If you’re like me, you feel that travel has the power to change people. Exposure to the world and its inhabitants is frequently a good driver for change.
But recently, I’ve been thinking about how we overestimate the power of travel to change people’s opinions. (I was tweeting about this and decided to write a lengthier article on it.)
We frequently believe that travel may cure one’s negative feelings about the world and its people. Travel abroad, learn about diverse cultures, and suddenly you’ll have greater empathy for people all around the world and stop considering them as some “strange, terrifying other.”
Books about travel (including mine) expand on the notion that “I went travelling and became a better person with a deeper awareness and tolerance for others.”
Travel writing cheerleaders this mantra.
And that is frequently true. But only for certain types of travel.
I believe that gradual, long-term, or service-based travel may change people. These vacations pull you out of your comfort zone for lengthy periods – you can’t just go back to the resort whenever you want. After all, we only grow when we push our limits, attempt new things, and break free from what is comfortable and familiar.
This type of travel helps us grow because it continuously puts us to the test as we engage with various cultures and circumstances. It provides us with several learning opportunities and introduces us to people we would not have met otherwise.
Few travellers return after months — or years — of travel or more service-oriented travels without a greater awareness and empathy for our globe and its people.
But cruises (particularly the massive ones that are essentially floating theme parks)? Tours for large groups? Resorts on a grand scale? Or how about a weekend of jet-setting? I don’t think any of that has any effect on people’s thinking.
Consider this. How much time do you spend in a resort socialising with locals (apart from those who serve on your hand and foot)?
How much time do you have on a cruise to fully enjoy the local culture in port?
How much do you learn if you’re just there for three days? And how far do you go outside of your comfort zone?
That’s not to suggest that these sorts of trips can’t serve as a springboard for something more meaningful.
It was a group excursion that originally got me interested in travelling.
But that trip didn’t change who I was. Instead, it was my 18-month backpacking trip around the world that shaped me (or started to). During that period, I pushed myself, went slowly enough to meet locals, and learned how to navigate the globe. (However, it’s crucial to realise that life-changing travel isn’t only about the duration. If you stay put and go deep, two or three weeks anywhere can be plenty. But if you try to see six cities in that time, it will all be a muddle.)
That is not to say that other types of travel aren’t worthwhile. Everyone needs a vacation where they can just sit around and do nothing. Not every travel needs to be life-changing.
However, we frequently mistakenly believe that all travel is life-changing.
While I feel that a cruise, resort vacation, group tour, and so on can be catalysts for future development, this type of travel does not change your mind on its own. It’s similar to Adam Sandler’s SNL routine. A conventional two-week visit to Italy will not change your personality. You won’t leave with a very profound grasp of the nation, either. The shallower the experience, the faster you go.
I mean, if all travel were a cure for profound human understanding, the world would have fewer political problems. However, this is not the case.
I consider my countrymen. Over 71% of Americans have visited abroad, with Mexico being the most popular destination. However, they frequently concentrate on Tulum, Playa, Cancun, and Cabo. They visit large resorts. Has all of this travel to Mexico made people more sympathetic to Mexican immigration or the Mexican people’s plight? Nope. Large percentages of Americans continue to support building a wall or deporting immigrants they perceive to be rapists and murderers. The media rants about “caravans” from south of the border threatening to change our country into…God forbid…one that isn’t predominantly white!
Have all those trips to Europe changed the way most Americans think about trains and infrastructure? Nope. While studies show that 86% of Americans prefer a European-style rail system, we couldn’t even get one started in California, the most liberal of all states! People enjoy trains as long as they are built someplace else.
Has all of this travel inspired Americans to be more open and engaged with the rest of the world? Tariffs, barriers, and increased “border security” are supported by half of the population.
In summary, I believe the travel media (including me) oversells the concept of change. Look at adverts on how a trip to Thailand would transform you into a new and amazing you. The travel industry sells us a fantasy. And we believe it. Because we believe the vacation will change us. We want it to happen. Because we’ve been programmed to believe that’s what travel will do to us.
However, the profound, fundamental change that travel may bring occurs only when you push yourself outside of your comfort zone, which comes through extended and thorough exposure to different people and cultures, or from service-oriented volunteer trips. It is not the result of a cruise or a quick trip to Australia.
You’ll have a good time, learn a few things, and take some nice photographs, but then you’ll go back to your old life and beliefs. “Oh yes, Australia was great,” you’ll think as you move on with your life as usual.
And, if that’s all you do, the locations you visit will be nothing more than a background to you “living your best life,” rather than an opportunity for you to learn, change, and grow as a person.
I support people travelling someplace, even if it’s to a resort. Because, while that trip may not change their minds, it may inspire them to try something new or different the following time. It might be a stepping stone to something more substantial.
Not all travel results in a deep change. It doesn’t have to. Sometimes all you need is a getaway.
But we must abandon the notion that if more people just travelled – in whatever form – the world would be a better place. It should be: “The world would be a better place if more people stepped out of their comfort zones and tried to learn about the areas they visited.”