The Case Against Travel

The Case Against Travel

What is the least informative statement people tend to make? I would nominate “I love travel.” This statement tells you little about the person because almost everyone loves to travel. Yet, people say it because they are proud of having traveled and that they plan to do so in the future.

The opposition is small but articulate. G. K. Chesterton said that travel narrows the mind. Ralph Waldo Emerson called it “a fool’s heaven.” Socrates and Immanuel Kant–arguably two of the greatest philosophers ever–voted with their feet by rarely leaving Athens. The greatest travel hater of all time was Portuguese author Fernando Pessoa. His wonderful “Book of Disquiet” brims with anger:

Try shifting your focus from your travels to those of others. Whether at home or abroad, people tend to avoid “touristy activities.” When other people travel, we call it “tourism”. Although people love to tell stories about their trips, we are less likely to listen. This kind of talk is similar to academic writing or reports of dreams, forms of communication that are driven by the producer’s needs rather than those of the consumer.

Travel is often argued to be a way of enlightenment, as it teaches us about the world while connecting us with its people. Even Samuel Johnson admitted that traveling had its cache. “What I gained from being in France was learning to be more satisfied with my country,” he said. Johnson, who was a close friend of Boswell’s, recommended that Boswell take a trip to China for his children. . . . “They would always be regarded as children of a father who went to see the wall in China.”

Travel is marketed as an accomplishment: you see interesting places, experience interesting things, and become interesting. Is this what travel is really about?

Pessoa and Emerson believed that traveling, rather than bringing us into contact with humanity, separated us from it. Travel makes us worse versions of ourselves while making us think that we are at our best. This is the traveller’s illusion.

Let’s begin by defining what “travel” means. Socrates was a traveler, but he only went abroad to fight in the Peloponnesian War. Emerson’s critique is directed at a traveler who only travels because of “necessities” or when “duties” require it. Emerson has no problem with traveling long distances for “art, study, or benevolence.” He also doesn’t mind if you don’t have anything to prove and aren’t motivated to collect photos, souvenirs, or stories. We can define “tourism” to be the type of travel that aims for the interesting and, if Emerson is right, often misses.

The opening paragraph of the classic academic book on tourism, “Hosts & Guests,” states that a tourist is “a temporary leisured person who visits a foreign place voluntarily to experience a change.” This last phrase is key: tourism exists to bring about change. What exactly has changed? In the final chapter of this book, the author makes a very telling observation: “Tourists tend to borrow more from their hosts, than the hosts do from them. This causes a chain reaction of change within the host community.”

In Abu Dhabi, for example, I took a tour of a hospital that housed falcons a decade earlier. I took a picture with a falcon perched on my arm. I am not interested in falconry, nor do I like falcons. In general, I wouldn’t say I like encounters with animals other than humans. The Falcon Hospital answered the question, “What can one do in Abu Dhabi?” so I went. I believe that tourists like myself have shaped the falcon’s mission, its design, and even its layout. (On the wall in the foyer, I remember seeing a number of awards for “excellence” in tourism. Remember that this is a hospital for animals.

Why would it be bad if people who go to a new place voluntarily in order to experience a change shaped the area? Answer: Such people are not only ignorant of what they do but also don’t even try to learn. Take me for example. One thing is to be so passionate about falconry that you are willing to travel to Abu Dhabi in order to practice it. It’s another to go to Abu Dhabi with an aspirational attitude, hoping to change my life. I was neither. I knew that my life after Abu Dhabi would be filled with the same amount of falconry, i.e., zero falconry. You are doing little more than locomoting if you want to see something that you do not value or aspire to.

The locomotive is a hallmark of tourism. What did you do in France? What did you do? went and saw the “Mona Lisa.” That’s before moving quickly on. Apparently, many people only spend fifteen seconds looking at it.

Tourists are driven by their peculiar logic, which allows them to want to do exactly what they should do and avoid doing what they shouldn’t. On my first visit to Paris, this is how I managed to avoid both the Louvre and the “Mona Lisa.” However, I didn’t avoid movement. I walked in a straight, unbroken line from one side of the city to another every time. If you plotted these walks on a chart, they would look like a huge asterisk. I never would have thought of walking for an entire day in the great cities where I’ve lived and worked. You suspend your normal standards when you travel. You also stop your other standards, refusing to be restricted by your tastes in art, food, or recreational activities. You tell yourself that the point of travel is to escape the routine of daily life. What would you think of the paintings if, instead of avoiding museums, you suddenly decided to visit them in order to experience a new environment? You could be in the same room as a bunch of Falcons.

Let’s dig a little deeper to see how the project of the tourist is sabotaging itself. Two examples will be given from the essay “The Loss of the Creature” by the writer Walker Percy.

A tourist arrives at the Grand Canyon. He had a mental image of the canyon, a “symbolic compound” before his trip. If the canyon looks like the postcards and pictures he’s seen, he is thrilled. He might even say that it is “every inch as beautiful”! But, if he arrives on a bad weather day, and the lighting, colors, and shadows are different, he feels betrayed. The sightseer may feel bored if he is unable to look directly at the canyon and must judge it by an image. He might also be aware of the difficulty that the “great thing” yawning beneath his feet eludes them.

A couple from Iowa drives around Mexico. The couple is enjoying their trip, but they are not satisfied with the sights. The tourists get lost and go on a mountain road for hours before they stumble across a village that is celebrating a religious celebration. The tourists are satisfied with their “authentic sight” of the village dancing. They tell an ethnologist friend back home in Iowa about their experience: You should have seen it! We must bring you back! When the ethnologist returns with them, the couple “does not watch what is happening; they instead watch the ethnologist!” The couple’s greatest hope is for their friend to find the dance fascinating. They want him to “certify that their experience was genuine.”

Tourists are a submissive type. He leaves the validation of his experience to the ethnologist or postcards. The tourist is rendered incapable of experiencing anything by this deference and “openness to experiences.” Emerson confessed: “I seek out the Vatican and the palaces.” “I appear to be intoxicated by sights and suggestions but I am not.” He speaks on behalf of every tourist who has stood in front of a monument or painting or falcon and demanded to feel something. Emerson and Percy explain why such a demand is unreasonable. To be a tourist means to have decided that one’s feelings don’t matter. You, as someone who is not X, can’t judge whether an experience is authentically that X.

The impulse of the tourist to respect the great sea of humanity is similar. Pessoa & Chesterton, on the other hand, are more interested in ethical issues. Percy & Emerson concentrate their attention on aesthetics, showing how difficult it is for travelers to get the sensory experience they desire. They investigate why travelers are unable to connect with other people. In Paris, I stared at people and carefully examined their clothes, demeanors, and interactions. I was trying to see the Frenchness of the French people surrounding me. This is not the way to make new friends.

Pessoa claimed to know only one “real traveling soul” – an office boy who collected maps, ripped out newspaper pages, and memorized schedules for trains between distant destinations. He could tell you sailing routes all over the world but had never been outside of Lisbon. Chesterton was also a fan of these stationary travelers. Chesterton also praised such stationary travelers.

Travel’s dehumanizing effects, however, were the problem. He was forced to interact with people as a mere spectator. Chesterton thought that by loving distant things in the right way, namely from afar, a universal connection could be made. The Hampstead man thought of foreigners in the abstract. . . Chesterton wrote that the human bond he feels when he is at home is not an illusion. It is an inner reality. Traveling prevents us from feeling the presence of people we’ve traveled so far to be with.

Tourism is important because we know who we are going to be when we come back. Vacations are not the same as moving to a foreign land, starting university, getting a job, or falling in love. These pursuits are undertaken with the same trepidation as someone who walks into a tunnel without knowing what she will look like when she emerges. Travelers leave confident they will return with the same interests, political views, and living arrangements. Travel is like a boomerang. You end up right where you began.

You may not think this applies to you, but it does. Travels can have a profound impact on your life, allowing you to expand your horizons and deepen your values. They also make you feel like a global citizen. Pessoa and Chesterton were aware that travelers told themselves that they had changed. But you can’t depend on introspection to detect delusion. Instead, think about your friends who will soon be embarking on summer adventures. What condition will you find them in when they return? You may hear them describe their trip as a transformative experience or a “once-in-a lifetime” event, but can you tell if they have changed in terms of behavior, beliefs, or moral compass when they return? Will there be a difference?

It is no mystery that we enjoy traveling. It is not mysterious why we give it a great significance and an aura of virtue. Why insist on the meaning of a vacation if it is just the pursuit of change that never changes, an embrace of nothing?

This leads to the conclusion that it’s not so easy to do nothing. And this is a clue to a solution. Imagine what your life would be like if you never traveled again. You may be frightened by the thought of “more of this and I will die” if you don’t plan a major change in your life. Travel divides the period into two parts: the part that occurs before the trip and the portion that takes place after the trip. This allows the possibility of destruction to be hidden. It does this in the most clever way possible: by giving a taste of it. You don’t want to imagine that one day you will be nothing. You can only preview this experience if you can hide it behind a story about all the exciting things you’re doing.

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