Future Trek

Travel in the 21st century

Cover Story

January 02, 2000|By Judi Dash | Judi Dash,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"Welcome aboard Flight 555. This is your captain speaking. We would especially like to welcome our frequent flier members, who will earn 34 million miles during our one-stop service to Mars, with lunar refueling and connecting flights to our orbiting hotel partners. Flying time should be about nine months if meteor showers don't interfere, and we anticipate an on-time arrival. So sit back and relax. In a few minutes we will begin meal service to our first-class passengers, wherever you've chosen to drift. Coach class will receive peanuts and tap water at your restraint stations."

Pleasure trips to Mars may be a long way off (and just guessing about the peanuts and tap water), but vacations on the moon, jaunts to hotels below the sea and visits to resorts orbiting the Earth are a real possibility in this lifetime -- for those willing and able to pay.

Devotees of "orbital tourism" foresee a day 20 to 30 years off when folks who are healthy enough for the ride may be able to step onto a shuttle plane, blast into orbit at Mach 25 (17,500 mph, nearly 30 times the speed of jet-liners), and spend a week or more at orbiting space hotels or lunar resorts already being designed -- including one being planned by the Hilton chain. They would have earthfront views and maximum comfort, at minimum gravity. After checkout, guests would zip back to Earth in reusable rockets.

"We're no longer in the laughing phase," says physicist Tom Rogers, a former Defense Department official and NASA adviser who is now president of the Space Transportation Association, a national organization of scientists, astronauts and builders that raises research money and has co-sponsored a space tourism study with NASA.

"The market could be huge," says Don George, travel trend watcher and travel editor of the online magazine Salon. "There's an unquenchable curiosity to go where people haven't gone and to see what hasn't been seen. The same kind of person who would have been pushing into deepest Africa 100 years ago now wants to go to outer space. Someday they'll be putting out a Lonely Planet Guide to the moon." (In fact, Frommer's detailed "The Moon: A Guide for First-Time Visitors" hit bookstores in July.)

Inner limits

For those with new horizons in mind, space is not the only vacation frontier ahead. Virgin inner limits -- the deep seas -- also beckon tourists, with plans already under way for underwater hotels that guests don't have to get wet to enter, and safaris to an astonishing 12,000 feet below the surface where marine scientists recently discovered alien creatures thriving well beyond the reach of light.

Meanwhile, cyber-safaris will answer the call of the wired, transporting mouse potatoes who long to journey but not to go. Just sit back, instruct your intuitive room sensors that you'd like a quick trip to the Himalayas, and brace yourself for all the sounds, smells and other sensual stimuli of an Everest expedition -- minus all that schlepping. Or, switch to jungle mode and put gorillas in your midst (honey, act docile, he's growling) after tucking in the kids for the night.

What about bonafide Earthbound travel? Optimists such as Richard Bangs, a founding partner of Mountain Travel/Sobek, the world's largest adventure outfitter, see a glorious future in a global tourism community, where a common world language (probably English), instant electronic voice translation of more obscure dialects, and the Internet foster worldwide intimacy and understanding.

But less positive prognosticators say future travelers looking for new experiences in places they haven't done to death are not likely to find them on this trampled planet. They fear that even today's most remote zones may be very much on the beaten track, the rarest animals extinct and the most isolated cultures largely assimilated.

"What pristine environments are left, likely will have tight, government-controlled, very expensive visitor limits," says Scott Fitzsimmons, of the Seattle-based adventure outfitter Zegrahm Expeditions.

He and other pragmatists envision "nostalgia" tours to world capitals and former wildlife zones to re-create the days of gondolas or Galapagos turtles, rain forests or reef life.

Cultural history buffs might time-travel through virtual trips or re-creations of California's Hippie '60s, Paris' Cafe Society of the '30s or Manhattan in the Roaring '20s, while those seeking insight into social consciousness might go to Selma and participate in a virtual march with civil rights activists.

Under the sea

The real excitement, though, revolves around expeditions far above and below the surface.

"Space and the deep seas are definitely the pioneer destinations of the future," says Robert Pearlman, of Space Adventures, an outfitter bent on commercializing both domains.

Below the seas, Space Adventures and Zegrahm are looking into submarine safaris to 12,000 feet, where previously unseen crustacean-like creatures have been found living on bacteria ejected from vents in the ocean floor.

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