· 9 months ago

Do we travel for transformation or validation? A discussion about why we travel


This discussion originally appeared in Dense Discovery Issue 253 and was written by Kai Brach.

I wrote in DD197 that the idea of international travel (the touristy type) seems increasingly like a misguided indulgence of a past era, and not just because each trip spews a lifetime of carbon into the atmosphere. I’m growing increasingly sceptical of the reasons for why we travel.

People travel to faraway places to watch, in fascination, the kind of people they ignore at home. – Dagobert D. Runes

The promise of travel has always been transformation: we go away and return changed, more broad-minded, more enlightened about the world. In ‘The Case Against Travel’ (non-paywalled archive view here) Agnes Callard argues that not only does travelling rarely change us, we’re the ones changing the places we visit:

“Touristic travel exists for the sake of change. But what, exactly, gets changed? Here is a telling observation from the concluding chapter of [Hosts and Guests, the classic academic volume on the anthropology of tourism]: ‘Tourists are less likely to borrow from their hosts than their hosts are from them, thus precipitating a chain of change in the host community.’ We go to experience a change, but end up inflicting change on others. …

“We already know what we will be like when we return. A vacation is not like immigrating to a foreign country, or matriculating at a university, or starting a new job, or falling in love. We embark on those pursuits with the trepidation of one who enters a tunnel not knowing who she will be when she walks out. The traveller departs confident that she will come back with the same basic interests, political beliefs, and living arrangements. Travel is a boomerang. It drops you right where you started.”

I believe a certain type of travel can have positive residual effects. However, the majority of touristic travel has what Callard calls a ‘locomotive’ character: Go to Paris. Go to the Louvre. Take a photo of Mona Lisa. Next. In this way, tourists seek not life-altering experiences, but proof to shape their personal narrative for friends and followers.

So why is the appeal of travel so strong? In Callard’s view it’s because we seek escape from the monotony and banality of our everyday existence:

“Imagine how your life would look if you discovered that you would never again travel. If you aren’t planning a major life change, the prospect looms, terrifyingly, as ‘More and more of this, and then I die.’ Travel splits this expanse of time into the chunk that happens before the trip, and the chunk that happens after it, obscuring from view the certainty of annihilation. And it does so in the cleverest possible way: by giving you a foretaste of it.

“You don’t like to think about the fact that someday you will do nothing and be nobody. You will only allow yourself to preview this experience when you can disguise it in a narrative about how you are doing many exciting and edifying things: you are experiencing, you are connecting, you are being transformed, and you have the trinkets and photos to prove it.

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

It may be harsh and perhaps a bit dark, but Callard hits a nerve. Especially in the age of social media, whatever virtues we used to assign to the traveller are mostly gone. Travel is now often a means to curate one’s personal brand – seeking validation, not transformation. – Kai

Featured artist: Olga Aleksandrova
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Founder, Travel Massive

Sharing a short essay that arrived in my inbox today, courtesy of Dense Discovery — a newsletter about design, tech, sustainability and urbanism curated by Kai Brach, based in Melbourne, Australia.

Do we travel for transformation or validation?

It's always interesting to hear what thought leaders "outside" the travel industry have to say about the state of tourism, so I'm sharing Kai's article with his permission.

There's a few good points in this piece, including how touristic travel (e.g. mass tourism) can import more culture to a destination than it exports. I also agree that seeking validation on social media is drowning out good quality travel content.

There's some truth to Kai's point about escapism. Consider this: the biggest competitor to a travel agent is the electronics shop, where consumers can instead buy a new 50" flatscreen TV. In this scenario, which "escapism" is worse? Buying a new TV or booking a trip on a cruise ship? 😅

However, I don't believe that all travel can be completely reduced to escapism — to me this seems to be a reductive logic you could apply to other things humans do: such as art, sport, and music.

If you look beyond the hype of "transformational travel", almost all travel can be transformational in some way. My first solo trip to a hostel in San Francisco in my 20's (and the pub crawl I went on) was life changing and probably led me to eventually starting the Travel Massive community (story in my bio).

There's thousands of reasons why we travel, so I believe the answer is more complex than appears on the surface!

👉 Feel free to share your thoughts and reflections in the comments.

9 months ago (edited)
Co-founder of MNE Chapter, CEO, HYVÄ Coaching & Consulting

Thanks for sharing this, Ian!

I would first challenge the "monotony and banality of our everyday existence" - if that´s the problem, then travel is not the answer, but changing the everyday life (which for many is more scaring than any bungee jump or shaky mountain bus of this world). Or you must keep taking the "drug" of travel in growing portions...while "Tourism” is what we call travelling when other people are doing it."

Secondly, I have become a friend of "blended travel" - meaning, the reason to hit the road now and then is multiple - often work related, but mixed with many other reasons - and impacts.

Third - to be able to travel at all is a priviledge. A Priviledge. And yes, the host countries / places are often the ones that change - often, but not automatically to something worse.

Fourth, I was listening to a nature scientist podcast (a Finnish one) describing why we are such nature lovers - and what amazing experience it can be to watch an ant or a bee doing its job. It takes the ability to focus, slow down and find joy around the corner, in the smallest things. And to stop with bucket lists... www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2023/07/antarctica-tourism-overcrowding-environmental-threat/674600/

9 months ago (edited)
Founder, Bag Designer, Idea Mountain

This is a great thing to think about, for both one's consciousness of travel, but also how you live life every day.

One quick thought is how it feels like social media has made 'getting the shot'/'hitting the list' what travel has become about, rather than the things one can't document within digital media: the happy moment when you understand someone from another culture, the smells and feel of another place. That idea of travel as locomotion seems *powered* by social media.

As travel gets easier - translation apps, GPS perfection in far off places, Airbnb in every village - I think we forget that part of travel for transformation is *meeting the challenges* of travel. The very struggle of getting somewhere, finding what you need, not spending too much, having the right gear with you at the right time; all those things are a part of what changes you. Realizing you can accomplish things and survive, even thrive, under some hardship is transformational. I think that's why people think about *international* travel-as-transformation - things are too easy too close to home.

What do you all think about travel as a way to experience something in the most authentic way? Simple example: tasting tropical fruit while IN Southeast Asia will always be different from getting it from the market in your hometown. The only way to experience some things is by being there, yes?

9 months ago
Head Chef, Travelfish Pty Ltd

In The Holiday Makers by Jost Krippendorf (one of the early/seminal texts (1970s) that responsible travel built upon), he argues persuasively along the same that Callard used, that one of the main impetus for faraway travel is the wretched work life balance of the traveller at home. It’s one of the reasons why it is so much of a challenge to morph modern day travel without addressing what’s happening “at home.”

As long as that’s the case, and I’d hold that for many it is, the underlying reason for travel isn’t so much the “getting there” as the “getting away.” When that’s the driving force, the destination to a point is incidental and so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that many have but a passing interest (or empathy) for where they land. As long as the the destination has the three S then “it’ll do.”

From a destination’s point of view, this is a bad deal, they’ve become but dumb pipes each offering an interchangeable balm for the soul, and, well the results of that are pretty obvious to tourism watchers.

Address the home front so that the majority of those who travel are doing so because they want to—for any one of the valid already mentioned by others reasons—rather than because they’re being driven away/need to escape, and the holistic picture of travel as a “thing” changes considerably.

Like Ian, travel certainly changed my life—and I like to think for the better—but I wonder, were I to be starting now rather than 30 years ago, with the growing commodification/pervasive same sameness of destinations, if that would still be the case. Hard to say.

My motivation for travel though would not have changed—if anything it would be more pronounced—and that’s a problem.

9 months ago
Photo Journalist, RK Journeyman

I encourage linking travel to personal interests. There is a growing interest in promoting small group or personal travel to destination communities with a strong similar interest. Examples would be jewelry making in Jaipur, Literary interest in Hay on Wye, All woolen skills at Wonderwool, pottery at Grottaglie,Italy,culinary tours everywhere. Stay a while in communities that share a common interest and trade stories. This is travel with a purpose, the step beyond sightseeing.

9 months ago
photographer, writer, travel evangelist, Exploration Vacation

I love that more of these type of trips are available all the time. Having planned some for myself, I know how hard it is to build your own! But sometimes I wonder if people even know what their personal interests are -- so often I see posts on social that say "Just got tickets to XX. Can someone give me an itinerary with what to see and do?" I only occasionally respond with "What are you interested in?" as they usually already have the same checklist everyone else uses by the time I've seen the post!

8 months ago
Photo Journalist, RK Journeyman

I'm interested in moving travelers beyond sightseeing and things to do. I think we need to explain the amazing advantages of places that have similar passionate interests. The reluctant folks, new to thoughtful travel, will posibly understand enough to overcome their fear. My Go To question is- " What are you passionate about?" If they have chosen a destination, I look up kindred spirits in that community!

8 months ago
photographer, writer, travel evangelist, Exploration Vacation

I used to believe that travel was transformative for all travelers because it is for me. I really believed that if everyone only went out a saw how amazing the world is and how many ways there are to live in it, they would return home with a new respect (and concern) for the planet and the all the other people living on it, as well as new insight and renewed energy to live their own lives more fully.

I eventually learned that you have to start with an open mind and an interest in something other than yourself for travel to bring new insights and respect for the people and places visited. (And, sadly, open minds seem to be in short supply these days.) If you aren't interested in "other" people and places at home, you probably aren't going to be interested in them in other places except as a photo op for social media.

For most people travel seems to be either a status thing (check the highlights off the list to show how special and privileged you are) or as Stuart said, just about getting away (to rest or party or whatever), with the WHERE not really mattering. That's probably always been true, but with social media it's so much easier to broadcast your travels to an audience far beyond one's family, friends, and social circle.

On the other hand, I don't think travel has to be hard or challenging to be transformative (after all, you can find those opportunities right at home), but you DO have to be genuinely interested in the people and places you visit. I used to work in transportation, and even basic group tours sent me back home bursting with new insights about the world and ideas about how that applied to my projects.

I often hear that it doesn't matter why people travel. But travel has huge social and environmental costs. And, especially in rural areas or areas with a lot of poverty, it completely transforms communities (and the environment) in ways that usually benefit only a very small proportion of the community.

Thanks for giving me a forum to discuss some things I think about a lot. It's interesting reading all of your responses.

8 months ago

This is definitely a great question and tough one to answer!! I will say that the way I traveled in my 20s to how I travel now is completely different. And now that I'm a freelance travel writer, travel has changed for me in the last five years because I look at experiences and places with a different perspective. I don't think there's anything wrong with needing a break and escaping for a while because each person has their own reasons for traveling. But yes, unfortunately some places have become unbearable because of the crowds, etc. This essay does make one think!

8 months ago
Partner, NomadMania

There are too many people out there to generalize on "why do we travel". Everyone has there own motivations and reasons fro that. However, as someone who is already well over decade on the road I can out line one of the "standart" divisions.

I usually meet two types of people in my travels. Those who travel in order to...
1) Gain something...
2) Run away from something...
And it's a crucial difference in the phycology of either group ;-)

8 months ago
Affiliate Marketing Manager, VisitorsCoverage

Transformation. For me its all about the adventure or seeing and experiencing new things. Whether I'm traveling to cities where many tourists have traveled to before or out into the wilderness where very few have been. Seeing, touching, hearing, smelling, and tasting all that the world has to offer helps us grow not only within ourselves but gives us an expanded view of the world and insights into what others experience in their day to day lives. Then when we go out into the wilderness and see our planet for its natural beauty and wonder without the presence of what we have built we gain yet another perspective and realize how important it is to do our part to preserve this amazing world we all live in.

8 months ago
CEO, Joash Africa Wilderness Insight Limited

Getting to new places at the first time connects people of different culture and tradition
There is a lot to learn directly from meeting and talking to the locals than what you could do from any written document.
When it comes to wilderness perspective, wildlife in their natural habitat have amazing ways of life compared to those living in confined environment. It is quite fascinating experience sitting in a middle of the wilderness observing the interaction of different wildlife species in a certain niche.

6 months ago
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Do we travel for transformation or validation?

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Do we travel for transformation or validation? was posted by Ian in Discussion , Responsible Travel , Newsletter , Article , Culture . Featured on Aug 29, 2023 (9 months ago). Do we travel for transformation or validation? is rated 5/5 ★ by 6 members.