According to the UNWTO (UN World Tourism Organisation) there are now over 1 billion people travelling internationally each year; a number that is expected to increase sharply as more people in India and China acquire the means to go on foreign holidays. In the world of travel and tourism this travel bonanza is being embraced with thousands of new hotels being built, a flotilla of giant cruise ships under construction and airlines taking record orders for new fleets that will whisk people away to their adventures.
Travel is good
The act of travel is generally seen as overwhelmingly positive. Travel broadens the mind. It exposes us to different cultures. It teaches tolerance. To quote one of the most over-used travel clichés, “the world is an open book and those who do not travel read only one page.”
But are we too quick to accept the supposed virtues of travel? And what constitutes travel in any case? Are the valuable lessons we attribute to the act of travel accessible only to those who go to another corner of the world and have to get by in a place where the language is foreign, the food is alien and the culture is wildly unfamiliar?
Most of us accept that the act of flying many tens of thousands of miles has an environmental impact, however large or small we might believe that impact might be. It costs serious money too. It would be fair to assume therefore that those of us who do travel a lot have convinced ourselves that we are reaping benefits from our time on the road that outweigh both our financial outlay in paying for our trips as well as the more woolly cost of the carbon footprint we’ve created. But what exactly are those benefits?
Is travel good?
Is it the exposure to other places, other cultures, other cuisines? Can we really quantify such benefits and decide on their relative worth? Presumably we do and that’s why so many of us (myself included) keep on paying for those flights and hotels, jetting off and then coming home and immediately planning another adventure.
But are there similar experiences to be had, lessons to be learned, wisdoms to be acquired, that don’t require us to spend the money or the earth’s resources? Do we really need to travel to enjoy these benefits? Surely those virtues of travel that so many espouse depend not so much on the world outside, but more on our own awareness and ability to make the most of our immediate surroundings? Couldn’t we learn the same lessons in our own countries and continents, which for all of us hold enough places of interest to last us a lifetime of curiosity, if we care to look hard enough?
Our world is obsessed with consumption and the travel industry is where this obsession is most aggressively practised. We are encouraged to go further, for longer; to eat more, to buy more, to experience more. There’s an industry around every single activity related to travel; even the simple act of going for a walk.
St Augustine may well have questioned how much of ‘the book of the world’ is available to those who do not travel. It’s worth bearing in mind that in his day a walk to the nearest town would for most folks have been a highly adventurous journey.