Q&A: Jeff Clarke on the Changing Face of Tourism

As president and CEO of Travelport, a conglomerate of more than 20 travel products and services that includes the online consumer site Orbitz, Jeff Clarke is on the road about 200 days a year—and always appreciates being able to check his e-mail via BlackBerry on the runway wherever he lands. He discussed the changing face of tourism markets, customers and technology with NEWSWEEK's Susan H. Greenberg. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Where is growth strongest?
CLARKE: In China, particularly, we're seeing new hotel properties popping up, and significant traffic intra-China. But Russia is by far one of the largest and fastest growing travel markets; over the past year, we've seen 19 percent growth, from about 7 and a half million plane trips to about 9 million. We're also seeing 11 percent in India and 8 percent in China. In the U.S., overseas traffic is the largest in the world but flat, at roughly 106 million outbound passengers a year.

How have the travel demographics changed?
In Asia, the generation born right after World War II was less comfortable with English. What you're seeing now is the proliferation of the English language around the world and that's helping people travel. Younger people in general feel more comfortable traveling as independents rather than in packs. Older generations typically would go and hit the museums and other traditional sites. Now the industry is more fragmented, creating opportunities where people will go not only to experience another culture but to actually participate in another culture.

Another interesting trend is verticalization: certain demographic segments are traveling together. In the U.S. it may be college kids going on spring break. But we're also seeing huge growth in gay travel, family travel, religious travel.

What do tourists want?
In the developing world, there's less ability for consumer travel. At a destination, you'll see more economy-based hotels. Particularly for Indian visitors, what we find is a very significant interest in being able to cook their own food. So Indians will typically try to find hotels that have kitchens available. Russians, like the Japanese, tend to be more brand-centric. Destinations historically have been areas of high-end shopping: London, Paris, New York, whereas Indians are more likely to take commercial and/or family vacations.

Is constant connectivity an asset or a detriment when traveling?
I'm a strong believer that ubiquitous mobile communication is facilitating productivity in business travelers and also, of course, allowing vacationers to keep in touch while they're away. I was in Cabo San Lucas last weekend and in one little dirt-road village I saw outside of town, they had a restaurant, a jewelry store for crafts and an Internet café.

What do you think will be the next big technological breakthrough for travelers?
The next trend is user-based content. Historically when people wanted to find out about a place they'd go to a travel guide or perhaps the Web site of a particular hotel or destination. Now people want to hear real experiences. They want reviews.

Is travel bad for the planet?
I think travel is extraordinarily good for the world. It leads to tolerance and understanding. But your question is about the implications of carbon, which is a byproduct of travel. I think you have to balance the two. I think [the travel industry] has a responsibility to talk about the aggregate amounts [of carbon] and to participate in the debate. And to facilitate for consumers the ability to offset this if they choose through organizations like carbontrust.org, a nonprofit associated with Orbitz. Many businesses are funding carbon offset when they travel; for example, Travelport is funding the carbon offset for the participants at the WTTC conference.

What's your dream trip?
Probably Bali. I was there last year and it hasn't left my mind.