Back in 1979, the process of researching and planning travel was, of course, entirely different. A call or visit to a travel agency was usually required to purchase an airline ticket. Researching a destination meant leafing through paper guidebooks. And to make hotel reservations, you needed to make a long-distance telephone call, or mail a physical letter. It seems hard to believe that in 1979 there were no personal computers, no cellphones and no internet.
In 1979, there was a lack reviews, but today, there are far too many.
Back then, reliable hotel reviews were hard to come by and in high demand, as the founder of the Hideaway Report discovered. The newsletter he typed, on a typewriter, became a success years before magazines like Condé Nast Traveler printed their first issues. Hideaway Report members came to trust his recommendations, because he visited all the properties he endorsed, paid all his own expenses, and he traveled anonymously, in order to ensure that he would receive the same treatment as any other guest.
Forty years later, the demand for reliable information about the world’s best hotels has not slackened. In 1979, there was a lack reviews, but today, there are far too many. Sifting through the vast amount of information on the internet can be bewildering, and most travel writers and reviewers are financially compromised in some way. But the Hideaway Report continues true to its original mission. The way we review hotels, restaurants and other service providers has not changed a whit.
On the occasion of our 40th anniversary, we took some time to consider how travel has altered since the start of the Hideaway Report. There have been depressing developments, to be sure, but in many ways, life for the luxury traveler has never been better. Some of the most important changes over the last 40 years include:
It wasn’t so difficult to find luxury hideaways in France and Italy in 1979, perhaps, but a plush spa resort on the Estonian island of Muhu? The very idea would have been absurd. Estonia was still part of the Soviet Union, and the rest of Eastern Europe offered mostly institutional state-run hotels. Thailand, now a staple of the travel circuit, sounded impossibly exotic, and visiting an island like Sumba in Indonesia, home to one of the very few properties we rate at 99 points, would have been appealing only to a National Geographic photographer. All-but-inaccessible destinations like Fogo Island, Chiloé or the Rwandan forest now boast some of the finest hideaway hotels in the world. The magnitude of this change can’t be overstated, and it’s one that’s been thrilling to experience.
In 1979, the United States was not a country of foodies. Seasonal and farm-to-table cuisine is old news now, but the movement’s founding restaurant, Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, was only 8 years old when the Hideaway Report first appeared. London’s restaurant scene — now one of the world’s best — had yet to blossom. In Paris, the food was French. Influences from Asian cuisines, now de rigueur, weren’t even on the horizon (it would be 28 years before Michelin first published a guide to the restaurants of Tokyo). Wines, too, were French: The American wine scene was still coming into its own. The famous “Judgment of Paris” blind tasting, which pitted American wines against top bottlings from France and which made Napa’s reputation, took place in 1976, only three years prior to the release of the first Hideaway Report.
In 1979, only Chinese politicians and diplomats were free to travel outside their country. Even as recently as 2002, less than 5 percent of the country’s population was considered middle class. Now China’s middle class numbers somewhere around 500 million people, far more than the entire population of the United States, and like middle-class people everywhere, they want to go on vacation. The additional half-billion potential travelers has affected the entire world, as anyone who has been to the Louvre in summertime will attest, but it’s especially noticeable in Asia. Crowd-avoidance in that part of the world now requires taking major Chinese holidays into account. Places like Bali, which were exotic in 1979, are now destinations for Chinese and South Korean mass tourism.
The Airline Deregulation Act was passed a year before the founding of the Hideaway Report, in 1978. This law resulted in several major changes, including the much-lamented decline in service standards on flights, but most of all, it reduced fares, putting air travel within the reach of more Americans than ever before. In the last 20 years, budget airlines have transformed the face of Europe. There’s been a lot of justifiable fuss about cruise ship hordes recently, but more significant contributors to overcrowding during the last two decades have been Ryanair, EasyJet and their ilk. Air tickets are so inexpensive that college students think nothing of going to Venice or Marrakech for the weekend with their friends.
TripAdvisor and Yelp were supposed to upend the entire system of travel writing and restaurant reviewing. But don’t play a requiem for hotel and food critics just yet. These websites offered a platform for sometimes-useful reviews from average travelers and restaurant patrons, it’s true, and some regular people still write reviews on these sites. The sites’ credibility took a major hit, however, when it was discovered that hotels and restaurants paid people to post positive reviews (and sometimes negative reviews of competitors). An Italian newspaper created a TripAdvisor listing for a fake restaurant and gave it fake reviews, and the restaurant shot to the top of the rankings. Yelp has been accused of manipulating reviews in order to coerce businesses to pay for advertising. These websites have their uses, but nowadays we take reviews posted on them with a grain of salt.