New research reveals the emotional journey that tourists go on when they disconnect from technology and social media while travelling.
The study, by the University of East Anglia (UEA), University of Greenwich and Auckland University of Technology (AUT), investigated how engaging in digital-free tourism impacted travellers’ holiday experiences. It involved losing access to technologies such as mobile phones, laptops, tablets, the Internet, social media and navigation tools.
The researchers, who also took part in the study themselves, examined participants’ emotions before they disconnected, during their disconnection, and after they reconnected.
Published in the Journal of Travel Research, the findings show there were initial anxiety, frustration and withdrawal symptoms among many of the travellers, but later growing levels of acceptance, enjoyment, and even liberation.
The findings come as the demand for so-called ‘digital detox’ holidays is on the rise. Lead author Dr Wenjie Cai, from the University of Greenwich Business School, said: “In the current ever-connected world, people are used to constant information access and various services provided by different applications.
“However, many people are increasingly getting tired of constant connections through technologies and there is a growing trend for digital-free tourism, so it is helpful to see the emotional journey that these travellers are experiencing.
“Our participants reported that they not only engaged more with other travellers and locals during their disconnected travels, but that they also spent more time with their travel companions.”
As well as looking at emotions Dr Cai, working with Dr Brad McKenna of UEA’s Norwich Business School and Dr Lena Waizenegger from AUT, used the theory of affordance to understand the loss or gain of technological opportunities while travellers engage in digital-free tourism. For example, Google Maps affords navigation and when taken away, the participants lost the ability to navigate, which caused anxiety for some.
Dr McKenna said the findings have valuable implications for tour operators and destination management organisations to gain a better understanding of travellers’ emotions when developing ‘off-the-grid’ packages or tech-savvy tour products.
“Understanding what triggers consumers’ negative and positive emotions can help service providers to improve products and marketing strategies,” said Dr McKenna. “The trips our travellers took varied in terms of lengths and types of destinations, which provides useful insights into various influencing factors on emotions.
“We found that some participants embraced and enjoyed the disconnected experience straightaway or after struggling initially, while for others it took a little bit longer to accept the disconnected experience.
“Many also pointed out that they were much more attentive and focused on their surroundings while disconnected, rather than getting distracted by incoming messages, notifications or alerts from their mobile apps.”
In total 24 participants from seven countries travelled to 17 countries and regions during the study. Most disconnected for more than 24 hours and data was collected via diaries and interviews.
By talking to other travellers, especially locals, many reported that they were given excellent advice and learned more about sights, places and beaches that were not on any tourism websites or guidebooks, but were a highlight of their trips.
Once reconnected, many participants said they were upset and overwhelmed as soon as they saw all the incoming messages and notifications they received over the days they were disconnected. However, having enjoyed the engagement with locals and physical surroundings during disconnection, some decided to have another digital detox in the future.
Various factors affected how travellers perceived the digital-free tourism experience. Participants suffered anxieties and frustrations more in urban destinations due to the need for navigation, instant information access, and digital word-of-mouth recommendation seeking. Those in rural and natural destinations, on the other hand, tended to have withdrawal symptoms related to being unable to report safety or kill time.
Participants travelling as a couple, or in a group, tended to be more confident to disconnect than solo travelers. They reported suffering less or even had no negative withdrawal symptoms when travelling with companions who are connected; while solo travellers tended to feel vulnerable without technological assistance to buffer cultural differences, such as an unfamiliar language.
On a personal level, withdrawal symptoms tended to be stronger for travellers who participated in digital-free tourism with many social and professional commitments. They were also more likely to have negative disconnected experiences. Some participants tried, but could not disconnect during their travels either because they did not feel secure and thought they would get lost, or because they had private commitments that did not allow them to be unavailable.
‘Turning it off: Emotions in Digital-Free Travel’ Wenjie Cai, Brad McKenna and Lena Waizenegger, is published in the Journal of Travel Research on August 14, 2019.
- For further information and interviews Dr Brad McKenna can be contacted via [email protected] / +44 (0)1603 593537. Alternatively contact the UEA Communications Office via [email protected] / +44 (0)1603 593496.
- For interviews with Dr Wenjie Cai, contact [email protected] / +44 (0)2083 318044.
- For interviews with Dr Lena Waizenegger contact Amber Older via [email protected] / +64 (0)21 942 677.
- An embargoed copy of the paper ‘Turning it off: Emotions in Digital-Free Travel’ can be downloaded from the following Dropbox link: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/pwbhoymhwhjrzm6/AADWP3f3LOOTO0Qx2hgSzIz_a?dl=0
- The University of East Anglia (UEA) is a UK Top 15 university. Known for its world-leading research and outstanding student experience, it was awarded Gold in the Teaching Excellence Framework. UEA is a leading member of Norwich Research Park, one of Europe’s biggest concentrations of researchers in the fields of environment, health and plant science. It is ranked in the Top 200 of the world’s universities and is in the Top 50 for research citations. www.uea.ac.uk
- The University of Greenwich has been providing higher education for over 125 years. It has over 20,000 UK and international students studying at three campuses in the UK, and an additional 17,000 students studying overseas. Greenwich is a public, research university with four faculties: Liberal Arts and Sciences; Business School; Education & Health; and Engineering & Science. It’s part of the University Alliance group and is silver rated in the Teaching Excellence Framework. The university operates across three campuses: Greenwich and Avery Hill in London and Medway in Kent. Its renowned research has been globally received and endorsed by nine Times Higher Education Awards and four Queen’s Anniversary Prizes for Higher & Further Education. Notable alumni include the late Nobel Laureate Sir Charles Kao, Blur musician David Rowntree and campaigner Doreen Lawrence, Baroness Lawrence of Clarendon. www.gre.ac.uk
- Auckland University of Technology (AUT) is New Zealand’s second largest university and one of the best modern universities in the world. Home to more than 60 world-class research institutes and centres, AUT is ranked first in New Zealand for global research impact and 22nd in the world for its international outlook. AUT’s mission is to create great graduates, and it embraces new technologies to lead the learning of tomorrow and prepare students for the rapidly changing world of work and society. www.aut.ac.nz