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10 Biggest Travel Stories of the Past 10 Years

By Katherine LaGrave

12.16.19

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According to estimates, the Amazon is disappearing at a rate of 20,000 square miles a year.

Photo by Gustavo Frazao/Shutterstock

According to estimates, the Amazon is disappearing at a rate of 20,000 square miles a year.

Ahead of 2020, we look back at what has shaped travel in the past 10 years.

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In 2009, the iPhone was two years old; AFAR had just published its first issue. Continental Airlines, US Airways, and Northwest Airlines were all still flying. It may be obvious, but we’ll say it anyway: A lot has changed in the past decade.

Some of these changes, of course, are distinct moments in time, either tied directly to the spark of something (the birth of Uber) or a decision around another (the grounding of the Boeing Max). But most are growing movements emerging from the travel industry’s response to a more conscientious traveling public: What can we do about plastic? How can we visit a place without contributing to its ruin?

With this in mind, we looked back at the past 10 years and considered narratives that altered the arc of travel: how we do it, and the ways we move through—and think about—the world. These are those stories.

The Amazon effect

In August 2019, the plight of the world’s largest rain forest was put in sharp perspective when Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research reported that it had detected nearly 40,000 fires in the Amazon region this year, an 80 percent increase compared to the same period in 2018. There was even more outrage when it was discovered that most of these fires were not started naturally but intentionally set by farmers and loggers clearing the way for grazing beef cattle, of which Brazil is the largest exporter in the world. But the Amazon rain forest is not only home to precious flora and fauna: It also stores massive amounts of carbon, which helps to slow global warming, reports the BBC. The Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies put it more simply: If the Amazon forest is lost, and its stored carbon was emitted into the atmosphere, it would be the “equivalent of up to 140 years of all human-induced carbon emissions.”

With growing accountability, airlines have begun taking steps to reduce their carbon footprint: Air France announced that it will offset 100 percent of the carbon emissions on all of its domestic flights by January 1, 2020; Delta has vowed to cap carbon emissions at 2012 levels through the ongoing purchase of carbon offsets; and United Airlines will reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent by 2050, compared to its 2005 emissions levels. These promises alone can’t stem the crisis, but they represent a start.

Read more: Everything You Need to Know About Carbon Offsets

Getting an Uber

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Uber was founded in 2009 as UberCab, a Bay Area–based service that allowed users to hail a black luxury car at 1.5x the price of a taxi. Since then, Uber has dropped the “Cab,” expanded around the world, and moved beyond those black cars not only to sedans and vans and SUVs, but boats, helicopters, scooters, submarines, and even food delivery, too. (It’s also inspired competitors like Lyft, Careem, and Didi Chuxing.) But it hasn’t been all good: With its rapid growth, Uber has faced scrutiny over driver screening, safety, and how it affects cities—namely, by pushing out taxis

Read more: Do You Tip Your Uber Driver?

The grounding of the Boeing Max

When two Boeing 737 Max planes crashed within five months, killing a total of 346 people between them, the United States and more than 40 other countries banned the planes—Boeing’s best-selling aircraft—from their airspace in May 2019. The plane and its variants are currently out of service and will only return after the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has reviewed Boeing’s proposed changes and cleared it to fly. U.S. aviation regulators have hinted that they won’t clear the planes for recertification until sometime in 2020. The microscope has also been turned on the FAA, too: Some critics say the agency’s closeness with Boeing officials led to a lack of accountability that contributed to grave oversights. 

Read more: Another Boeing 737 Max Hitch Could Further Delay Groundings

Venice has sunk by about nine inches in the past century.

Venice, even more underwater

In May of 2016, after the news that Venice would sink another six feet by 2100, we suggested travelers see the city before it disappears. It may happen sooner than we thought: In November 2019, the city was hit by its third high tide in one week, and water flooded historic sites and damaged boats throughout the city. All told, the floodwaters reached their highest point since 2008, according to the the Guardian. “Venice is on its knees,’’ tweeted the city’s mayor, Luigi Brugnaro, who blamed climate change and rising sea levels for the worsening situation. (Cruise ships and mismanaged waterways have also contributed damaging swells.) A project to erect barriers in the lagoon—dubbed “Project Moses”—would have helped prevent the flooding, but it has been plagued by high costs and corruption. 

Read more: Venice Hit by Third High Tide in 1 Week. Can the City Be Saved?

The rise of Iceland

Ten years ago, Iceland was recovering from a one-two punch: an economic crash that saw all three of its main privately owned commercial banks default, and the volcanic eruption of Eyjafjallajökull, which coughed up ash all over Europe and threw flights into disarray. The country needed to offset the poor press, and fast. The result? A viral marketing campaign depicting Iceland’s natural beauty, replete with glimmering snow-capped glaciers and crashing waterfalls. The Icelandair stopover program—though offered since the late 1960s—gained traction in 2014 with the hashtag #MyStopover, and travelers got an even cheaper way to access the country thanks to the advent of WOW Air, which launched in 2014 with $99 direct fares. Travel to Iceland cooled with the short-lived collapse of WOW Air and cries of overtourism, but the country, inarguably, was the hottest ticket of the decade. 

Read more: Is Greenland the New Iceland?

A new set of world travelers

In 2018, Chinese travelers collectively dropped a cool $277.3 billion on outbound travel, one-fifth of international tourism spending, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization. Not only does this make U.S. traveler spending—at $144.2 billion—seem paltry by comparison, but the number becomes even more staggering when you consider that Chinese tourists spent just $10 billion in 2000. Consider that only around 10 percent of China’s 1.4 billion citizens have a passport, and how—and where—this group of travelers spend their money are suddenly very important: By 2027, the number of Chinese passport holders is expected to double and reach 300 million people.

Read more: How 54Traveler Is Changing How Chinese Travelers See the World

Travel to Cuba under the guise of “people-to-people” connections has changed in the past decade.

To Cuba! (sort of)

On March 16, 2016, days before he was due to touch down in Havana for the first trip of an American president to Cuba since Calvin Coolidge in 1928, Barack Obama took another historic step: He eased travel restrictions to the country. Suddenly, leisure travelers were no longer required to join educational group tours but could travel solo for “individual people-to-people educational travel.” Up popped flights, cruises, and, well, the number of travelers: Cuba’s tourism ministry reported 4 million visitors in 2016, a 13 percent increase from 2015. 

In June 2019, however, the Trump administration essentially reversed the decision, announcing sanctions eliminating “people-to-people” travel. That wave of restrictions also denied licenses for cruise lines, private yachts, and private jets to visit the island nation—basically banning U.S.-Cuba cruises. Trump later followed up with sanctions banning flights from the United States to cities in Cuba except for Havana.

Read more: Everything Americans Need to Know Before Traveling to Cuba

Plastic, plastic everywhere

What do the European Union, American Airlines, and InterContinental Hotels Group have in common? In the past decade, they’ve committed to reducing plastic consumption, eliminating everything from plastic straws and water bottles to those mini shampoo bottles. (Other destinations, airlines, hotels, cruise lines, bars, and entire cities around the world have joined the movement, too.) It’s no wonder: According to the Plastic Pollution Coalition, we discard more than 30 million tons of plastic a year in the United States alone, and only 8 percent of it is recycled. The rest? It winds up in landfills and oceans. Change is needed, and fast. 

Read more: How the Travel Industry Is Phasing Out Plastic

Wildfires in the USA

In the past decade, the wildfires blazing across the United States have burned hotter, longer, and wider, raging through forests and communities in California, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, Colorado, Montana, and more. National parks have been closed, and lives have been lost. And as these fires get worse, their creeping effect—on homes, the environment, resources, families, and yes, how we travel—will get harder and harder to ignore. 

Read more: What It’s Like to Be a Wildland Firefighter

Overtourism becomes a buzzword

Although it’s difficult these days to imagine a world in which the word “overtourism” wasn’t ubiquitous, its genesis is largely attributed to 2016, when Skift CEO and founder Rafat Ali mentioned it in an email to colleagues. Since then, it’s spiraled and been slapped on when speaking about everywhere from Barcelona (suffering from) to the Azores (at risk of). It’s a handy portmanteau, sure, but what’s most worth noting is not what travel destinations are dealing with overtourism, but how we travelers are complicit—and how we can help. That conversation will shape the next decade and hopefully beyond. 

Read more: Are We Loving Venice to Death?

>> Next: Where to Go in 2020

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