Hong Kong, 1994: the governor’s two Norfolk Terriers, Whisky and Soda , gambol about the verdant grounds of Government House while the Union flag flutters above. Across Victoria Harbour, a sprinkling of aviation geeks cluster in the top-floor bar of the Regal Hotel to watch aircraft swoop in on their final approaches to Kai Tak Airport . Twenty-five years later, gone are the days of strolling across the footbridge from Kai Tak into Kowloon City for a pre- or post-flight pint. Now we are booking our tickets online, using translation apps instead of dictionaries, and TripAdvising our stories about mildewed rooms, soiled sheets and cockroach counts . But with all this digital help – what any traveller a quarter of a century ago would have considered cheating – has travel actually become any better? Well, yeah, obviously, and here are 25 reasons that the past 25 years have proved it. You want to go back to wheelless luggage and travellers’ cheques? Go right ahead, sunshine. And then everyone did fly In the beginning was the word, or rather two words run together. AirAsia was formed in 1993 and took to the skies in November 1996, then puttered along for five years until Tony Fernandes bought it (one ringgit + US$11 million in debt) . Today the pathfinder for Asia’s low-cost carriers (LCC) flies to more than 150 destinations and is trailed by a host of whimsically named copycats – 9, Colourful, Lion, Lucky, Peach, Scoot, Spring, Vanilla. LCCs now account for almost a third of the region’s plane seats: a Hong Kong to Bangkok return works out at less than 50 HK cents per kilometre – more Star Ferry than Cathay Pacific. Airport upgrades Before Suvarnabhumi opened in 2006, passengers taking off or landing at Don Mueang, then Thailand’s main international hub, were usually greeted by the refreshing sight of a golfer or two playing on the course beside the runway. Suvarnabhumi may be bigger and tech-ier (and like so many other airports, encumbered with ever yet more security checks) but it has none of its predecessor’s endearing curiosities. It could be argued that Chek Lap Kok lacks the intimacy of Kai Tak and Kuala Lumpur’s sprawling, anonymous Sepang is duller than cosy, accessible Subang. However, Beijing’s brand-new Daxing “Starfish”, the world’s largest single-building airport terminal , can only be classed as a vast, Zaha Hadid-designed improvement. Class travel Premium economy – that is, nicer than economy but nowhere near business class – has been with us in varying degrees for all of the past 25 years (Taiwan’s EVA Air arguably got the ball rolling with its Evergreen Class) but the view from the very back of the airborne bus is narrower seats, less legroom and smaller portions at meal times. Set that against in-flight Wi-fi (Virgin Atlantic; 2008) and a raft of television and movies. Things are rather different right behind the cockpit. The higher classes have always been pampered, but these days they expect on-demand dining as well as name-brand amenities, bedding and pyjamas – showers on Emirates and Etihad – to complement the general bowing and scraping. Trains You could take the Shinkansen in 1994 – Japan’s first high-speed line had opened 30 years earlier – but anyone who rode a Chinese train in those days may be still having nightmares about monoglot officials, rock-hard seats and diabolical non-lavatories accompanied by a soundtrack of hearty expectoration. Contrast this with the current network, which includes some 30,000km of high-speed rail lines built since 2007, all e-ticketable, stretching the length and breadth of the Middle Kingdom. Hong Kong to Beijing clocks in at just under nine hours, and other countries in the region have followed suit, notably Malaysia, although train buffs will be heartened by the century-old North Borneo steam train, which still puffs between Kota Kinabalu and Papar, in Sabah, twice a week. Ride-hailing apps Flag down a regular taxi in Ipoh, Malaysia, and you’ll get a rusty boneshaker plus grizzled pilot whose heart may be in the right place but whose eyesight or some other physical attribute may be seriously deficient. In fairness, sometimes they actually know how to get to your destination without asking a passer-by. Ping a Grab (Malaysia’s Uber) and you’re greeted with an air-conditioned, four-wheeled magic carpet, sweet-smelling and well-sprung. No daft quibbling about the route or fare, either. Disruption has no more pleasant face than ride-hailing, surely one of the most pragmatic uses of new technology. Super-resorts By January 1994, the Datai Langkawi , one of the first Asian super-resorts, had been in operation for three months. The property heralded a minor revolution: sympathetic, Asian-influenced design triumphed over lumpish concrete and glass, a premise enthusiastically embraced by the likes of Bill Bensley, whose team of architects, interior designers and landscape artists are responsible for many of the continent’s Four Seasons resorts, Capella Ubud’s luxury tentscape and much else besides. In parallel, boutique hotels started popping up around the region, typically with just a handful of rooms – and a lot of cachet – packed into a historic or simply quirky building. A prime example, Singapore’s Hotel 1929, spread between five shophouses, just celebrated its 16th anniversary. Airbnb If boutiques caused mainstream chains to look askance at the new competition, nothing excited their emotions more sharply than the 2008 advent of Airbnb , which is eyeing an initial public offering next year. Why pay HK$1,400 for a night at the Hyatt Regency Kathmandu when Kopila and Robindra’s nearby balconied penthouse costs HK$98? Granted, there’s no pool, and you make your own breakfast. But you’re deliciously independent in your Airbnb, and there are no other guests nor their annoying habits. The staycation The portmanteau is by no means new but staycations have become “a thing” thanks to more, and more varied, accommodation. Hong Kong’s hotels push them when overseas guests are lacking plus there’s no airline check-in, no foreign language or currency to confront, and zero jet lag. Expect staycations to become more popular worldwide as flygskam , or flight shame , spreads among populations waking up to climate breakdown. Broadening horizons It’s 1994, and the notorious former prison on the Vietnamese island of Phú Quo c, off the southern coast of Cambodia, has just been declared a historical monument. Phú Quoc’s palm-fringed beaches are as good as any in Thailand – and within a few years the island flips from no-go zone to the next big thing. At the same time, Cambodia was still poleaxed by decades of conflict – yet today Siem Reap is one of Asia’s pre-eminent party towns and nearby Angkor Wat is a globally renowned pilgrimage. Granted, other places – take Xinjiang for example – have been debarred from the bucket lists of all but the most determined. Better food Whether it’s for a brasserie in Bangkok or some gourmet grub in Guangzhou, Michelin is scattering its stars over an ever broader table in Asia, having begun in Tokyo in 2007. Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants got in on the act six years later. But whether you lap up the idea of awards or disregard the mammoth marketing ploy, culinary standards have soared. Food trucks marked a step up from hawker stalls, pop-up restaurants gave bold young chefs a chance to shine, and just about everywhere, eating and drinking became a bit more interesting, in large part thanks to the cosmopolitan range of cuisines tempting the otherwise average diner to try something out of the ordinary. The spa destination Guests resting their weary heads at the Fusion Maia, Da Nang, in Vietnam, don’t just get breakfast thrown in but two spa treatments for their weary bodies as well. In the 20-teens, no self-respecting mainstream hotel can do without that robust revenue-generator known as the wellness option, aka spa – as much a part of the modern set-up as the dining room or the pool. And in some places, the spa takes precedence over the hotel, witness 24-year-old Chiva-Som, by the beach in Hua Hin, Thailand. Asia’s first purpose-built health spa reopened after a mega renovation in October and continues to vaunt its much-respected holistic approach. Reading matter Kindle may have launched in 2007, providing an instant hand-luggage weight reduction for bibliophiles, but it meant getting the author’s autograph on the flyleaf was out of the question. Literary festivals have mushroomed across Asia – Penang, Singapore, Shanghai – with readers keen to meet their heroes in the flesh and that selfsame flesh embracing the chance to boost their profiles, egos and sales. Scenic locations such as Ubud, in Bali, act as an additional lure, especially for anyone as keen on chilling out as the intellectual side of things. The latest instalment of the grandaddy of them all, Jaipur, takes place in the Indian city next month and will be headlined by Jung Chang, author of Wild Swans (1991), and Hong Kong-based China expert Frank Dikötter. Sporting events It’s not just the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo that have Asia at the nexus of international sport. Whether it’s Formula One or football’s Fifa World Cup, there are before-, during- and after-parties accompanying the action on the pitch, course or track. One thing’s for sure, in this case, bigger certainly has worked out better. Special mention for the sporting Saturnalia that is the Hong Kong Sevens and its half-dozen corporate sponsors. Music festivals No matter what’s on your playlist, there’s a fitting music fest of some description kicking off in Asia, if not this month then probably next. Obviously, they are a money-spinner for the organisers but whether it’s one of the more esoteric – Thailand’s Wonderfruit, dubbed the Burning Man of Asia, founded 2014 – or Japan’s outsize Fuji Rock, which celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2017, there’s no lack of fan base. Gambling Contrast Stanley Ho Hung-sun’s grubby Macanese emporia of the mid 1990s with the star-spangled gambling palaces of today. Las Vegas magnate Sheldon Adelson kicked off with Sands, in 2004, Steve Wynn followed with his name-brand property two years later. Even if you’re no fan of games of chance, there’s a lot more fun and other games, in the form of concerts and Broadway-style shows, in the no-longer sleepy, no-longer Portuguese enclave. Where Macau led, others in Asia enthusiastically followed, erecting casinos in Singapore, Cambodia and even Saipan that had to do little in the way of marketing to attract hordes of players from mainland China. Going green Leaving aside “gap years”, “bleisure” and various other buzz-terms, nothing has given travel more of an effervescent makeover than eco-tourism. How many travellers thought about carbon-offsets in 1994? At first, tour operators simply stuck with the previous year’s programme but added some greenwash. But now – thanks, Song Saa, Cambodia (2005) and, more recently, Greta Thunberg and others – the industry’s taking itself seriously. Asia’s crammed with sterling examples. Take Rinjani Women Adventure, a sustainable, low-impact, all-female trekking guide company founded in Lombok in 1995 by Katni Wati, who’d been told by her parents and neighbours that this was not suitable behaviour for a woman. Something for the kids The Daphne the Dolphin Massage, at the spa at the Niyama Resort in the Maldives, undertakes to “help young spa goers learn to deal with future stress”. An ice-cream sundae is presented post treatment. Rather as primary schoolers suddenly turn into hulking teens, so has the kids’ travel industry metamorphosed. Forget telling children to run along and entertain themselves, now they get invited to cooking classes, garbed in pint-sized dressing gowns. They’re pampered even before they’re out of Pampers. Cynical observers will mutter about “building brand loyalty early”. The Chinese are coming, and coming PRC package tourists – love ’em or hate ’em – and many stakeholders do both – they’re absolutely everywhere since the Bamboo Curtain came down in 1995. They thunder through shopping malls, slurp up hotel buffets, swarm landmarks and remain utterly vocal throughout. Thailand, Japan, Vietnam, South Korea and Singapore are the Asian destinations of choice. On the plus side, yuan injections boost economies everywhere, and mainland mobs rarely venture off the beaten track, so more ambitious travellers can usually seek out peace and seclusion elsewhere. Pause for thought: only about one in 10 mainlanders own a passport right now. Planning online … Phoning or visiting your travel agent seems as otherworldly as paper plane tickets. We book online, check-in likewise, and use the same medium to whinge about things when we get home. American global travel technology company Expedia launched in 1996, Singapore-based Zuji in 2002, and while travel agents were slow to react to disruption, they gradually realised that sitting in an office wallpapered by brochures wasn’t going to cut it. The future would lie with specialists, also known as travel designers, who concentrate on the entire experience rather than simply reaping a percentage for shifting punters from A to B. … Where you’ll find your TripAdvisor Arch-hoaxer Oobah Butler managed to finagle a non-existent restaurant to the top of TripAdvisor’s London list in 2017, and has become the stuff of legend. If the site’s officials weren’t disgruntled, they were certainly a long way from being gruntled. Despite Butler’s prank, some 435 million reviews and 19 years since getting under way, TripAdvisor has become many travellers’ go-to guide for advice and recommendations. There’s Yelp, too, but it doesn’t have as good a backstory. Holiday snaps Gone are trips to the photo lab back home, desperately hoping that snaps have come out OK. Selfie-sticks mean no more watching the camera that was set on a rock on self-timer fall to the ground just as the shutter snaps. It’s not just stills in this brave new digital world – there’s video and GoPro (which just released its flagship 360-degree Max) and the editing software to go with them, turning even the most cack-handed into a one-stop film studio. The guidebook Moroccan explorer Ibn Battuta is said to have written the prototype guidebook in the 14th century. In more recent years, Karl Baedeker, Tony Wheeler and their ilk provided more in the way of specifics, allowing travellers, weighty tome in hand, to follow in their footsteps and recommendations. But who needs a Lonely Planet , even the digital version, when – since 2006 – you can tweet for advice? Besides, a guidebook is made of dead trees, and the author is unlikely to have been in situ for a good 12 months. Local cash It worked like this: you went to your bank at home and bought a stack of traveller’s cheques (TC), paying a slight premium for the privilege, which you signed and cashed at a bank or similar institution at your destination. The process consumed lengthy periods of time, but TCs were reasonably secure: if they were stolen, they could be replaced, although not instantly. They still exist, but credit cards and multifarious ways to pay by smartphone – tentatively inaugurated in 1997 when Coca-Cola launched the world’s first digital-payment system with several vending machines in Helsinki, Finland – mean you don’t have to queue or wait anxiously while officialdom queries the accuracy of your signature. Maps It’s been said that “a map tells you where you’ve been, where you are, and where you’re going – in a sense it’s three tenses in one”. But when it’s made of paper, flapping in the wind and soaked by rain while you’re standing on an unmarked and unfamiliar street corner, it’s useless. And soggy. Since 2005, Google Maps has been guiding wanderers in the right direction, and Satnav – astonishingly first thought of by Japanese electrical engineer Hidetsugu Yagi, born 1886 – is now as much a part of car hire as four wheels. Cue numerous rounds of applause – and sighs of relief. The mail No question about it, email, Skype, WhatsApp, Instagram and all the rest of the omnipresent merry crew are fabulous, but they have robbed travellers of the exquisite thrill of handing over their photo ID for inspection at a foreign post office and being rewarded, after weeks or months of news blackout, with a stack of letters from home. Rather than today’s relentless barrage of communications, this was a rare event, absorbing perhaps an hour or more when you settled down to slit open the envelopes and digest their contents. Endnote: postcards, once the sine qua non of any tourist spot, have practically vanished. Hey, something on this list had to come with a degree of melancholy.