As surely as tourism is defined by its locomotive character, travel is marked by its presence in the moment. I say, go places. Carefully. And when you arrive, be there mindfully.

Targeted ads have recently been feeding me an essay in The New Yorker titled “The Case Against Travel” in which author Agnes Collard makes numerous points about the inauthentic ways we travel and the dubious reasons we dub ourselves travelers. While she eloquently—and accurately—makes the point that going on a stereotypical vacation does not a better world citizen make, she also incidentally presents the case for traveling—just better.

The author points out a number of reasons tourism can be problematic. As a destination marketing professional, I viewed her arguments through the lens of destination management and traveler education, and I found myself making a case in defense of travel. I believe that travel, when done with intentionality and responsibility for one’s actions and impact, can be the living counterargument to this essay.

Travel, a ‘Fool’s Paradise’?

Early in the piece, Collard uses Ralph Waldo Emerson’s reflections on his grand tour of Europe to demonstrate that travel isn’t worthwhile. But his calling travel “a fool’s paradise” is simply a declaration that none of us can simply leave our troubles behind (though I, too, have dreamed about that magical worry-free beach). This is certainly true; travel doesn’t cure existential crises or diabetes. However, travel can treat some ailments like anxiety, indifference, fatigue, even loneliness and misunderstanding. I do agree with Emerson in noting we can’t expect the simple act of relocating briefly to cure us—especially not at the cost of our hosts’ wellbeing.

And this brings me to my point: passive, thoughtless travel is everything Collard and The New Yorker say it is. Intentional travel is the antidote. Just as we enjoy our meals more when we don’t block them with an iPhone screen and our miles more when we lift our eyes up from the asphalt, with a little discipline and focus, we can both enjoy and benefit from our travels.

Because travel starts with locomoting, I’ll start with the subject of getting to places. We tend to place a great deal of climate change blame on the carbon footprint of the travel and tourism industry. Notably, travel is responsible for just 8 percent of global carbon emissions. Though reducing the carbon output (flying direct) and waste (resuable water bottles) from travel is worthwhile and meaningful, it won’t solve the larger problem. However, understanding how other communities live, protect, preserve, rehabilitate, and offset could be the key. Not only for making a difference on how we travel but (more significantly and enduringly) how we live every day at home while caring for the planet.

Emerson even “has no objection to traversing great distances ‘for the purpose of art, of study, and benevolence.’ Learning from others about sustainable mindsets and methods would fall under several of those exemptions. Make your travels purposeful, and they will be meaningful.

So, Don’t be a ‘Tourist’

But how do we travel for the purpose of art, of study, and benevolence without making it a chore? Simply pay attention, and follow it with humble intention, and carry on with reflection.

Consider that “tourism’ is what we call traveling when other people are doing it,” according to Collard. So why do we hate “tourists” but love the mental image of ourselves as travelers? Variations on selfishness, entitlement, curiosity, and respect all come to mind. 

All that’s required to make huge strides up the spectrum from “tourist” toward “traveler” is considering who we do and don’t want to be while abroad.

Collard writes that, “one common argument for travel is that it lifts us into an enlightened state, educating us about the world and connecting us to its denizens.” She goes on to declare that it doesn’t, giving examples of staring at Parisians, wandering aimlessly through museums, visiting attractions in which she isn’t engaged. But just as going to the bar or an art exhibit doesn’t guarantee making a new best friend or any understanding of modern art, it takes a bit of pre-work to make your travel enlightening. And some humility. Think of the aforementioned vision of a tourist as a mirror. It stings, but it’s worth the depth of experience you’ll gain on your next trip… or at your next happy hour.

I’ll use Collard’s example of visiting a falcon veterinary hospital. I believe the point she illustrates is an important one, and I challenge all of us travelers to consider it from the perspective of planning from home. What would have happened if you considered why you went to that attraction? Chose not to go? What cultural significance does the falcon have to Abu Dhabi? As she writes, “If you are going to see something you neither value nor aspire to value, you are not doing much of anything besides locomoting.” So plan your travels in advance, with care—as well as with aspiration—to ensure you impart value.

The falcon hospital anecdote highlights the truth that destinations are changed by tourism. Yes, we have to take responsibility for that. We should visit, engage, enjoy, support the local economy, and learn—all with the recognition that our presence does have an impact, but it only has virtue if we act in ways that imbue value.

“Touristic travel exists for the sake of change.” Culler observes, adding, “We go to experience a change, but end up inflicting change on others.” I believe this is only the case when we don’t travel with care. Identify the change you seek. Not of your characteristics or entrenched mental state, as dismissed by Emersen. Travel can change the way we see the world; it must change the way we see our role in it—right down to our role as travelers. And, if you’re open to the experience of hanging out with rehabilitated falcons changing your world, that’s of value, too. Especially if it’s coupled with knowledge of the falcon’s role in local culture, heritage, economy, even cuisine (I dropped that in to provide you with practice in non-judgmental cultural curiosity).

Growth is a Choice

Collard isn’t wrong that travel can turn us into the worst version of ourselves while allowing us to feel that we’re at our best or that we are superior to homebodies. I call on you to combat that delusion with the simple act of planning ahead and preparing to be guests in any place that isn’t our living room. Pay attention, reflect, seek to understand—both prior to and during your travels. That is what makes you a traveler—and indeed a better version of yourself—rather than a tourist and the worst version of yourself. 

A truth similar to the examination of the falcon example applies to breaking out of your routine to explore museums or new foods.

“When you travel, you suspend your usual standards for what counts as a valuable use of time. You say to yourself, the whole point of traveling is to break out of the confines of everyday life. But, if you usually avoid museums, and suddenly seek them out for the purpose of experiencing a change, what are you going to make of the paintings? You might as well be in a room full of falcons,” Collard expounds. But simply by following your curiosity, you can broaden your perspective and potential understanding, expose yourself to new interests, and test new activities. In fact, you can’t change your perspective and broaden your understanding without changing your habits. Growth isn’t achieved in doing the same thing over and over. It’s also not resting in a refusal to try for fear of falling short. And to be frank, thank the travel gods that you can change up your routine. Aren’t you tired of work and laundry and scrolling?

Scrolling on our phones brings me to our “Meta”physical existence: We know that when we travel to places we’ve previewed online, our expectations have been set for us and we may have already started to plan how we, in turn, will post about our experiences there.

 We also know what Anais Nin says: “We do not see this world how it is. We see it how we are.” The confounding beauty of this phenomenon is that we already know about the “Insta vs. Reality” paradox. Therefore, we can combat it by embracing the authentic and unfiltered. Being wise to the role of Reels empowers us to choose how we will connect with a landscape or cross cultural divides to make friends outside our usual circle.

Travel Can Heal

Those precise personal connections may be the single most important outcomes of travel. Seeing the world through others’ experiences facilitates understanding, community, and peace. Collard uses G.K. Chesterson to argue that an imagined understanding of people a world away is better than “spectating” the residents of your destination. Voyeurism isn’t any way to deepen cultural understanding, but I remain more concerned about the hate enabled by distance than the faux love and admiration Chesterton touts. (Chesterton was an anti-Semite who touted extreme localism and nationalism, so the purposeful work of getting to know others is unlikely to be a travel habit he practiced.)

I’m fairly introverted—I know how intimidating it can be to strike up a conversation with a stranger in an unfamiliar town, but knowing it’s an important element of our travels can push us to do better. Imagine how our world would look if none of us ever again traveled. The rifts, the misunderstandings, the assumptions. Don’t worry so much about the trinkets and the photos. What else will be left of your time locomoting amongst the globe’s peoples?

I don’t mean to say trip planning and vacations should be uncomfortable. Vacation should remain soul-filling, relaxing, invigorating time away from work and routine. I only mean to explain that travel should also be viewed as an opportunity for growth with fairly minimal output on our parts. Where Culler says travel doesn’t change us, I say that’s only when we don’t ask ourselves to return home a bit changed. Just as one would rather not aimlessly attend university for years, we needn’t enter into travel without a plan or vision. Yes, we’ll also probably spend too much time learning how to drink alcohol in a new way and sleeping through the occasional learning opportunity, but we can approach the venture with a goal, a desire to learn, and a plan to have plenty of fun while we’re at it.

It troubles the author of “The Case Against Travel” that travel “gets branded as an achievement.” Certainly, locomoting on its own isn’t an accomplishment. But I firmly believe that vacationing can be profound and responsible, as well as fun and carefree.

I challenge you, reader, not to seek to be someone who has seen the world but someone who has grown with the world—grown as a result of seeing the world.

Yes, Socrates said that philosophy is a preparation for death. For everyone else, there’s travel.

He also said, “Be as you wish to seem”. For tourists who wish to be travelers, there’s intentionality.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

close-link
close-link
close-link