Jennifer HawkinsJennifer Hawkins

At last, Silicon Valley has fashioned a technology that can pump out press releases at lightning-fast speed, and now we learn it has the potential to one day wipe us all out. I’m referring to artificial intelligence, of course, which, with a recent flurry of attention in the likes of the New York Times, Washington Post and other outlets, has many who make their living in public relations and the media world wondering what the future holds for our industry. While AI has undoubtedly revolutionized various aspects of our lives, however, it can never truly replace the rich and transformative experiences of real life including what we all are vested in: travel.

As a PR executive and leader for more than two decades, I’ve always been quick to encourage our clients and agency to bob and weave and embrace modern communications channels. There’s no apology necessary when implementing efficiency to get things done. But with AI now nipping at our heels—and yours—I believe it’s time for travel publicists to double down on incentivizing journalists and editors, and hence their readers, to think beyond efficiencies and responsibly encourage authenticity in travel to ensure that the richness and rewards of what we promote aren’t lost to the conveniences of AI.

This article is featured in O'Dwyer's July '23 Travel & Tourism PR Magazine
(view PDF version)

How rich and rewarding? AI may provide us with pre-planning inspiration or virtual glimpses of far-off destinations, tempting us with tantalizing images and information, but it remains nothing more than a teaser made up of videos and pretty pictures. It can’t replicate the feeling of stepping foot in a foreign land, immersing oneself in its culture, connecting with locals and witnessing beauty and diversity firsthand. Real travel is about more than just sightseeing; it’s about being curious and exploring with all of our senses, embracing the unexpected and venturing into the unknown.

One of our more inspired and resolute clients, Nomadic Expeditions, launched its adventure and cultural tour company to Mongolia so that travelers could go beyond sightseeing to actually help to preserve the traditions of the country’s nomadic herding legacy. Founded in 1992, Nomadic played an important role in Mongolia’s early efforts to expand openness for Western travelers. Among its goals was to breathe new life into local traditions before they disappeared, including conceiving of and hosting the Golden Eagle Festival, a celebration of the centuries-old practice of the Kazakh people. Drawing thousands of spectators, the festival has helped revive a time-honored tradition for a new generation of Kazakhs and revealed the importance of preserving the nomadic culture.

I also think of our client Wilderness, widely acclaimed as Africa’s leading eco-tourism operator that is celebrating 40 years of protecting and restoring the world’s wildlife and remaining untamed places through its pioneering conservation-based tourism model, with an ambitious goal of doubling the amount of land under its protection by 2030. Every one of Wilderness’ 40-plus camps across nine countries—with the newest addition of Tanzania—is rooted in site-specific conservation initiatives, as well as community engagement and enrichment, such as protecting rare desert lions along the Skeleton Coast of Namibia and reforesting Rwanda’s Gishwati Forest for the preservation of its many indigenous wildlife species, including critically endangered mountain gorillas. Wilderness’ manifesto as a leading conservation and hospitality company is to focus on immersing guests in fascinating environments in which their camps operate and creating intimate encounters between them, nature and culture. And ultimately, increasing the world’s wilderness by involving more and more people in their purpose. It’s remarkable and inspiring.

Then there’s The Bushcamp Company, operating in Zambia, whose offerings protect the delicate ecosystem of South Luangwa National Park from poachers. The only travel operator in the southern region of the national park, The Bushcamp Company is actively involved in a range of conservation and community efforts including supporting anti-poaching and anti-snaring activities; aiding schools by sponsoring students, paying teachers’ salaries, building classrooms, and feeding 2,500 students every day; and drilling 200 boreholes to provide safe, clean drinking water to thousands of locals daily. With all of the above, guests can rest assured that the hospitality, wildlife encounters and cultural interactions they enjoy with the aid of locals who really know their way around the bush wouldn’t be possible without their support.

Admittedly, all of the experiences noted above aren’t for travelers on a tight budget. But with the travel industry now essentially a watchdog for the environment and culture, travel operations of all types and the PR pros that promote them can still make strides toward a better world. And experiencing these moments and these places first-hand is crucial to getting people— through travel—to understand more deeply what these places and peoples are about, and in many cases how fragile the places and cultures are.

It starts with bringing passion to what we do. As my colleague Amy Terpeluk, Corporate Social Responsibility and Social Impact Lead at Finn Partners, has observed, rallying companies to support things that make a difference really matters, particularly “at a time when companies are under increasing pressure to address social and environmental issues while keeping a keen eye on the bottom line.”

But in our politically charged age, might not such moves elicit prickly responses? “Time and time again,” Terpeluk continues, “research analytics show that companies with favorable reputations built on a foundation of societal good reap the benefits of customer connection, increased sales, and the ability to attract and retain top talent.” Rather than focus on “the issue of the day” then, she recommends embracing “long-term, purpose-driven commitments [that] benefit both business and society.”

Responsible PR pros recognize this and continue to encourage people to embark on real travel and real adventures, promoting the idea that there’s no substitute for the transformative power of physical exploration. In the same vein, they should also inspire journalists to encourage their readers to always embark on real-life journeys, enabling them to capture the essence of a place through authentic firsthand encounters.

Seeing the world up front and personal is the real deal, and the emotions we feel and memories we collect lie at the heart of travel. Being somewhere new with people makes for a rich life as a traveler. Ultimately, AI will never be able to replicate the profound impact and irreplaceable memories created when we step out into the world to explore for ourselves.


Jennifer Hawkins is Managing Partner and NY Travel Practice Leader at Finn Partners.