Q&A with Gary Bowerman

Here’s a short travel Q&A answering a few of the questions I often get asked.

First travel job?

Working (unpaid) after school at my mum’s travel agency near Oxford. I collated and stamped the travel and tour brochures and refilled the store shelves. This gave me the chance to listen to people talking about the trips they were planning or booking, and hear their experiences from previous travels. I was hooked.

Favourite countries visited?

An impossible question, but I have a passion for islands. So, Cuba, Sri Lanka and Japan. I also love complex, outsized countries that no-one could realistically expect to understand – therefore, India and China. Oh, and Colombia stimulates every single sense, and more.

And cities?

I’m drawn to urban environments with unpredictable energies that you can observe while feeling invisible. New York is the most audacious city on the planet, but I also love time-locked elements of Shanghai, Paris and Berlin. Flying into Stockholm is pure geographical drama. And Havana. Always Havana.

Best travel book?

I read Charles Nicholl’s The Fruit Palace while backpacking in Colombia, and it remains daring, terrifying and evocative. Simon Kuper’s Football Against the Enemy combines my two great passions, football and travel, and confirmed to me that I wanted to be a journalist. It’s not a travel book, but I’ve read Our Man in Havana by Graham Green several times. When I first visited the Cuban capital, I made straight for the Hotel Inglaterra. Similarly, my friend Paul French’s City of Devils is a rich and riveting historic novel that stirs so many passions about Shanghai – a city I will always treasure.

Strangest travel experience?

Slipping and fracturing my wrist while descending the Maderas volcano in Nicaragua. I was halfway through a one-month research assignment for Rough Guides. The volcano is on the island of Ometepe in the middle of Lake Nicaragua, and I had to stay overnight before catching a ferry back to a mainland hospital. The sunrise drive through banana plantations was lovely, but while waiting on the dock the island felt the aftershocks of a powerful volcano in neighbouring El Salvador. Boats, electricity pylons and buses were overturned. Locals ran out of their homes to prostrate themselves at the foot of the island’s two volcanoes, which they assumed were erupting.

Most poignant moment?

I refer to a passage below from my 2014 book, The New Chinese Traveler: Business Opportunities from the Chinese Travel Revolution. The inspiration for writing it was Mr Li.

In late 2006, I moved into the Blackstone Apartments, a Baroque 1920s gem on Fuxing Road in Shanghai’s former French Concession. A few days later, a knock on the door signalled my first visitor. Mr Li entered wearing a warm winter coat (the central heating systems of historic buildings in Shanghai were removed on Mao’s orders shortly after 1949 on account of southern China below the Yangtze River officially having a sub-tropical climate) and a polite smile. He clasped some ageing Polaroid photos and asked if he could show them to me.

Mr Li was among China’s first generation of independent travellers. In the 1980s, he obtained a visa to study in the UK, and set off on a journey of exploration. He flirted with education, but mostly worked in restaurants to scrape together money to travel. His photos – which would today be called “selfies” – bore witness to stops in London, Bath, Bournemouth and places in France and Belgium that he could not now name. He had visited my home city, Oxford, but didn’t have enough money to buy camera film while there. As he opened the door to leave, he thanked me for taking time to view his visual memories. “Those few months were the best of my life,” he smiled. 

What experience made you think travel was changed forever?

Easy. August 2015, in the Member’s Stand at the Galle Cricket Ground in Sri Lanka. I was there to watch Sri Lankan cricket legend Kumar Sangakkara’s final test match. The Member’s Stand is tiny, and usually occupied by cricket nerds. Halfway through the first morning, four young, smartly dressed Chinese female tourists arrived to take up the remaining seats. They stayed for about 45 minutes, took a few selfies and left. But it was clear that, although they knew nothing about cricket, they wanted to experience, even for a short time, a cherished local cultural activity – and snap and share the photos to prove it.

Career highlight?

The highlights of being involved in travel as a career are too numerous to remember. Being chosen as a regular columnist for CNN Traveller magazine alongside Richard Quest was pretty cool. Seeing the proof copy of The New Chinese Traveller was quite a thrill. Receiving such positive feedback for The South East Asia Travel Show continues to be rewarding.

Why did you co-launch The South East Asia Travel Show?

Hannah Pearson and I have lived in Malaysia for several years, and our work (ordinarily) takes us around the region. By 2019, we felt that South East Asia was emerging as the world’s most dynamic and complex travel region. The 10 countries span a vast area, are bounded by China and India, and have strong influences from the Middle East, Japan and South Korea. Given South East Asia’s growing importance to travel and tourism, we didn’t feel it was being discussed enough, or in sufficient depth and detail. 

How did the pandemic alter the focus of the podcast?

Well, 2020 was a year where nothing much happened in terms of travel, but everything changed in terms of the travel industry. Most governments in Asia Pacific took a stricter approach to suppressing COVID-19 than in Europe and North America. Prolonged border closures and recurrent lockdowns highlighted just how much many of the region’s economies rely on travel in all its forms. 

The aim of the podcast was always to combine real-time travel industry issues with the key factors influencing travel consumer. Plus a dash of politics and economics. Although most show topics in 2020 were driven by the pandemic, there were many transformational issues to discuss because it really felt as if the tourism industry was on the cusp of total disaster.

We there recurring themes during the first year?

Yeah, we discussed these in Episode 47 looking back on 2020. The most interesting thing was how the key issues evolved across the year. At first, the primary debate was ‘How long will this last, and which destinations will be hardest hit?’ As the outbreak started to spread around Chinese New Year, countries had to face up to losing their dominant inbound market: China. This meant the question ‘When will Chinese tourists return?’ became a leitmotif of 2020. Meanwhile, governments were forced to rethink their approach to domestic tourism, which was always ranked below inbound and outbound travel. 

Mid-year, we moved into the era of Travel Bubbles, which dominated the industry for months – in terms of ‘What are they?’ and ‘How do they work?’ Later, the debate moved onto ‘Why none had been implemented?’

In the third-quarter of 2020, issues around pre- and post-flight COVID-19 testing have intensified. By November, it became clear that it was now ‘Vaccine or Bust’ for international travel.

Why launch Asia Travel Re:Set now?

I’d actually been thinking about the concept of a reboot for travel before the pandemic. I’ve lived and worked in Asia since 2004, and the global dynamics of travel have shifted dramatically during that time.

Of course, the size of China’s outbound market was the major driver. I watched China’s entire infrastructure of travel transform while I lived there from 2004-2010, and by 2019 it was easily the most talked-about nation in travel. The scale and diversity of other markets in the region – such as India, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, Japan and South Korea – was also attracting global attention. Meanwhile, intra-regional travel was developing at an eye-watering pace. 

So, I felt that after the express growth of the 2010s, patterns of travel demand and supply were about to enter a period of even more dramatic change. A total reset.

COVID-19 has completely changed the landscape, but the global economy is looking to Asia Pacific to rejuvenate travel and the numerous other sectors closely aligned to it. This will be an entrenched geo-strategic issue through the next decade, at least.