Things aren’t going all that well in the world. Terrorism and general fear is increasing, many people are seeing paychecks and benefits shrink and across the Western World we’re seeing a dramatic escalation in radical politics. This is a travel site though, so I’m not really going to talk about politics, either my beliefs or those of others because I don’t necessarily think that it’s important here. But I can’t sit by and watch the world slowly implode without saying something about it and so here today I want to put some recent events into a different context by looking at the potential that the power of travel has to help us through these decidedly turbulent times. It may sound trite, but it’s not and so I ask you to bear with me as I lay out my case.
One of the reasons for much of the turmoil around the world is a fundamental lack of awareness and empathy for other people and cultures and not knowing them on a personal level. We fear what we don’t know or understand, that’s a basic fact of life. Another basic fact is something anyone who has ever traveled anywhere will tell you; that as soon as you meet people from other countries, talk to them and learn more about them, your thoughts and opinions are forever changed. Travel does a lot for us, whether it’s relaxing on a beach somewhere sunny or strolling through the streets of a foreign city, it enriches us and makes us better people. But most important, it’s an education and the real transformative power of this education comes not from a museum or building, but from other people.
Loss of Connection in an Over-Connected World
How did we get here though? In a world where I can be on the other side of the planet in a matter of hours or FaceTime with someone in Outer Mongolia, how is it even possible that in recent decades we’ve become less emotionally interconnected instead of the reverse? That’s really the key of course, emotional interconnectivity, not just economic or political, but feeling connected with people from other places on very personal levels. Technology is in large part to blame for our loss of personal understanding. Watching other tourists travel the world, I see a group of people more interested in getting a dramatic looking selfie to put on Instagram instead of looking around them and actually understanding a new place. I see people tethered to phones when they eat or when they’re in a foreign bar, instead of looking around and striking up a conversation. I’m part of that group too, I’m most certainly to blame, but it’s this subtle shift in the way that we travel that is also in part to blame.
Around a billion or so people travel from home every year, whether it be near or far, making this one of the most important acts that we as a civilization undergo. This number goes up every year, which is a good thing, but it has also in part homogenized the travel experience, which is also in part to blame for a lack of interpersonal connections when we travel. With huge numbers of people dallying around the planet, a certain level of standardization must necessarily occur, whether that means a tour group of 50 people or programs in local communities originally meant to help foreign tourists, but which ultimately undermines their travel experience. Last week I was a little annoyed. I was in rural Germany at a small tourist attraction and the only language that anything was presented was in German. I was forced then to chat with employees working there in a mix of bad German and pidgin English and eventually I walked away with the understanding I was searching for. I also had a nice time, chatting, getting to know the people and enjoying my time there. My understanding of them, their small community and their daily lives was dramatically increased and none of that would have happened had someone simply handed me an English audio-guide. Travel is challenging, we need that challenge and when it’s removed we ultimately suffer as tourists and as people.
Power of People
The real power of travel is I think the sharing that happens between people. Whether we like it or not, we’re all citizen ambassadors when we leave the country but it’s not a one-sided relationship. Meeting new people, learning about their stories and lives, that is I think the most important part of the travel experience. Through them we begin to better understand their culture and country, most times erasing misconceptions and wrong impressions in the process. While there are certainly outliers, I’ve learned that people are genuinely great almost everywhere in the world and that there is so much more that unites us as humans than what divides us along political lines.
It’s when we fail to connect with other people, whether we travel across our own country or across the planet, that we suffer. It’s also the foundation on which poor understanding of Others is built. It didn’t matter as much 20 or 30 years ago when the outside world didn’t really affect us that much. When there weren’t mass shootings or terrorist acts on our soil, when refugees by the millions didn’t cross borders in search of safety. When individual countries are (mostly) left to their own devices, being as interculturally aware isn’t as necessary. Would it be nice? Sure, but it’s not a predicate for a well-functioning society. Now it is. When bad things happen, whether it’s a flailing economy or terrorism or something else entirely, we as humans have always blamed Others, and that certainly hasn’t changed in the 21st century. It’s such a basic emotion it may be at the heart of the human experience. But that doesn’t mean we have to accept it or stand idly by refusing to change those emotions. How we do that isn’t just by traveling, by experiencing other people, other languages and other cultures, it’s understanding them. There’s a big difference between those two concepts and understanding that difference is key.
How To Affect Incremental Change
Two years ago I, along with 100 other travel professionals from around the world, attended a symposium at the White House focused on the concept of Study Abroad. Sponsored by the State Department, they understand the necessity of citizen ambassadors in today’s chaotic world and the day was spent brainstorming ways to increase participation in these important programs. Honestly, at the time I didn’t think a lot about it, but then last week I think I finally began to understand its true importance. I had the great opportunity to (briefly) study abroad while in high school and it was an experience that didn’t just change the way I think about the world, it shaped the direction of my life. While these experiences aren’t as dramatic for everyone, study abroad necessarily changes everyone who participates in them, and this is but one of the many building blocks we need to encourage in order to create the emotionally connected world we need for the future.
It’s easy for me to sit here and tell people, especially my fellow Americans, that they should travel more. The truth is that travel can be expensive; even with extremely low budget fares to Europe, the travel experience is still not accessible to everyone. I understand that and won’t sit here telling people to “just save more” or make sacrifices to make it happen. I know that’s not possible for everyone. But there are other ways to increase cultural awareness without leaving the country’s borders, whether it’s hosting a foreign student coming here to spend a year or just making an extra effort to learn more about the world around us, there are ways to achieve cultural and personal understandings. But the first step is trying. If we don’t encourage friends and family to take these steps, to learn not about a nation’s famous sights, but about its people and culture, then we’re not going to break out of the downward spiral we’re in right now.
Look around and you see a world in turmoil. I’m frightened by the dramatic increase in far right-wing politics in many Western nations, not only because I disagree with the intellectual policy positions they take, but because of the emotional basis of these policies. They are taking advantage of the fear and misunderstanding of huge swathes of the public, preying on us for their own personal gain. The way to combat this isn’t by arguing or yelling, but through education. By taking someone we’re related to or know and sharing with them our life experiences and what we’ve learned from people in other countries. Unless we address the core underpinnings of where our fears are coming from, then nothing will improve. Unless we as a civilization understand that more connects us than separates us, then nothing will improve. Regardless of our own politics or stances, this is all of our collective fault. We have failed each other but luckily there’s still time to correct that mistake. To take our fellow citizens and not try to change their mind about any one thing, but to open it to a world that’s not nearly as small and scary as they may think.