Travel is not something materialistic. If you buy a car, it's obvious what you bought. Everyone can see it. Apart from a few souvenirs and Hard Rock cafe t-shirts, nothing material has been gained by traveling. But when we come back, we have stories to tell. The more interesting stories we have, the more interesting we are to our social circle.
We tell our travel stories in different ways. We meet our friends for a beer and tell them all about our trip. We may give a talk in the local community and share our experiences. We write a blog about it or we record travel vlogs.
And this is nothing new. People have been doing this for centuries. They told the masses about their travel experiences and the unknown places of the world. They brought back souvenirs from foreign lands. They even bought paintings and put them up in their homes to show them to their visitors and tell them about their travels.
So we can not say that talking about our travels is something new or even negative. However, with technology and social media, the opportunities to show or tell stories about our travel have escalated. Some travel just to create a perfect Instagram feed of their travels (or a perfect physical photo album, if you will). We travel more for extrinsic values than intrinsic ones. Who wants to travel to a place where they can not take stunning photos? Even if we use a physical photo album, do we really keep it just for ourselves?
Besides, hundreds of years ago, there were not that many people traveling, and if you traveled yourself, everyone was eager to hear the stories you had to tell when you got back. Each story was special because the chance of someone else being in the same place as you was slim.
Since its origins, travel has been about learning and exploring the unknown. We are born explorers. However, in the 1950s, travel was heavily influenced by the Industrial Revolution and became highly commercialized. Before that, not everyone could afford to travel, and only elites had that opportunity. After the commercialization of travel (rise of the middle class and commercial flights), the masses began to travel as well. After that, travel was not so much about learning and experiencing new things. It became an industry.
As travel has become accessible to everyone, there's a good chance that someone in your social circle has already been to the same place as you. How can we stand out now? We
look for the next hidden, exotic place where not many people go (which is already quite difficult),
present our travel experiences through new means (better photos, videos, etc.), or
do stuff on our travels that others have not done (eating bugs, doing extreme sports, taking a photo with a rare tiger, etc.) that position us as superiors in our circles or just earn us a few more likes.
None of this is necessarily negative. Except the former one can be IF for the purpose of creating a better photo, crafting a better story from our travels, or satisfying our hedonistic needs, we indulge in activities that are creating a negative impact on the places we visit. I’m talking about negative ecological, economic or social impact. Especially the latter seems to be neglected lots of times.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the reasons why we travel but watching the documentary film The Last Tourist got me to the point that we need to talk about how and why we travel more. The film is scary, to say the least in the sense of how we are exploiting local (especially underdeveloped) communities to play status games and satisfy our hedonistic needs. It talks about some of the negative aspects of the commercialization of travel. Things like exploiting the local workforce, exploiting animals, gentrification, destroying cultural sights and more.
My summary of the movie in a few words: Tourism is a beautiful industry on the outside but ugly on the inside.
I am pessimistic that many of the problems shown in the film will be solved by the choices we, the travelers, make, or it is naive to think that this will happen anytime soon. In my opinion, it has to happen from the top down.
However, I would like to lay out some potential solutions and my thoughts on how we can manage or at least reduce the negative impacts we are causing. Most of them are long-term and probably even obvious. But they are still not successful.
1) Education and awareness-raising
Implement the subject of (responsible) travel in primary and secondary schools.
Tourism schools and faculties should be the leaders in producing staff who think about these problems and propose solutions, rather than educating new tourism workers who mindlessly follow tourism trends. At the moment, most of these schools bring little value to the world.
We need more travel influencers promoting socially responsible travel.
Better travelers = better citizens. Countries should prioritize educating about responsible travel.
2) Creating new sustainable destination business models
where local communities get more value - decentralization of power or centralization to the local community and more transparency. I would like to say that blockchain and the DAO model of organization will solve this, but I think it starts not with the technology but with the mindset. This is one topic we were discussing at our latest retreat.
3) Westworld-like world
Let's create a world like in the TV show Westworld where you can satisfy all your hedonistic needs without harming anyone (except the AI). I don't think we (or at least another generation) are going to give up this type of tourism. Most people don’t care about responsible tourism. Shouldn’t be that hard to implement, right?
4) We need to separate the words travel and tourism
Tourism is an industry, traveling is a lifestyle.
In my podcast interview (in Slovenian) with Tina, she said that traveling just for the sake of traveling is classic consumerism and not what traveling could really be about. Traveling should be an experience. The best experiences you have on your travels (or in life) were usually not paid for. They are the moments that come spontaneously. Out of the blue.
The reason for traveling is, of course, very different for each individual and always will be. Traveling for food, history, work, sports, partying ... you name it. Everyone has their own reason and we will continue to travel. Let us just try to play a positive-sum game where we return from our travels with meaningful experiences and local communities benefit. Merely traveling and experiencing more won’t solve our problems. Seneca (stoic philosopher) talks about this in his letters to Lucilius:
“Are you amazed to find that even with such extensive travel, to so many varied locales, you have not managed to shake off gloom and heaviness from your mind? As if that were a new experience! You must change the mind, not the venue.” (XXVIII.1)