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exAC

"Future Shock."

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Anyone who has been paying attention and toiling in the vineyards of travel has noticed the symptoms. Traditional travel agents certainly exhibit the symptoms. Airline execs have to deal with the symptoms every day.

Those who try to follow the distribution channel in our industry have found that instead of a flowing river, we now have myriad sales tributaries that seem to ebb and flow like the tides. They certainly feel the symptoms.

It has been 37 years since sociologist and futurologist Alvin Toffler wrote an article in Playboy that led to his book, "Future Shock." In that book, Toffler talked about the symptoms we would all feel as the rate of technological change in our society accelerated beyond our ability to keep up with it. He described an emotional malaise which he termed Future Shock.

How do we keep up with it all? How do we even imagine where we are headed in the future if the rate of change is so fantastic in relation to the past that we cannot even process it in our minds? More specifically, how can we predict how travel will be purchased in the future? Or to put it more simply, where will our children go?

Buddhists take the view that the present is more revealing about the future than about the past. In fact, the past may not even exist.

So what does the present tell us about the future? Will our kids be dealing with crowded airports, clogged security and a ramped up feeling of being hassled from the moment a trip begins?

The surprising answer is "probably not."

Right now -- I mean at this moment -- there are an estimated 5 million people taking perfect vacations at perfect resorts populated by bikini-draped and hard-bronzed body avatars, animated creations that take on virtually all aspects of human behavior and appearance. These avatars have distinctive personalities, they are well educated, they are intuitive.

Right now, hundreds of thousands of users of the online simulation game Second Life feel they are on a real vacation.

Why? Because they are visiting a new place that is exotic, offering a totally new perspective. Because they are meeting new people, forming relationships, falling in love. Because they are enjoying stunning scenery. Because, at any hour of the day at night, they can enjoy a thin-crust pepperoni pizza and a diet peach Snapple while vacationing on Fiji, the Silk Road or the streets of Paris' Ninth Arrondissement.

They can vacation in these places during one evening. Or they can linger and return, again and again, to meet up with friends, staff, etc. They can create new destination resorts and invite others to join them. There is social structure. All of the human frailties are there to be explored.

Before you scoff at all this, think about it. No airport hassles because there are no flights. No bad meals, no crime and no $40 breakfasts. No hassle at all. You can travel with your friends, and it really doesn't matter what your budget is because your vacations are virtually free. And you can design yourself to be anything you choose prior to departure. Does that beat a week in Cancun or what?

But it goes further than that. The cyberworld is starting to realize the true potential of virtual capitalism. Newsweek recently reported on the launch of Synth-ravels, launched by a travel writer from Italy, Mario Geroso. This is the world's first virtual online travel agency.

This travel agency does something you are probably not doing. It provides a staff of professional virtual tour guides who lead tours of more than 30 online worlds. They will accompany you to the World of Warcraft.

Haven't heard of Warcraft yet? With its recently successful launch in China, there are now more than 3.5 million users of this single virtual world.

The online guides who are good are now getting $50 per hour. The best guides show off these new worlds as a new country, a new continent, where things are very different but also the same.

There are already several successful spin-offs. One of the most interesting takes you through the virtual headquarters of real businesses that have set up shop in the virtual world.

There is a conference center at sltourguides.com where cyberspace meetings take place. IBM was one of the first to sign up.

The sights and sounds of personally designed simulated travel are already in place. Worlds are being altered and designed as we speak. On the horizon is smell technology. You will be able to prepare a virtual green curry in the kitchen of Mumbai's Oberoi Hotel. Soon you will also be able to smell the curry as it cooks, all from the comfort of your living, uh, I mean media room.

Future Shock doesn't even scratch the surface. I have a headache just writing this.

Contributing editor Richard Turen owns Churchill and Turen, a vacation-planning company, and has been named to Conde Nast's list of the World's Top Travel Specialists since the list began.

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