Is travel an inherently selfish indulgence or a vehicle to bring about world peace? The travel and tourism industry is huge, and in 2010 over 940 million people traveled outside their own country as tourists and generated $919 billion dollars in global revenue.
That is a lot opportunity for both mischief and genuine interaction. So the question comes back to: is the opening of borders leading to greater understanding or a hardening of stereotypes?
I’ve been on the road for the past 12 years, both teaching children and working in international development. I’ve been a traveler, a tourist, an expat, and an undocumented worker (yup). In all this time I’ve become convinced of the power that travel has on people, both good and bad.
The Bad in Travel
Yes, let’s get this out of the way. Bad things happen when bad people travel. But, then again, bad things happen when bad people stay at home too. I’ve seen women exploited for sex by humanitarian workers, international police, and drunk college kids.
I’ve seen kids trafficked and begging on the streets, usually by internationals who only care about money.
I’ve seen rude Americans, drunk Brits, demeaning Australians, paranoid Japanese, and threatening Indians. I’ve seen poor people yelled at in restaurants because a cook messed up. I’ve seen people yell at taxi drivers who don’t understand their language. I see people trying desperately to make another country just like their own. Usually they get angry when the other side doesn’t understand they are “doing things wrong.”
These are all shades of the negative side of travel, but also the human condition. Are you depressed yet?
The Good in Travel
Despite seeing all the lousy things that humans do to each other I still feel that travel is making a positive impact on the world. Anyone who travels finds their belief system and world view challenged almost immediately. When you see desperate, stupid poverty (the kind where kids die from lack of food) there is nothing that you can do but help. Or at least start to appreciate everything you have and begin to share it.
Travel is experiential education. You learn by doing. Sometimes you make mistakes, and when you are away from your support system those mistakes tend to have bigger consequences. This can lead to more responsible actions, an opened mind, and tolerance.
One of the worst diseases spreading through our modern world is a lack of tolerance. Partisan bickering, sensationalism in the news, and the desire to gain political points through an “Us” vs “Them” mentality. All this does is lead to isolationism and a lack of tolerance in views, thoughts and expressions.
Travel can be the cure to intolerance. Bad people may travel. Stupid people may travel. But each time they do my bet is they are forced to think a little bit harder than if they stayed home.
How to Save the World
I have been involved in a lot international development projects, in peacebuilding initiatives, employment generation, women’s empowerment, etc etc. But all the things that have made a difference in my life have come from two simple things given freely by a few extraordinary people in my life:
Saving the world can be a daunting undertaking. But I guarantee that if each of those 940 million annual travelers show kindness and gave some time to the people around them, the world would be a better place. Just be kind to the person next to you. It really is that simple.
I heard the internet pioneer Chris Brogan say recently (paraphrased):
We are living through a revolution. When the revolution is over what will you have accomplished? Now is not the time to try to earn $$ on cheap tricks and scams but to build something lasting, transformational and that makes an impact.
I think his statement holds true just as much for the breaking down of borders through the internet as it does the liberalization of travel.
Can travel make the world a better place? Share your thoughts below.