WHY DO PEOPLE ACTUALLY TRAVEL?
A question you might have never asked yourself, but one that we are now being very confronted with. Why is it that we humans like to travel? To have something different from the routine? Or to relax? To explore the unknown?
It was during a coffee break back in Austria when I was reading the newspaper “Der Falter” that I came across the recently published book called “Lovely Planet” by the Austrian author Maria Kapeller. It sounded like the perfect book to start this long and slow trip with some brain food. Kapeller’s personal stories are combined with theories backed up by scientific data and interviews with psychotherapists, meditation teachers, philosophers, ecologists, anthropologists and the like.
Because the book is still only available in German, I thought about sharing some chunks of it with you.
What does it
mean to travel?
The word “travel” goes back to the French word “travail”, which means work. “Travail” is derived from the Latin word “trepalium”, that was a torture instrument. So already in the word itself, we can see that the medieval concept of traveling carried an idea of suffering or at least an uncomfortable effort.
There is work involved in going from place A to place B. Back in history of course traveling was way harder than it is nowadays. Going out into the unknown on a ship to see if the earth is really flat, bumping into lands that haven’t been recorded on any map yet is definitely another kind of travail than it is today.
But traveling still takes some kind of work in the 21st century. Planning takes time, comparing the many different ticket offers and reading a couple dozen hotel reviews. All of this is quite an annoying process, instead of a happy anticipation. When you finally arrive at your destination, it’s not uncommon to feel exhausted just from the organization of the trip.
And when you get to the hotel, the rooms all look the same no matter where you go.
standardization of traveling
If there is a defining quote in this book, it’s this one:
Tourists destroy what they are looking for by finding it.
– Hans Magnus Enzensberger
What tourists nowadays find is standardized hotel rooms that look more or less the same wherever you go on this globe. Similarly, restaurants and cafés have the same kind of face with the same jazz covers of pop music, offering flat white coffee as well as pizzas and burgers, independent of their geographical position on the globe.
In addition, typical souvenir shops sell quite the same liquor glasses with the name of the city stamped on it, magnets with jokes and the last Netflix series coffee mugs.. Assembly line made-in-China products at its best. If you are lucky, you can find some handcraft local production stores, which is not only more unique but also supports the locals. Just like these souvenir products, Kapeller asserts that traveling has also just become another commodity available at the discounter (thinking about supermarket travel offers, for example). Cheap, fast, easy.
The impact of mass tourism
Tourism definitely alters places and the locals’ everyday lives. Let’s have a look at the three most striking aspects.
1. Standardization of urbanism and loss of local flair culture.
Have you ever noticed a place where it’s impossible to take a photo without any “rooms to rent”, “hotel” or “souvenir” signs? Tourist destinations are prepared for tourism, and with so much competition, they have to fight in the advertisement war, disregarding if it adds a lot of visual pollution.
2. Masses of tourists outnumber the locals.
Most of us tourists dislike the idea of sharing a place with other tourists. That’s why we wait and try to find the perfect moment to release the camera shutter in the second when there are no tourists in the frame, so it will look more authentic and pristine. Are we only actually faking the truth?
3. Economic trade off.
But it’s not all that bad, because many places survive exclusively from tourism. So, can we only criticize mass tourism when it’s also the bread and butter of a whole region? Many cities and even countries depend on the inflow of money coming from tourism. It creates workplaces, which is potentially the only source of income for many.
The “instagramability” of a place
The more instagramable, the more attractive a place becomes for mass tourism. Wait, what does that mean? Well, it is not simply that it’s possible to take a great shot of the place, but that it will bring many likes. So, first of all, the destination needs to have some world famous sights, like Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, the Eiffel Tower in Paris or simply a unique architecture like Santorini.
In addition to that, when the city also has cute cafés with cool spots to take pictures and colorful food design, all of this adds value to make all the Instagram travelers even more delighted. People like to take pictures and show them to someone, be it on Instagram or via messaging apps. Taking pictures of trips is an old behavior, almost since the beginning of photography, but it has reached new levels in our times.
And how is the process exactly? You scan your Instagram feed. A very cool picture with vibrant colors of a waterfall inside a city comes up there. It’s a friend from university, and there are hundreds of likes. It’s a stunning shot, and you think you’d also look very cool in it. Then the question arises: where is this? Maybe I will go there during my next vacation? This creates a whole Instagram Tourism industry. There are for example Instagram Spot tours that one can book, adding more options of city tours instead of the classic history walking tour.
This Instagram culture brings me to our next point: how traveling adds to our personal social status. Showing photos of your last trip has become a way to impress and show off. Sadly, as with many other things in life (think about the fashion industry), it’s more about the quantity than the quality. It’s not a coincidence that people state the number of visited countries on their Instagram profile. It doesn’t matter how well the country is known, but that it was checked in their 1000 Countries To Visit Before You Die book.
How we should approach traveling
Kapeller says that when it comes to planning a holiday, it’s important to first feel what you are currently needing.
Is it relaxation? Then maybe it actually doesn’t have to be that far – going to the Maldives is probably beautiful, but going to the airport and flying there, having a jetlag for the first few days doesn’t really fulfill your need so quickly. But staying in a resort, going on a tour with a van and having your lunch organized is totally fine if that’s your thing.
Is it for a cultural exchange? Then free traveling is probably your way to go! Not depending on structured tours and just doing your own thing is the best way of letting the unexpected happen and get to know local people as well as their culture. Sometimes you have to leave your comfort zone because you’ll face stressful situations you’re not used to. The good thing is that this is usually a good moment to learn something about yourself or about a culture. We are more open for encounters with unknown people than at home. In new places, our senses get sharper for exploration, internally and externally.
Is it an escape from everyday life and living in the here and now? Kapeller writes about how a pilgrimage, meaning simply walking, is a good possibility. She backs it up with some scientific proof of the consistent action of walking in nature being an effective way of having your brain process negative experiences.
Of course there are many more purposes of traveling, the ones mentioned above are just some examples. What’s most important is that how you want to travel is up to you. In the book it has become clear that the best way to go about deciding how to travel is to first ask you what the trip is for. Basically, a mindfulness exercise. Only then can you select a place.
Traveling as a personal time-out
In the end, what most kinds of traveling have in common is the following. Traveling can be compared to a drug of happiness because it allows for a sort of psychological room that is characterized by not being available nor responsible for certain things. It’s an escape from our eight hours job, the professional as well as private pressure we have to face, the relationships that are going wrong or the absence of freedom in our life.
Shouldn’t we have a time out on a more regular basis? How are we able to create this kind of room, or “island”, in our everyday lives without necessarily having to fly on an island? Kapeller suggests that this could be yoga, meditation, a forest run or playing the guitar. Whatever it is for you, your attention should be dedicated to the moment and to yourself. A change of place can help but is not necessary to achieve this personal “island”.
The author ends the book by using traveling as a metaphor for life. Our life is like a trip that we are to organize ourselves. How do I want to frame that trip? What do I want to take with me? How many things do I need in my backpack? What am I willing to give to others on the way? These are questions everyone has to ask themselves sooner or later on the path of life.
Does sustainable travel exist?
Kapeller herself says that she hasn’t found a way of traveling yet that would not be harmful in any way to the environment or the place, and thinks that there also isn’t. She does not look down to the other “bad” tourist or anything like that because she includes herself in this critique. And abstaining from traveling is also not the solution as this would possibly cause economical issues in places that live off tourism.
Humankind has always had an urge to explore. Moreover, it also brings people together when you understand who the other one is in reality, having your first hand experience, instead of only learning about other cultures from the news, which often shows rather bad things.
Perhaps we should question ourselves every now and then and reflect on how we travel. A big part of the book is dedicated to the means of transport used to reach your destination, being most of the time an airplane, highly criticized nowadays due to the immense CO2 emission caused. Did you know that an overseas flight from Germany to the Maldives and back (which is about 16,000 km) is equivalent to driving a middle class car for 25,000 km (at a consumption of 7 l/100 km)? One long flight is estimated to cause as much harm to the environment as one year of driving a car.
How could we travel in a sustainable way, not only for the environment, but also economically and socially? How can we make mass tourism conscious and responsible? How can tourists not just be a source of money, but help places to grow?
1 . ENVIRONMENT
A possible future vision Kapeller depicted in the book is for every human to one day have an eco account independent of income, status or origin: every person has got 1 ton of CO2 emissions available per year. Not more. Flying will have become effectively obsolete. Going by train, bicycle and walking will become the new means of transport. Slow traveling is the new way.
And we are proof that this is absolutely possible! Even though time-wise it’s certainly a privilege, but who knows? Home office has become more common than ever, so maybe it’ll be easier to work and travel. E-bikes are also becoming more affordable year after year.
How can we support the locals of the place we travel to to get the most out of our stay economically? We found the best way to stay at small accommodations offered by locals instead of big international hotel chains. Similarly, buying handcrafted souvenirs instead of the manufactured ones made in China can be a positive step. Even small things can help, like donating some money to churches and temples you visit or using cash to pay small businesses can avoid having to pay credit card fees.
3. SOCIAL ASPECT
The local people form as much another culture to us as we do to them. On our bike trip, most people are very curious and ask many questions. We like to say hello and wave at people in front of their houses, and we would say that 95% answer and wave back in a happy way.
Whenever there is an opportunity to have a conversation and spend some time with someone, we go for it. Looking back, these talks were for sure the most special moments on our trip. Traveling should be seen as a reciprocal act. It’s a give and take, just like we learned from going to Buddist temples and talking to a monk full of smiles.
And it’s something I saw confirmed throughout the book. The unexpected encounters seem more valuable than the expected when traveling. The real discovery of traveling doesn’t just entail getting to know new landscapes, but seeing something with different eyes.