The recent round of bombings and attacks in the Middle East provoked some pretty intense thinking on my part about tourism and people’s travel habits. Day after day I read in the travel press about fears that the turmoil would set back years of tourism progress both in Israel and the Palestinian Authority, articles that were painful to read not just for how obvious they were but for the fact they had to be written at all. I have no doubt that tourism will face significant setbacks in these areas as well other countries in the region not necessarily for any real reason, but because of the fickle nature of the modern traveler. I then began to wonder about the reason for this. Why is it that people are squeamish about visiting Mexico, Jordan, Israel and a hundred other countries about which they imagine some sort of fault? Is it ignorance, xenophobia or something worse?
Growing up as a kid I remember seeing what felt like daily highlights of violence in the Middle East. It never seemed like a warm or fuzzy place to me, which was only reinforced by the American media. Then a couple of years ago a chain of events occurred and within a few months I found myself exploring Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan. I was nervous at first, no doubt there, but after each trip I left with a profound love and admiration of the region. What went from a place I never wanted to visit became one of my favorite regions on the planet. I don’t think most people would be that open minded to visit in the first place. I’m not trying to congratulate myself here, but it’s true. At least in the U.S., I don’t think a lot of people want to like the Middle East. I think we’ve spent our entire lives being indoctrinated about why the region is evil that to see it in person, to learn what the people are really like would almost be too much to handle.
This same phenomenon has occurred to lesser degrees in other parts of the world. Russia and China were once considered off limits for travel, even after the fall of the Berlin Wall thanks to long held cultural stereotypes based on conflict and the potential for war. Tourists have always been the unwitting ambassadors of propaganda but now in the 21st century, the fallacy of this has become all too clear.
Tourists don’t mindfully think this way though, it’s a much more visceral and emotional response based on what we’ve been told our entire lives. Let’s look at Mexico. A few years ago an unfortunate chain of events occurred that threatened tourism to this great country, an economic necessity they couldn’t afford to lose. First an outbreak of swine flu occurred, then the economic downturn followed by a sharp increase in drug violence. With each of these crises, which truly coalesced into one mega-crisis, the Mexican government and various tourism bodies acted quickly and with determination. They slashed rates, increased marketing budgets and worked with writers and journalists to share the real Mexico, the really nice Mexico with the world and especially the United States.
This story actually has a happy ending, sort of. Tourism over the period of time increased, especially from the United States. Yet that wasn’t the story told in the media. In spite of the fact the tourist areas in Mexico were safe, the media kept reporting on the border violence and advised people to stay away from Mexico. Our own government even advised people to stay away from Mexico. What does this say about us? The risk of encountering violence in Mexico is less than in most other major North American cities and yet a cultural bias reared its ugly head. We wanted to believe the story because it reinforced all of the negative stereotypes we Americans have of Mexico. Thankfully the desire for a warm beach and a margarita trumped fears of being kidnapped from the Westin in Cancun.
Ok, this post is a little jumbly and I’m sorry for that, it has been written pre-caffeine. But my point is this. Mainstream media is quick to highlight violence around the world and are equally quick to advise that no one visit those areas. Do you know why they do that? Because it’s sensational and it provokes; it gets people to read their newspapers and web sites. But the long-term effects of this 21st century yellow journalism are dire. In a day and age where we live and die by the 24-hour news cycle, these accounts, these professional stories take on a whole new status of authority. Yes, I think tourism in the Middle East will decline because I don’t think people really, truly want to go there. They may have half-heartedly thought about it, nervous and on the lookout for the first reason not to go. When it comes down to it I don’t think some people really want to see the world, not truly. There is too much fear; fear of the unknown and fear of the unfamiliar to allow them to even consider visiting some of the lesser-known corners of our world. And I think that’s where blogs come in.
Many bloggers are not journalists, we’re not even trained writers. Some may poo poo this lack of professional fortitude, but I think it lends itself to a level of personal honesty that doesn’t exist in mainstream media. We own our web sites, we are our own editors, writers and photographers. We can do whatever we want within this world and most of us use this bully pulpit to share and inspire. Personally, I love the idea of inspiring others to get out there and explore the world. I love sharing stories of the places I visit and people I meet as a kind of citizen ambassador to try to dispel unfair myths and rumors about the world around us. It also appears the average person also loves reading this style of writing. Recent studies show that nearly half of everyone planning a trip consults with a travel blog at some point in their planning process. Given how relatively young the industry is, that’s a shockingly high number. It tells me that people are hungry, maybe even desperate for information that goes beyond which restaurant to eat at and which B&B to patronize. Photos are honestly our best tool in this service, to show people what places really look like and not what travel guides want them to look like. I’m proud of this and proud that I’m able to help show what the world really looks like, from 5-star resorts to poor townships in South Africa. They all matter and they’re all part of the travel experience.
When people ask me what I am, I always reply by saying travel blogger. Again, some may criticize me for this saying that I should self-identify as a travel writer or other some such nonsense. But I firmly believe in the power of the blogger and I know that this power and skill set far exceeds that of a conventional travel writer. We do everything from write, create videos, podcasts and share stories across a wide range of social media platforms. We’re a one-stop publishing house and at the moment, blogger is one of the best ways to describe that.
So this post has taken a strange veer to the left, sorry about that. But ultimately I think it all ties together. I don’t think mainstream public opinion about the Middle East or some other parts of the world will change anytime soon, it’s too well ingrained. But hopefully if enough people read about the personal accounts I and thousands of others like me have had in these regions, maybe they will slowly realize that the world is a big and amazing place and that perhaps, just perhaps, they should visit it sometime.