Great E-scapes

Tech-free tourism is gaining popularity among travellers looking to detox from the digital world. Kylie Knott looks at places designed to recharge your mind and not your phone

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 23 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 April, 2013, 10:49am

Hunched over, a young Fruit Ninja fan squirms on his MTR seat, slicing bananas as if his life depends on it. Next to him two women share earphones, while a sharp-suited, but slouching businessman opposite frantically scrolls through his BlackBerry.

There's no doubt we are slaves to digital devices in a world where technology is an all-powerful and, at times, addictive tool. But in a city with a high penetration of mobile devices (16,385,012 public mobile customers as of November 2012 according to the Office of the Communications Authority) it also means the average Hong Kong executive is on call around the clock - even while on holiday. So it's refreshing to see one industry bucking the trend by offering "digital detox holidays" - getaways where guests can wean themselves off their smartphones, tablets and laptops.

The World Travel Market, one of the travel industry's largest events, predicts these holidays will be one of the biggest trends of the year as hotels and resorts look for ways to help guests go cold turkey from the internet. "It shows how hotels are bucking the gloomy trends in travel by tapping into the zeitgeist and providing an escape for busy travellers," says World Travel Market chairwoman Fiona Jeffery.

But it remains to be seen how quickly the industry will embrace a trend that goes against the grain of technological advancements like in-flight Wi-fi. Some hotels are taking baby steps by blocking Wi-fi at their bars and restaurants, while others - such as The Hotel Monaco Chicago - have adopted a more Betty Ford Center approach where guests surrender their gadgets. "Guests love that we are an escape from the hustle and bustle of the city," says Marco Scherer, the hotel's general manager. "We gave them the option to experience this seclusion by forfeiting all methods of e-communication at check-in."

At the Chiva-Som Wellness Retreat in Thailand, guests who break the no-mobile-phones-outside-of-guest-rooms rule are asked to leave, while at the Echo Valley Ranch in Canada, those who part with their devices are rewarded with free massages and horseback rides. The Four Seasons Costa Rica invites guests to take a holiday from technology with its Disconnect to Reconnect programme that includes a list of tech-free activities.

"Digital detox packages must be part of an overall experience, rather than just about keeping customers away from their devices," says Kristina Bush, director of sales and marketing at the Marriott Renaissance Pittsburgh Hotel, which offers weekend packages to help the "always-on" switch off. The hotel has also adopted a novel approach - literally - to help guests unplug by stocking the rooms of participating guests with literary classics. Goodbye tablet, hello Tolstoy.

In the US, Via Yoga caught wind of the tech-free travel phenomena early on and for the past couple of years has been offering digital detox retreats to Mexico and Costa Rica. It also offers discounts to those who leave their iPhones at home. "It takes a few days for most guests to stop feeling anxious," says Via Yoga owner Suzie Cavassa. Also ahead of the game is Digital Detox, a US-based organisation that lures stressed executives off the grid with body and mind balancing programmes of yoga, meditation and hiking. The BlackBerry, not the baby, is left at the "crèche" at the Lifehouse Spa Resort in Britain, while travellers to St Vincent and the Grenadines in the Caribbean are encouraged to leave gadgets behind as a part of a digital detox holiday package that comes complete with a guidebook - a sort of tech-free travel for dummies.

But while it's easy to mock tech addicts, a growing wave of research highlighting the negative impact of hyperconnectivity exposes a more serious underlying problem. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is considered the authority on mental illness in the US, plans this year to include a chapter on internet-use disorder.

In 2010, London's top independent mental health institution, the Capio Nightingale Hospital, became the country's first tech rehab clinic when it introduced the Young Person Technology Addiction programme amid fears children as young as 12 were becoming addicted to the web, computer games and mobile phones. "Mental health services need to adapt quickly to the changing worlds young people inhabit, and we need to understand just how seriously their lives can be impaired by unregulated time online, on-screen or in-game," says the hospital's consultant psychiatrist, Dr Richard Graham.

In South Korea, one of the world's most wired countries, the problem has been exasperated by the internet rooms that sit on practically every street corner. In 2007, to help combat the country's addiction to computers, the government established Jump Up Internet Rescue School - a boot camp for people addicted to the internet.

Then there are the horror stories that regularly pop up to hit home just how much of a problem this is. In South Korea in 2009, a three-month-old baby died from malnutrition after her parents spent hours each day in an internet room raising a "virtual child" on the online game Prius Online; in 2011 a couple in China sold their three children for money to feed their video-game obsession; and last year in Taiwan two men died of heart attacks linked to marathon gaming sessions.

At Baylor University in Texas, researchers found that mobile phone addiction was similar to compulsive buying. Throw in cases of phantom buzzing - phone addicts jumping to answer the phone only to realise it never went off - and we have a picture of a society that is anything but healthy.

But as society grows more dependent on technology, is it possible for tech addicts to pull the plug completely while on holiday? "I'm constantly checking my BlackBerry and iPhone," says Claire Blackshaw, director of public relations at the Four Seasons in Hong Kong. "I was having a massage and manicure and I couldn't hold a phone - it sent me into a panic … I'm not a control freak, but I'll be more able to return from a break relaxed knowing my inbox has been filtered quietly by me from afar, sending e-mails to colleagues to deal with anything urgent. I can still relax poolside - phone palmside, book lapside…"

And, as if to stress her point, she e-mails these comments via her BlackBerry while on holiday in the Philippines.