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.
21 thoughts on “Quick to Judge – Prejudice and Why Some People Really Don’t Want to See the World”
What a terrific post! As someone who has lived in Istanbul, Turkey for 2.5 years, I heartily agree with everything you wrote. Not only are we Americans told only the bad things in our news, but we aren’t taught much about the Middle East in school either.
It’s been pretty darn relevant to American lives ever since WWII, it’s time our kids were taught more about the region. Same with China – the next century will be a Pacific century, but what are American kids taught about China? Next to nothing. I think our schools are too focused on revelling in our WWII success rather than looking forward to what we need to know next.
I think you’re absolutely right that travel bloggers are helping to dispel much of the media sensationalism. Everyone – especially older generations – think Mexico is such a dangerous place and college students or single travelers shouldn’t dare consider traveling there. However, that’s based on the media’s slanted reports. When you actually speak with travelers who have been there, they offer a completely different perspective. I agree that blogging is becoming more important. The hard part now is balancing everyone’s different opinions – while some people love a place, others might hate it!
Now that is true, so it’s up to the reader to discern whether or not they would like something. But even if I write about something I don’t like, the description and photos may convince someone else that that would love it.
I think it’s more about fear and concern for safety then ignorance or xenophobia. You and I are very blessed to travel as much as we do, but for the average person that has only one or two vacations a year, they have to put a lot of consideration to where that place might be. And if a region seemingly has a lot of violence or civil unrest, that place is going to go to the bottom of their list.
It’s our job as bloggers to enlighten readers and inform them on how to travel safely while knowing there also might be risks. But we also have to be understanding that if a person has only been to a couple of countries (if any at all), then the more popular destinations will be first on their list.
You’re right and I suffer from forgetting that I travel far more than most people. I’ll be gentler :)
Interesting article. I also like your point about travel blogger vs. travel writer. We DO do more than just write. Thanks for introducing a paradigm shift for me.
Thanks Talon, I appreciate the comments. I should have continued to say that I of course have nothing against travel writers, I have many friends who do that for a living. But a successful travel blogger doesn’t have to be a travel writer, they could only post photos or videos and still be a blogger. That’s why I don’t think the two are one and the same.
I think that, as travel bloggers, and with the passion for travel we have we forget that not everyone feels the same way? That all they are looking for is a diversion, an entertainment, a change from their normal, boring routine, two weeks of “pretend” life. I’ve lived in or close to tourist resorts in England and in Spain most of my life, and more or less despised that attitude as a result. Even when these people travel they see nothing outside of their own bubble. If 50% read blogs to inform themselves better about a destination then that’s around 40% more than I would have thought. That said, many blogs are nothing more than travel guides anyway.
You write for Americans, of course. In your travels you must have come across people who are afraid to go to the US because of all the violence we, Europeans, read about occurring daily there? Not only that, but it isn’t as if it was Gaza and a bombing might be predictable. It happens on street corners, schools and shopping malls, and so many Americans seems to think that it is acceptable and a normal facet of life. Given that I am amazed that they deem other countries too violent to visit!
You might be interested to know that an African friend of my son (from a well-developed and wealthy country there) visited New York for the first time some weeks back – prior to the election. He is, apparently, not very worldy-wise, and had few of the pre-conceptions Europeans have about the US. He loved New York in every way. However, when he came back he commented that, judging purely by the folk he met, if Mitt Romney won the election he wouldn’t visit the US again during his presidency. Interesting? He was clearly made to feel fearful it seems?
Well you hit on something there Linda, I don’t just write for Americans. I am American, yes, and many of my readers are from the States but I also have a lot of readers from Canada, the UK, Germany and even India. That’s the great thing about bloggers is that our audience is worldwide and it doesn’t matter where we live.
And blogs have to walk a fine line. People don’t need my site to figure out what to do in London. That’s been covered many, many times. They read because they hopefully like me and my travel style, and that’s the difference and value that bloggers bring to the travel realm.
Thanks for this Matt. For many of us, it’s obvious the media plays a huge role in how we view the world. Not just in travel but in politics, religion, culture, and various aspects of life. I’ve been hesitant to say I am a travel blogger because there still doesn’t seem to be a lot of credibility with that title. However, you make a good point for doing so.
Thankfully those of us who travel see that the world around us isn’t confined to media warnings and hidden agendas.
Embrace the blogger moniker! By showing we’re not living in our parent’s basements and do in fact have well rounded (sort of) lives, we can dispel these misconceptions.
Great post Matt. Very true and very timely.
I still remember my grandmother’s expression when I told her I was going to Japan in 2002. “Why would you want to go there after what they did in World War 2?”
My mom wouldn’t let me learn German in high school because her dad was in WWII. LOL
You raised some interesting points Matt. I definitely agree that fear holds a lot of people back. Keeping a prejudice is a lot more comfortable than working to overcome it and grow as a person. Members of my family have had some bad experiences in Mexico, and while those things could have happened anywhere, it’s definitely influenced my desire to visit. I would love to visit Jordan one day, and a few other places in the Middle East too.
I love this post, Matt, and am so glad you wrote it. You made a lot of great points, it’s well done and I believe it needed to be said.
I felt the same way about the Middle East (including Syria) and then, I went and said–wow. It was fantastic. I’d go back in a minute and someday, when Syria has recovered and is rebuilt, I will return.
I believe I’d been indoctrinated, etc. into fearing that part of the world, just as so many other had been. Fortunately, many of my ESL students are Middle Eastern. The more I got to know them, the more I wanted to see their countries and be exposed to more of their cultures.
I love what you said re: being ‘a kind of citizen ambassador to try to dispel unfair myths and rumors about the world around us.’ I relate to that and try to do it whenever I can. Thanks for writing this important piece. I truly enjoyed reading it.
Wow Lisa, thank you so very much for the praise, I really do appreciate it. Nice to know it resonated with so many folks :)
On our first visit to Central America, my wife and I were a bit leery at first…then we loved it, and we ended up arranging our affairs so that we could live in Nicaragua for a year–one of the highlights of our lives! So many of our acquaintances were ‘AFRAID’ for us–and ignorant: “Now, where in Africa IS Nicaragua?” <-We actually heard that! Your post, even pre-caffeinated is a good reminder of the power of personal experience in telling the 'truth' about travel and 'elsewhere.' I'm glad I came across it…Happy travels!
I found the same thing. I fell in love with travel in the middle east, and Asia, and really everywhere. I found that there are really very few places that I don’t like visiting. Many places in the US have become bland and unimaginative and so “safe” it’s not fun. I love the adventure of traveling some place new. I’ve been to your list of places where American’s desire to travel… Sad that people continue to go back to Hawaii year after year when they could at least mix it up with a trip to PR or CR. I’m now getting to the level where I’m ok with it. Let’s let the American’s travel to these very predictable places, and save the rest of the world more untouched. Let the places that I want to go stay unbroken by what happens when a place gets discovered. It wouldn’t have been the same to go to Lalibela if it was full of tourists. My last trip to India had a great example of that. The Taj Mahal is so overdone with tourism. I would have preferred to have seen it like the Rat temple and not visa versa. Things that are undiscovered can get messed up. One day I do think their eyes will be opened… maybe.
Your article resonates with me on several levels. Several years ago I moved from Canada to Mexico. Last year I was on a trip to Cambodia and Laos. Also on the trip was another Canadian whose first words to me when she found out where I lived were “Oh, I would never go to Mexico. It is far too dangerous”. OK, don’t listen to a person who actually lives in Mexico. Believe the media instead. I didn’t say I was going visit Tijuana in the middle of the night by myself to engage in illicit activities. My neighbours, all Mexican, have gone out of their way to be helpful and friendly even when communicating is somewhat hampered by my abysmal español. No one has been shot or killed or robbed. In my previous home of Toronto, my house was broken into and I was mugged by a woman obviously high on something within a half a block of my downtown condo. Life in central Mexico has been downright peaceful and pleasant in comparison. Bad things happen everywhere, even in the United States and Canada. To avoid this country or the Middle East because of the evening news is to really short-change oneself out of having a wonderful trip and meeting some really interesting people.
I couldn’t agree more. It’s important to be safe, no question there, but don’t limit yourself to just a small swathe of the planet either.
A thought provoking read, thanks! It’s a shame people are scared off by media coverage etc, and I really feel bloggers can work to change people’s perceptions of these countries.
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