The word ‘travelling’ idolises the freedom to move; the ability to experience the unfamiliar, an importance of the journey over the destination and a chance to exhibit these places in a refined and often deluded light. Yet, to travel somewhere does not specify the location, interpretation, or necessity. So, why do I have a preconceived image in my head about what it means to travel?
For this context, I want to momentarily shine light on this very westernised and fabricated perception of the word ‘travelling’. Living in the UK, this word is often used to describe an opportunity for a person to see the world. This whole idea that travelling is primarily for the individual’s gain. A rather pretentious and cliche statement to describe this would be ‘to go and find yourself’. In a way, this behaviour is not surprising considering the UK’s individualist culture. Much like the hippie culture in the 60’s, the spiritual journey to your true self has evolved into a journey to see other, often developing, countries. Why is it that the hotspots of western travellers are found in places like south-east Asia? I believe the attraction lies in the considerable difference between these places and the travellers own home. These ‘travellers’ wish to seek a new place in a hope to feel somewhat different. Tourists act like a moth to a flame. They go to where the light is shone, the light being the tourist hotspot. As an example, the Angkor Wat temples just outside of Siem Reap, are notably one of Cambodia’s most popular tourist destinations. However, the darkness around the flame continues to go unnoticed by tourists. It’s examples like these that occur worldwide, where the morality of tourists is rarely questioned.
This establishes the initial question: Is it wrong to travel for your own personal fulfilment?
Everyone who answers this question will answer it differently, as various groups of people have contrasting perspectives. This is especially true at this time, whilst we are in a global health and climate crisis.
To an environmentalist, travelling far and wide for no reason other than for your personal interest may be deemed selfish. These days it’s hard to go anywhere without using fuel-guzzling modes of transport. Many environmentalists are avoiding air travel, due to the inexcusable amount of greenhouse gases that airplanes emit. Greta Thunberg, a leading young climate change activist, sailed from Plymouth in the UK to New York on a carbon neutral boat. Of course, most people do not have this opportunity to spend 14 days on a solar-powered sailboat travelling across the Atlantic. However, she has become a symbol of environmental hope and shown the world that eco-travel is possible.
Nethertheless, environmental impacts are made not only in the travel but in the destination aswell. Eco-tourism is getting more and more popular, as more people are starting to appreciate the natural world. Travel, although still expensive, has become cheaper and more accessible. What kind of impact are tourists having in vulnerable physical environments, such as Iceland? With its world-renowned beauty hotspots, such as the Blue lagoon, it’s important they they protect the local environments, from threats like an increased amount of litter. However, the swarms of tourists in Iceland’s hot spots has almost tainted these places of natural beauty. An influx of people take pictures, framing it so they look like they are alone and not surrounded by hundreds of others. Nonetheless, it’s important to mention the reliance that countries like Iceland have on tourists. Tourism makes up 10% of Iceland’s GDP, and the same pattern will be visible in places previously mentioned, such as Cambodia. In a visit to Cambodia in 2018, it was clear that local people depend upon the tourists wanting to know more about the place. After all, no one is more knowledgeable about a place than the person that lives there. Maybe this makes ‘backpack-style’ travelling acceptable, as it supports local businesses; tour guides, small restaurant owners, family-run hostels…
The culture around ‘holidaying’ that makes no attempt to immerse in local cultures will only continue to line the pockets of the rich.
Most recently, despite government focus on Covid-19, a new immigration bill has been passed. Following on from what Brexit supporters voted for in 2016, they are introducing a points-based system. This will create further detriment on what it means to ‘travel’ as an immigrant in the UK. Travelling is no longer associated with rose-tinted glasses, it brings connotations of separation and fear.
What I find particularly interesting is how the British media favours certain groups of ‘travellers’. Right-wing newspapers express a bigotry view of movement of migrants to be wrong, when they in fact have a stronger necessity to travel. Newspapers, such as The Sun use bias and generalising language in their titles. Most notably, the title ‘Wave of illegal Iranian immigrants land on notorious smugglers’ beach in expensive boat’. The language used to describe these groups of people simply partaking in an act of travelling is dehumanising and embodies an unfavourable view of what it means to travel. In this context, travelling for personal needs becomes a necessity, but instead it is described as a ‘wave’; insinuating the idea that migrants move in an uncontrolled and destructive way. What also stands out is the way they depict the mode of transport as almost luxurious. The boat might have been ‘expensive’, but it is later described in the article as an ‘inflatable’.
This reiterates that migrant travel is not glamorous, but creates feelings of desperation and a sense of national divide.
In mid-2020 what it means to travel has morphed into something truly unprecedented. To me, in the last few months the idea of being able to travel feels foreign and a breach of personal and global safety. Our freedom to move across borders is now non-advised, and even unlawful. Recently, I’ve been reading a book about a young girl’s journey to freedom, as she left North Korea through the Chinese border. What shocked me was that she wasn’t necessarily leaving because she felt her freedom was being deprived by the independent socialist state, but mostly because she was just hungry. It was a stark moment to realise that her human rights had been breached to the point that she would risk the uncertainty and hazards of the journey across the border just to eat. Even as an extreme example, it’s easy to forget that this fundamental, illegal travel must take place ‘in order to live’, from the words of the Author, Yeonmi Park.
In many cases people don’t intend to travel for their personal gain, but instead to provide ‘help’ to the place. This in itself brews many issues, not only involving the true motivations of the traveller, but raises the question: are they really helping?
The intent of voluntourism projects is to do good in other communities, however this often achieves the complete opposite, generally referred to the term, ‘white saviour complex’. There is a lot to say about how people visiting a place for a short period can have longer term impact for the locals. The media have identified before when celebrities visit lower-income communities in developing countries and how they unknowingly treat the locals as accessories for a photo. Local children especially, forming attachments with many visitors that are only there for a short period can leave them with long-term attachment issues.
What is to be taken away from this is that tourists should make more careful considerations surrounding the impact that tourism can have on a local area. We have seen around the world how places adapt to tourism. Where in the end the authentic experience that the tourist desires becomes a constructed and played-up version of reality. In a 2018 BBC documentary, a writer Will Millard, experiences this as he visits a tribe in Papua over the course of a year. Shockingly, or maybe now not-so-shockingly, it is unveiled that the tribe he visits performs a number of ‘traditional’ activities only when there are visitors.
On the other hand, this community in Papua do this to make a living and to continue to be involved in our globalised world. Everyone is just trying to survive and thrive. If tourism provides an opportunity for them to do that, then does it really matter if the tourist travels for their own personal enrichment? In my eyes, travelling should be a symbiotic process. Both the traveller and the place should prosper, at this point they are so intertwined that to inhibit tourism will create more harm than good. The way that people make their journeys and how it is handled at the destinations could always benefit from improvement. For now, learning from each other and adopting an open mind to a diverse set of cultures will do a lot of good at the moment.