The Problem With Travel5 November 2018
Later this year I’m travelling to South-East Asia for three months, and I feel gut-wrenchingly guilty about it. It’s not only because of the carbon emissions involved in flying, nor the chequered and problematic history of white people journeying through Asia over the centuries. Since long before Elizabeth Gilbert ate, prayed, and loved around the globe, people from one place have travelled to another place, returning with souvenirs, stories and “new” ideas. It’s tempting to view this dissemination as a holy form of multiculturalism that celebrates social, cultural, ethnic, and linguistic difference, but I think that this belies a much shadier truth: self-interest in all its forms is the bedrock of travel.
Of course, I’m not referring to those refugees like my grandparents who came to this Aboriginal land fleeing tyranny and torture, nor the hundreds of asylum seekers imprisoned on Nauru and Manus Island for the supposed crime of escaping persecution.
The kind of travel I’m talking about is the de riguer travel of the uber-privileged and the rather-privileged. One end of that spectrum houses the Elizabeth Gilberts and six-figure- salaried escapists, but at the other end sit people like me who hold down a job or two and have grown up more or less comfortably with a good education and an inner-suburban upbringing.
The sheltered nature of such a privileged, Anglo-European childhood and teenagedom is perhaps part of the reason many of my peers and friends are already so well-travelled. The sense of independence, freedom, and that most colonialist of concepts—adventure—is what lies at the core of the decisions of many high school and university graduates to embark on gap years in Europe, Thailand, South America, and wherever else is popular or exciting. The idea of backpacking around the world on a shoestring budget evokes a sense of unknown adventure and possibility, something that transports one beyond the mundane restrictions and shortcomings of everyday life at home.
Is travel merely about the novelty of experiencing something different, then? This romantic conceptualisation of travel as a means to mature, grow, and learn from the experience of the new and the different is not without merit.
Travel offers oneself experiences, often intangible moments that are unable to be held or touched or copied by others, whatever the trends in travel style or destination may be. Swimming with sharks or climbing the Eiffel Tower might be an individual and unique experience for each person, no matter how clichéd and predictable such experiences have now become. Communicable only through photographs and occasionally thrilling stories, travel experiences are a kind of personal imprinting, helping eke out our identities. Travel stories are about a something happening to us, and an us formed out of that something. Perhaps this is especially true here in so-called Australia, where our geographical isolation from the rest of the world has made travel even more of a desirable, “exotic” rite of passage.
But this exoticisation of the “foreign” is exactly the problem with tourism. There is no denying that even the purest of motivations for travel—personal growth or even learning about other cultures—require one to take something for oneself from another land and its people.
The elitist dichotomy between those swarms of money- belt and sunglass-clad sightseers deemed “tourists” and the ostensibly enlightened adventurers known as “travellers” is only part of the problem. The numerous travel writers who make such distinctions are snobby at best and profoundly racist and sexist at worst (it is unsurprising that white men dripping with distaste are the primary purveyors of this brand of patronising paternalism). The difference between these supposed two groups is merely in the attitudes and behaviours inherent in the travelling styles of each.
Whether it be the conquering of the landscape by climbing its mountains, the spiritual and mental challenge of living in an ashram for a month, or the hedonism of indulging in previously unknown foods, every form of travel involves an attempt to better or enjoy oneself. The only real distinctions between the self-described “traveller” and the oft-derided “tourist” are how they go about fulfilling this self-interest and, when you peel back the layers of fabricated identities, how upfront they are about why they travel.
If there is a truth in the adage that the advertising industry sells you ideals, rather than products, then the travel industry is surely the epitome of this trading in ideals. We aim to travel in a way that reflects who we want to be, and many appear to choose their destinations and methods of travel to forge a sense of identity.
Are we to blame for wanting to break out from the wage- labour prison of ordinary life at home, though? Whether international travel is a habit of entitlement, or helps to achieve greater universal enlightenment and cross-cultural understanding, it’s hard to deny that the luxury of tourism is now seen by many as a regular necessity of escapism.
Australian Bureau of Statistics data shows that in 2016 just shy of 10 million Australians travelled internationally for short-term holidays. The United Nations World Tourism Organisation reports “virtually uninterrupted growth” in the tourism industry, with seven consecutive years of increasing tourism across the world.
Some cities have become so overrun by tourists (with tourists far outnumbering residents in some places) that frustrated locals have been driven to anti-tourism property damage, assault and intimidation tactics. In 2017, a group of Barcelona locals destroyed a tour bus, slashing the tyres and spray-painting the slogan “tourism kills neighbourhoods”.
So, is it okay to be a tourist? You can try, probably in vain, to decolonise your tourism practices, actually make the effort to learn about the culture and the language, and contribute your tourist dollar to sustaining local communities. But even then, there is an overwhelming sense that all this learning is really just attempting to mitigate the harmful colonialist flavour that travel still leaves in my mouth.