Three things have happened in the last few years, which are now converging with a fourth inexorable trend to make major changes in consumer behaviour, mostly for the better.
1) September 11, 2001 showed the world the destruction that a small number of terrorists could cause by hijacking unsuspecting passenger planes. The subsequent increase in security almost did not stop 10 other UK to US flights from being exploded above the Atlantic by British-born terrorists disguising liquid bomb ingredients in soft-drink containers. The terrorists will continue to get more and more creative, and will eventually destroy an airliner in an act of terror. This fear now hangs over all passengers. At the same time, security at airports is increasing pre-flight periods to up to 3 hours in duration. Multiply this by the millions of business passengers per year, and the loss of billions of dollars of productivity is apparent.
2) Oil at $70/barrel is making air travel more expensive for cost-conscious businesses. I happen to believe that $70/barrel is the optimal price for oil for the US, where the economic drag is not enough to cause a recession, but the price is high enough for innovation in alternative energy technologies to accelerate. Nonetheless, economic creative destruction always has casualties that have to make way for new businesses, and airlines might bear a large share of that burden.
3) At the same time, globalization has increased the volume and variety of business conducted between the US and Asia, as well as between other nations. More jobs involve international interaction, and frequent overseas travel. This demand directly clashes with the forced realities of items 1) and 2), creating a market demand for something to ease this conflicting pressure, which leads us to...
4) The Impact of Computing, which estimates that the increasing power and number of computing devices effectively leads to a combined gross impact that increases by approximately 78% a year. One manifestation of the Impact is the development of technologies like Webex, high-definition video conferencing over flat-panel displays, Skype, Google Earth, Wikimapia, etc. These are not only tools to empower individuals with capabilities that did not even exist a few years ago, but these capabilities are almost free. Furthermore, they exhibit noticeable improvements every year, rapidly increasing their popularity.
While the life blood of business is the firm handshake, face-to-face meeting, and slick presentation, the quadruple inflection point above might just permanently elevate the bar that determines which meetings warrant the risks, costs, and hassle of business travel when there are technologies that can enable many of the same interactions. While these technologies are only poor substitutes now, improved display quality, bandwidth, and software capabilities will greatly increase their utility.
The same can even apply to tourism. Google Earth and WikiMapia are very limited substitutes for traveling in person to a vacation locale. However, as these technologies continue to layer more detail onto the simulated Earth, combined with millions of attached photos, movies, and blogs inserted by readers into associated locations, a whole new dimension of tourism emerges.
Imagine if you have a desire to scale Mount Everest, or travel across the Sahara on a camel. You probably don't have the time, money, or risk tolerance to go and do something this exciting, but you can go to Google Earth or WikiMapia, and click on the numerous videos and blogs by people who actually have done these things. Choose whichever content suits you, from whichever blogger does the best job.
See through the eyes of someone kayaking along the coast of British Columbia, walking the length of the Great Wall of China, or spending a summer in Paris as an artist. The possibilities are endless once blogs, video, and Google Earth/WikiMapia merge. Will it be the same as being there yourself? No. Will it open up possibilities to people who could never manage to be there themselves, or behave in certain capacities if there? Absolutely.