So what do you say – is the internet the future of travel?

As much as I believe in the net, I’m not convinced it is – and for a country as beset with problems as ours, it might even be a deterrent.

I was mulling on this today when one of the industry newsletters arrived and pointed me to three different articles that all backed up my developing train of thought – which finally gelled after a chance conversation with an inbound operator.

First – those articles.

In the Sydney Morning Herald, Mark Juddery asked “Booking a holiday: online or travel agent?” – and noted that, while a quarter of all travel bookings worldwide were made on the net, there was also a growing trend back to the travel agent.

For me, these were the pertinent paragraphs:

“A recent Jigsaw Research-Google Travel Study suggests that, however they are reserved, 77 per cent of all trips booked in Australia are at least researched online.

“But another study by the US-based Forrester Research sends another message: a small but growing number of travellers are losing interest in travel sites. The study surveyed 4,634 adults, all of whom use travel sites. Only 46 per cent of respondents say they enjoy booking travel online – down from 53 per cent in 2007.”

In the second article I came across Chris Brogan, who blogged about “The Audacity Of Free.” And here the pertinent paragraphs were:

“When you run conferences, everyone wants in for free. It’s understandable. Times are tough and people don’t have as much money. I’m running Inbound Marketing Summit in a few days, and it’s not free.

“Free can be a wonderful thing, and there are some really great things that are (and should be) free. But free is a choice, and it’s not your buyers who decide this, no matter what we like to think in social media kumbaya-ville. Free is beautiful, and costs are part of life.” (This goes to the question of travel agents’ fees. Stick with me, I have a point I’m making here).

Then in Travel Research Online, Chuck Flagg asked, “You want me to give away what?”

“We need to do a better job in communicating the value we offer our clients when we quote our fee. We all got into this business because we LOVE to travel and nearly all of us love to talk. We are story tellers, and in 2010, we should be weaving stories of our travels in as many avenues we can to our clients directly in person or through email; through group presentations; writing in our blogs, Facebook updates or tweets.”

And finally my inbound pal, Robin Mountain (no, really), who runs Ntaba Tours in the USA together with his wife, Stella, said that the biggest constraint they face is the fear that his clients have of Africa in general, and, in our case, of South Africa in particular.

It is, he said, the fact that he is a South African, and speaks with our flat South African accent, that makes the difference for his guests.

In short, they trust him.

“We don’t sell travel in general – we promote only Africa, because that’s where my speciality lies,” he said, quoting the oft-used marketing truism that “People buy from people.”

And that’s when I had my penny-dropping moment: what South African inbound tourism needs are champions and ambassadors – not marketing strategies and PowerPoint presentations. Because, let’s face it, this is Africa – a continent that certainly has a reputation for being, um, unpredictable? – and, as Rob said, “people in the USA want to know that we’ll take them there and, more importantly, that we’ll bring them home again.”

But Rob didn’t get his experience – snap! – just like that. It’s cost him years, dollars, and plenty of rands, and he needs to recoup that investment – which he does by selling his tours. It’s the same for travel agents, of course, and the trend towards paying for specialist time is a positive one, because the world tends to treat free stuff with a certain contempt – so if buyers are paying to be told to go on this safari or stay in that hotel, the chances seem greater that they’ll take the advice.

Rob brought me back to the fact that, in the end, tourism is all about personal networks – perhaps more so than in any other industry today.

“I’m sure there’s room for a lot more people like me when it comes to marketing South Africa,” he said. “Just look at the hunters, who make the effort to come to the shows here in the USA, and to interact with their clients and potential clients.

“It works for them.

“For us, it’s all about allaying people’s fears. I mean, I even had one guest who brought cans of Bully Beef on tour, because she didn’t know if she was going to be properly fed while she was in Africa.

“That’s why the Americans love their cruise liners: because they know what they’re going to get.”

Networking, he said, was his biggest information-gathering tool, but nothing was more important than site visits and the intimate knowledge of the products they impart.

“I’ve found that many South African product owners are greedy from the start, but there are others – particularly people like Bushmanskloof, the Twelve Apostles, and Buffelsdrift, near Oudtshoorn, who really know how to develop relationships with their suppliers, and those are the properties I’ll support every time.”

And so, to the question I posed at the start – is the internet the future of travel? – I’m beginning to believe that the answer is: “No.”

The future of travel is, as it always has been, a mix of professionalism (for which people are – surprise! surprise! – prepared to pay), and one-one-one human interaction.

And that can’t be a bad thing at all, can it?

Now – go away on holiday. It’s in the economy’s best interests.