Last weekend I was dismayed to read a New York Times story about a “picture of excess” in tourist destinations. The piece chronicled the drunken, sometimes-naked misadventures of tourists across the globe.
The Times interviewed Mark Watson, who runs an organization that does ethical tourism, and he had a depressing take on what has happened to modern travel:
It’s changed from a holiday where you engage with different cultures to an opportunity to drink alcohol very cheaply and get very drunk.
It’s sad enough that a huge portion of the travel industry exists to create shallow, escapist pseudo-adventures that only benefit big corporations. The fact that people are also damaging things, desecrating historical sites, and causing general mayhem is just awful.
But this trend also raises an important question: What’s the point of traveling in the first place?
For much of the developed world, travel means relaxing or cutting loose. It’s temporarily escaping. It’s “vacationing.” It’s what much of the travel industrial complex is selling. And that’s fine; we all need to relax sometimes.
But here’s the problem: We have limited time on this planet; We have limited resources; We can’t do everything and every second we’re lying around we’re also not doing something else. St. Augustine famously said “the world is a book and those who do not travel read only a page.” If he were alive today he might have added that those who only vacation are reading the abridged, children’s version of the book.
And of course the other problem is everything mentioned in the Times article. Frankly, I see that kind of self-indulgent tourism as resort-y, escapist tourism taken to its logical conclusion. Perhaps St. Augustine would have described it as forgoing books altogether in favor of trashy supermarket tabloids.
So what’s the alternative?
For starters, travel should be ethical. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t also be fun, and even relaxing, but in the end someone or something or some place should come out better for a trip having been made. Think of this as the opposite of the what-happens-in-Vegas-stays-in-Vegas philosophy of travel.
To paraphrase a friend of mine, travel doesn’t make a person better than anyone else, but it definitely makes a person into a better version of themselves. If that isn’t happening — and I very much doubt it is in the examples cited by the Times — the travel is being done wrong.
That’s intentionally broad because we’re really just talking about not destroying stuff and maybe trying to learn something new here and there. This catches everything from a humanitarian trip in Africa to a culinary tour of Italy. It’s not hard.
— Jim Dalrymple II