Shouldn’t we just stop travelling abroad?
In crazy times like these with COVID-19 causing a global lock-down filled with lots of uncertainty, expected increase in airline ticket fares and “flight shaming” very high on the agenda, I have begun to ask myself the question: Wouldn’t it make more sense just to cancel all of my travel plans and instead only travel within my own country going forward?
Shouldn’t we just stop travelling abroad? Sometimes I think it would be the easiest option to calm my mind, but then I start thinking back on my past experiences and the reasons for why I travel and what it can “do” to us.
Travelling has a bigger and more important “mission” than just going on a traditional vacation. This may sound a bit cheesy or like a slight exaggeration, but I do in fact really believe in the power of travel. Throughout this blog post I will try to elaborate a bit more on the main reasons for why I — and you — should keep travelling in the future; although maybe in different and more responsible ways.
1. Travel creates understanding and empathy across borders — and prevents nationalism and protectionism
At the time of writing this blog post, the vast majority of the world has been shut down, with borders closed, no flights in the air, the beginning of an economic recession and a “new normal” where handshakes, hugs, and big gatherings seem like a thing of the past.
We will hopefully recover soon economically, but this will indefinitely have consequences for us mentally. Our perspectives will change and will influence behaviour based on a pre and post COVID-19 mindset. One of those things is travel. In the coming months, the world will seem scarier and less safe. We will feel insecure and will question whether it’s worth traveling and those with the “travel bug” will face uncertainty of where it is “safe” to go.
Simultaneously we are seeing an interesting development where governments have started to incentivize domestic travel, or considering it, to kickstart the tourism industry again. There is absolutely nothing wrong with travelling domestically (we should, in fact, be more proud of our home countries and explore them more in general), but it comes at a cost. These “crisis” laws/programs have a tendency to stick once they have been implemented, and that will potentially give less urge to explore the world. In the short term, it can work as great drivers to kick-start the economy, but it’s crucial that we avoid such initiatives in the long term. Here it’s also important to note that the most countries who rely on tourism the most (i.e. the developing countries) don’t necessarily have the GDP to support their local tourism initiatives. This will in turn only increase a wealth gap between nations as “Westerners” stay in their own (GDP rich) countries instead of taking their tourism dollars to developing nations.
It’s vital that we keep travelling and seeking connections with those who are different than us. People who were raised in different cultures, have different beliefs, think in different ways and solve problems with varying mindsets. We need to understand where people are coming from and accept that their view on the world is different than ours. If we stop travelling abroad, we don’t get the whole truth — only our own truth. And we automatically start taking our thoughts for granted, and that they, of course, are the right ones. That mindset is potentially way more dangerous than a health disease.
My deep why for travelling is (meeting) people and learning about cultures and environments that is different than our own. An online Zoom or Teams meeting won’t do the trick here. Neither will be reading a book about it. Human are complex by nature beings and that’s what’s so fascinating to experience when you get “out on the road”. Quite simply, travel is the best and easiest way to create empathy, solidarity and resilience — something the world is indeed in need of during these times.
The past year I have done extensive research on young generations’ (Gen Z) travel motivation’s and future trends through my work in KILROY, and I found it super interesting that:
“The desire to travel abroad is often evoked by looking at a beautiful Instagram picture or watching a compelling YouTube video about a specific destination. However, what they tend to think back on as the best part of their trip are those magical encounters with unknown people they meet along the way”
Think about that for a second. When you think back on your past trips what are the moments that stick in the back of your mind? Do you reminisce on seeing the “Taj Mahal,”or “Eiffel Tower,” and other top sightseeing destinations or are your memories filled with the small unexpected stories, connections and people you met along the way?
An important distinction: The difference between travel and vacation
Let’s start with some clarification to make sure we are aligned on the difference between vacation and travel. I always try to describe the difference something like this:
“A vacation intends to make you relaxed and fully recovered for once you are back home. On the contrary, travelling makes you feel like you’ll need a vacation once you get back home because of all the new impressions and intense experiences you got during your trip.”
The primary driver of a vacation is to relax and “get away from everyday life”, whereas I consider travel in this article more as a journey to learn about cultures by exploring new places and meeting new people. A one-week all-inclusive charter vacation to the Canary Islands won’t do much good in regards to the points mentioned above. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a more traditional charter type vacation (well, actually there is and something I will address more in detail later), but from my point of view, you can as well relax and “get away” in a lovely summer house somewhere locally in Denmark. You don’t HAVE to travel to Thailand for seven days if relaxation is your ONLY motivation for going.
Changing behaviour among younger generations
Luckily, younger generations tend to agree. An increasing percentage of young travellers today primarily travel to learn and explore other cultures. Based on a survey we did last year, 75% of the respondents below 25 years of age mentioned they travel to “learn about other cultures”. The answer “To relax and get away from everyday life” was also very important to them, but it was not the most common one. This new movement of the so-called Promadic Travelers (progressive nomad) prioritize travel that offers the ability to learn and explore the world in different ways:
In future, these often younger promadic travellers will revitalize the way we think of tourism, by getting more in contact with local communities, partaking in immersive cultural exchanges and creating understanding through social impact projects and together with NGO’s.
This leads us to the next point.
2. Travel supports the development of local communities and is a tool for poverty alleviation — if we do it right
Tourism accounts for more than 10% of the worlds global BNP and employs one in 10 jobs, making it one of the biggest industries in the world. Developing countries rely heavily on tourism and if we stop travelling to these countries it will have massive consequences for the local communities. Sustainable tourism leads to employment diversification on a local level, which reduces the vulnerability of the poor and leads to increased opportunity and economic empowerment. By only travelling domestically we will contribute less to the economic development of these “less-fortunate” countries.
The thing about sustainability and travel
There are obviously a lot of down-sides of tourism too. In the past years, we have been bombarded with new words in the media such as “overtourism” and “flight shaming”, all part of the ever growing and much needed sustainability agenda. Climate change and sustainability today are inextricably linked with each other, however, sustainability in tourism is in fact way more than just climate and co2-emissions. It’s also about making sure money stays in the local communities, to nature conservation, to ensure animal welfare and to prevent overtourism. The tourism industry has actually been trying to be more sustainable for generations (e.g. securing animal welfare by making it illegal to ride elephants), but the climate debate has overshadowed the other issues, probably because it’s much more of global and evident problem.
During the above-mentioned research, it also became evident that young people today almost feel ashamed of travelling and being a tourist. Many young people expressed the guilt they feel from their peers when they do decide to fly and often noted that they were made to feel like they were doing something almost illegal — this is devastating to hear and one of the main reasons I started writing this blog post in the first place. It is, of course, okay to travel. In fact, I strongly recommend you to travel.
Flying does undoubtedly have an impact on the environment and we should definitely think about it and change our behaviour accordingly. But we should not forget that other issues remain. Today you are considered a sustainable traveller if you simply replace your flight booking with train, but travelling to super crowded Venice in the middle of July is also not very sustainable. Some destinations are being “loved to death” and overrun by tourists. Here locals are being pushed out of their homes in return for fancy hotel chains and somewhat created a “us against them (rich tourists)” mentally — and basically creating the opposite of empathy and solidarity among locals.
Also, too often people go for the ordinary and charter-style trips where big companies own the entire ecosystem; from flights to hotels to food, to guides and to experiences. This means that the vast majority of the money goes back to the big corporations and their home countries, and thus only leaves little back to the local communities.
Not only is this not sustainable, but it is also not authentic. Staying in a resort, only going out on day tours in comfortable air-conditioned busses and eating western-style buffets at the hotel does not give you an authentic feeling of what the country is really like. When we travel we should try to embrace the local culture and experience it in the way that they do things. Otherwise, you can might as well stay at home.
Travel CAN be beneficial and sustainable — the rise of the responsible traveller
How we get to the destination, the choice of accommodation, local transport options and the way we interact with local communities are all factors in sustainable tourism. We need a more holistic approach than just believing skipping flights will solve the problem.
Instead, we need to transition into more to a responsible mindset when it comes to travel. A mindset that considers how we can travel responsibly by choosing suppliers where the majority of the revenue stays in local communities, by actively engaging and learning from the cultures we visit, by visiting and supporting local NGO projects and by limiting the co2-footprint as much as possible. Examples of that could be more train journeys, buying compensation schemes, flying as direct as possible (or at least avoid unnecessary stop-over flights), and choosing the local overnight bus as opposed to a domestic flight. And needless to say, you should also skip the annual shopping weekend flight to New York if you are into that kind of thing.
The responsible mindset acknowledges that travel has an impact on co2-emissions, but also recognizes that travel positively contributes to the economy of the destination. Even though we in Scandinavia have the climate debate very high on the political agenda, local communities don’t care a lot about climate changes in 10 or 30 years, but rather on having enough money to put food on the table tomorrow. That put things in perspective (at least it did for me). If we stop travelling abroad from one day to the other, those depending on tourism will be forced to seek out other streams of income. Whether that is doable or not I’m not the right one to answer, but it is surely not an easy transition having little to no income to invest.
(If you are a nerd like me and want to know more about sustainability in the travel industry, I recommend you to see this Youtube video on adventure tourism and how it for instance helps nature conservation)
3. Travel enables self-development and personal growth
Based on the first two bullet points, I probably made it sound like you should travel to save the world. That is of course not the case. We travel first and foremost for our own personal benefits — to relax, to learn, to work, to reconnect with friends and family or simply to be entertained because we are seeking something exciting or different than what we can find in our home countries.
I also travel because of all of these reasons. In recent years though I have become particularly interested in what travel can do to you mentally. Travel can unlock and “hack” your mind, unlike any other free time activity I have ever experienced. It’s such a great enabler for challenging our status quo’s and thereby developing ourselves into new (unknown) directions. Travel makes us learn more about ourselves and find new sides we didn’t know about. Sometimes we realize new positive sides and sometimes “bad” sides — and that is what makes us understand ourselves better.
Going for a gap year or sabbatical trip is as much is a journey (and investment) for your mind as it is for exploring the beauty of destinations.
How an open mind and being curious can foster personal growth
The most straight forward way to personal growth is to be challenged outside of your comfort zone. First-time travellers standing in the middle of a local Vietnamese market could serve as a prime example of a unique experience that fosters growth and experiental learning. Watching all bikes go by, feeling the vibe, listening to all the sounds, taking in all the intense smells and trying to communicate with locals who speak absolutely no English may make you a bit uncomfortable at first, but that is a good thing. It makes us learn about other cultures, makes us more informed and makes us think differently about things when you experience them first hand. Above all else, it catalyzes growth and acceptance of all things new — things you may have never experienced before. You are there, in the midst of all this exciting chaos and you may not think it has a direct impact on you, but eventually, you will find a lesson from each unique experience. Often you don’t recognize the learnings and growth at the moment, but it is once you get home you start to reflect and realize what that adventure “did to you”.
By not travelling abroad you will miss those unique moments of learning. By staying at home and not traveling to these remote places, where everything is different, you miss out on these experiences which makes it more difficult to go into this growth mindset. I’m not saying you can not get into this “mode” while staying at home, but travelling abroad is a great — and relatively easy — way to do activate this process.
I fully recognize that this has not become easier as the world becomes smaller. In the past, the further away you travelled the more exotic the destination (and likelihood to activate growth). That is no longer the case. If you look at Bali today, it’s more Western, “familiar” and touristed than going to the forests in Northern Sweden, which is still quite raw and remote.
So why shouldn’t we just visit our neighboring countries instead? Well, there are many authentic and cool “exotic” experiences to be explored in our backyards, but travelling only to neighbouring countries have some limitations. As also mentioned in the first point, we think more or less in the same way. The societies look more or less the same. The Law of Jante makes many of us have very similar mindsets, beliefs and behaviours. Growth can indeed happen through climbing a mountain, and here it works great travelling regionally, but you should choose to travel far to meet people, immerse yourself in new cultures, absorb new ideas, and challenge all the norms you have been accustomed to.
Replacing travel with technology
In a COVID-19 world with social distancing and “work from home” measures, online meetings and virtual Friday-bars have become the new normal. Those who know me well know I’m all in for adopting new technologies that can do things smarter, faster and better than we are used to. However, there are still some elements we can’t replace with apps just yet. Learning and truly understanding other cultures are two of those examples, where we tend to learn best and most when we are “there” physically.
Take language learning apps as an example. They work really well, but you still tend to learn better when you talk to locals on a daily basis and get the full picture. Maybe it’s because of the frequency of speaking the language, context or simply because it’s more fun, but nevertheless it’s still the case.
Another example could be cultural understanding through media. I believe that it is almost impossible to truly understand other cultures when you only read about it in books or via news media. You can indeed read about a conflict, but you don’t get all the nuances, feelings and emotions involved when not being there. I believe that this is also one of the main reasons why reporters are still “on the ground” and not just reporting from a comfortable TV studio at home, far away from Corona and conflicts. It’s easy to get a perception of what a country is like through news or social media feeds, but it was first during my trips to Iran, Kazakhstan and Saudi Arabia that I truly understood their culture and “where they are coming from”. The news media doesn't necessarily portray them as warm and welcoming, but being there in person you will experience the complete opposite. It made me think differently about “them” and myself. Travel breaks down the mental and physical barriers for cultural understanding through information.
Understanding — and respecting — other cultures creates perspective, makes you humble and grounded. If you travel off the beaten path and away from the cookie-cutter type of vacations, you will be faced with challenges and situations you didn’t, and couldn’t prepare for in advance. But that is only a good thing in our comfy and super organized area of the world, as it’s those magical moments where we really start to learn and grow.
4. Suggestions on how to travel abroad “post-corona”
If you are still reading, you are probably also curious about what all this means to you and your travel plans going forward. Travelling in the next months or even years will undoubtedly seem more complicated and overwhelming to most people. However, it’s crucial that we start travelling again when the world does open up. Below, I will share my own “checklist” on how to travel safely and on how to become (a more) responsible traveller in the future. In general, I will do a bit more research on the destination beforehand, arrange travels where I don’t necessarily HAVE to fly and save long-haul flights for my longer “expeditions” to those further away destinations. There are plenty of unexplored and unique experiences out there and for me, that includes (among others) more weekend trips in the Nordic countries surrounded by nature and week-long vacations by train down in the Balkans.
My checklist for exploring the world safely and responsibly:
✔️ Check up on the country guidelines and make sure it’s safe to travel there. It’s important to not only research if the borders are open, but also whether shops, restaurants and activities are in operation to make sure you will get the most out of the trip.
✔️ Remember social distancing and proper hygiene, just like we are used to at home.
✔️ Explore the nature more. Go for more adventures by hiking, biking and kayaking in nature. Camp in wild camps and shelters.
✔️ Go for local. Choose local suppliers wherever possible, or at least make sure to investigate that the majority of revenue goes back to the local community. Once you reach your destination always find a local “fixer” to learn more about local tips and tricks that will make your travel that much more enjoyable and authentic.
✔️ Go for the “no. 2 cities” and travel in shoulder seasons. Instead of always choosing the capitals like Amsterdam or Paris, plan a trip to go visit Utrecht or Marseille (it’s lovely btw). If you have to travel to the capitals, then do it in shoulder seasons when it’s less crowded.
✔️ Limit the number of trips where you have to fly and be better at mixing various modes of transportation. Don’t see the train just as a slower alternative for flights, but rather a unique opportunity to slow down and embrace window-watching, night trains and connect with other travellers. This change will also be easier as the flight prices are expected to go up dramatically in the coming year(s).
✔️ Skip domestic flights and go for direct flights wherever possible. Replace the short domestic flights with local transportation whenever possible— using local transport like “chicken busses” is sure to be that much more memorable and a great place for talking to locals. And always go for direct flights to a destination as unnecessary stop-over flights pollute 30% more in general.
✔️ Use compensation schemes when you fly and head out for those longer expeditions. Compensation schemes will not equalize co2-emissions per say (it’s way more complicated than that), but it is a good way to contribute to important projects and knowing that the alternative better than nothing. Make sure to check up that the companies behind are legit and the programs are making a real difference (a good indicator is that they can clearly show where your contribution goes).
✔️ Stay curious and keep an open mind. The world has so much to offer as long as you keep a positive outlook and an open mind! Try to take away a lesson from each destination you visit!
To sum up: Right now it is not the time to travel far and take unnecessary health-risks, but it’s vital that we keep travelling (responsibly) and exploring our magnificent planet with all the amazing people living on it as soon as the world opens up again.
Disclaimer: I’m working in the Travel Industry and thus have a natural bias, however, this article is purely based on my own reflections, and I would love to hear your comments and thoughts on this matter? If you are interested in reading similar posts or about other travel-related topics in the future, make sure to give the article a “clap” and/or let me know your feedback in the comment section below.
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