Latin America by economic uncertainty, and in the US by a culture that prefers planes and cars.

Expect a boom in low-tech, rapid transport in cities, with automated ‘light railways’, or trams, or buses on special concrete tracks.

These will be built rapidly, at relatively low cost, on pillars above streets, as tracks weave their way around cities.

Numbers of rail travellers will grow much faster in most countries than growth in capacity, so trains will become longer, double-decker, more crowded and more frequent.

Investment in hyperloop rail travel

Expect more experiments with hyperloop travel – carriages suspended by magnetic forces, travelling along tunnels or tubes from which air has bee extracted to reduce friction.  

However, most of these projects will fail to make money, and will only progress if backed by huge amounts of investment by ultra-wealthy people as vanity projects.  

The fact is that air travel is convenient, easy to organize, low cost. And high speed rail is also a mature technology.  

Hyperloop’s advantage is being able to deliver passengers right into the heart of a city at the speed of a plane, but tunneling is extremely costly, and placing airtight tubes above ground, so that they cannot be attacked or damaged, is also very costly.

And that’s before you levitate carriages, and so on.

Future of aviation and air travel

Expect boom-time for aviation over the next 30 years – with short-term blips caused by recessions, regional conflicts, threat of viruses, rise in fuel costs, and other adverse events.

Apart from the impact of the COVID pandemic, the number of journeys each year has grown more than 10 times over the last 40 years to over 4.6 billion.

Expect this to grow by average 5% per year for the decade beyond COVID, and to double to over 9bn by 2038, to exceed the entire global population.

Asia will drive global air travel growth

Chinese airlines alone carried 600 million passengers in 2018, up from 440 million in just five years.  

More Chinese people will take to the air than Americans by 2024, which is why the country will open 136 new airports by 2028.

Most growth of aviation will be in Asia, and least in Europe/North America. Europe will see huge growth in long-haul visitors arriving from Asia, particularly from China and India.

200 million Chinese tourists will fly to visit other nations in 2024, and their spending on vacation will triple, especially on luxury goods.

While virtual working, video calls and other technologies will continue to eat away at the pressure to travel, they will not be enough to prevent growth of business travel in the longer term, as I predicted a decade ago.

Business budgets will be capped, however, or cut, forcing business travellers to hunt for bargain flights, flying economy as a general rule unless long haul.

Cheaper flights in real terms 

Flying is 60% cheaper today in real terms than in 1995.

The aviation industry was changed profoundly by new budget carriers, who completely re-invented the process of selling tickets, filling and emptying planes.

Expect all major budget airlines to offer premium features copied from traditional airlines by 2025, such as allocated seats, a free drink in-flight, free luggage allowances. This will attract increasing numbers of business travellers.

European budget airlines will carry more than 50% of all air passengers by 2030. As a result, all traditional airlines will be forced to radically alter how they work. Expect mergers of national carriers, and new global mergers, which will reduce costs

Flying on less fuel – but planes will look the same and carbon will be taxed

New planes will become more efficient, and will fly with fewer empty seats.

Flights will use less fuel per passenger because of:

1. Smarter air traffic controls (including ‘free routing’ to allow pilots to fly directly from A to B, saving 10 minutes per flight on average, and continuous tracking of all planes anywhere in the world using satellites)

2. More direct flights using medium sized planes, rather than huge jets feeding people into big airport hubs; shorter circling times around busy airports

3. Better aerodynamics

4. Lower weight

5. More efficient jet engines

6. Flying at higher altitude where air is thinner. 

More carbon tax on aviation fuel - 2% of global emissions

Expect a growing number of nations to impose carbon tax on aviation fuel, which is now responsible for 2% of global emissions.

When road vehicle fuel is taxed at 70% or more, it makes flying far cheaper than it should be, in a world looking to encourage low carbon use.

The 2020 UN cap covering 75% of aviation emissions, signed by 72 nations, will simply result in more carbon trading, offsetting their growing emissions by cuts elsewhere in the world.  

Electric powered planes will be confined over the next 25 years almost entirely to vertical take-off, drone-like air taxis with limited range (see below).

Outward appearance of planes will hardly change in 35 years

Planes will outwardly look almost identical in 35 years’ time, limited by the laws of physics and efficient air flow, passenger comfort, and easy freight-handling.

Indeed, flying has gone backwards in some ways since the launch of Concorde in 1969, flying passengers between 1974 and 2003 at supersonic speeds of up to 1,334 miles per hour (2,140km/h), at a maximum height of 60,000 feet (18,300m). Most aircraft today are slightly slower than they were in the 1960s.  

But the pilot’s own experience will be very different, with most of their work fully automated including most take-offs and landings.

The result overall will be even greater air safety, but some of the worst crashes will be caused by major robot errors, machines fighting against desperate human crew for control of the plane.

Air passenger experience will change very slowly

Air passenger experience will hardly change at all over the next 30 years, apart from far better mobile messaging, ticketing and virtual passports, which will help streamline travel.

Most planes built in the last 40 years have a life expectancy of more than 30 years, or more than 30,000–40,000 flights.

So most passengers in 2030 will be flying on planes that were already in use in 2015, maybe designed decades earlier.

Jumbo jets were first built in 1969, for example, and some of the 1,435 that were built will still be flying in 2025. But seat width will increase because of growing numbers of overweight passengers.

Carbon fibre jets powered by green aviation fuel

Expect a new generation of carbon-fibre, supersonic passenger planes by 2028, with less nuisance from the usual sonic boom, but all will need to convince regulators that they can be permitted to fly above the speed of sound over populated areas.

In all developed nations, the average age of fliers will rise, together with the number of people with severely restricted mobility. This will provoke redesign of Duty Free areas, instead of forcing everyone to walk three times as far as necessary to board a flight. 

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