One thing you cannot get by googling is experience. To travel means to experience something new. And to touch, smell and taste it. To feel it.
Ever since Adam and Eve ventured out, humans have wandered. The same urge stimulated Caveperson to invent the wheel, arguably the most important innovation ever. Subsequently, migration has come to define our species and shaped our continents and cultures. 1 in 30 of us live in a country other than the one of our birth.
International travel and tourism come on top of that. They matter: some 10% of world GDP, 1 in 10 jobs ,and 30% of services and exports depend on it. Aside from intercultural exchange and consuming foreign goods and services, travel also earns bragging rights: “I swam in Lake Atitlan,”; “I went to Ouagadougou”; “I climbed Mount Fuji”…
Regardless of the time spent somewhere, it becomes an intrinsic part of your identity. Even if that garish shirt from Bali languishes in your wardrobe, back in dull old London. An exotic stamp in your passport makes you an expert on that country, at least at dinner parties.
Travel depends on need, desire, and opportunity. Saudis travel because outside attractions are so compelling for them. Belarusians want to go somewhere – anywhere – but can’t. Historically, the British have always been champion globe-trotters. To get away from Foggy Albion?
12th century Mongolians invented the laissez passer along with paper money. Strolling down the Silk Road became easier without requiring armed escorts and hefting bags of gold. Some of that original romance survives in today’s passports commanding foreigners to “allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance…”. Who has not got a little misty-eyed and stood a little taller on reading these words, when they got their first passport?
Sadly, 58% Americans have not had such misty experiences although they all got taller over time. Meanwhile, the European Union ’s passport-less internal borders mean that two-thirds of its citizens have crossed at least one frontier across its 27 countries. Such criss-crossing creates human connections that thrive not so much on shared values as on quaint differences and football rivalries.
Of course, all passports are not equal. In the BC (Before COVID) world, the Japanese passport was the most powerful allowing visa free travel to 193 countries while Afghans made do with 26. And passports are no longer the talisman as in Kublai Khan’s day when his passport carried the admirably clear injunction: “if you defy me, you die”. Today, thousands of foreigners languish in distant prisons. That should not put you off travelling (unless drug peddling or human trafficking).
Nowadays, there are many good reasons to uproot and go: school exchanges in your teens, ‘gap’ years in your 20s, career postings in your 30s, mid-career sabbaticals in your 40s, mid-life crises in your 50s, tax-exiling in your 60s, and retirement to sunny climes in your 70s.
This rosy picture of a peripatetic world needs tempering. More than 80 million refugees and displaced did not want to go anywhere but were forced to do so by conflicts, disasters, and poverty.
However, the world has closed. Thanks to COVID-19, 2020 saw an 80-90% reduction in tourism. On current trends with virus variants and vaccine inequities, keep your passport stored till 2024. Even then, it may become mandatory to download an app to calculate and offset your carbon footprint before being allowed to travel.
So, what happens when the world doesn’t move freely? When curiosity about others is replaced by fear of them? When a single case of COVID in Australia takes precedence over 400,000 daily cases In India? When staying ‘local’ is a virtue, and going ‘global’ becomes a vice? When the next street becomes as foreign as the next country?
In such circumstance, distances of the heart grow faster than bodily distances. The functional gaps, filled by Whatsapp and Zoom, come at the cost of a numbing personal detachment. Indifference fills the void, not helped by the emotional and mental dysfunctions that follow induced loneliness.
Ignorance, misunderstanding, and nationalism grow. Those who have not breathed another country’s air are easily biased against it when they hear something negative about it. Pejorative references to the Wuhan virus and the Indian variant have bred racism and xenophobia.
Even at the best of times, our knowledge and compassion are sporadic – dependent on randomly-consumed news which itself depends on the vagaries of the news gathering business. Especially when despots – such as Eritrea and North Korea do their dirty deeds with impunity, behind closed borders. So, when we don’t have “fond memories” of our travels to fall back upon, empathy with remote places evaporates. Atrocities in Myanmar, Tigray or Xinjiang are more likely to stir a personal reaction if they happen somewhere you have visited, and where you recall the face of a taxi driver or local acquaintance. Brutalities in ‘known places’ stir discussion. Multiple such discussions generate concern and calls for action.
Whole swathes of the world are least understood – and, not surprisingly, most neglected. Because they are least visited. Despite Africa’s tourism potential, a meagre 6000 went to Equatorial Guinea, compared to Thailand’s 40 million tourists. An American survey on preferred destinations cited no Asian, African or Middle Eastern country in its Top Ten.
For travel to make you really grow, you need the shock from imbibing a different culture, and the unsettling re-orientation that follows. Can that be simulated by learning remotely about a country? Not really. Armchair travel is like describing a dish’s flavour than actually savouring it.
There is a partial remedy. if you have been missing reindeer meatballs, Finnair has been selling its plane food in supermarkets. Or you could have forked out SG$642 for an eight-course meal in first-class in a Singapore Airlines superjumbo parked at Changi airport. This may sate the appetite but that is not the same as inducing destination attachment or creating empathy with people there.
But how you travel also matters. Not all globetrotting generates harmony. This cringeworthy list of the most disliked tourists provides interesting insights on how we are seen by others. The comfort is that even if you are disliked somewhere, you may be loved elsewhere. But only the Japanese appear to be adored everywhere; it seems that their passport really does have special magic.
Perhaps, it is also worth reflecting that the best journeys may be the ones without purpose. Because we are open to discover new marvels without fear or phobia. And make new friends without prejudice or paranoia.
However, the most important value of travel is not widely appreciated. It is the coming back home. And seeing it with fresh, unblinkered eyes. If that means a new lens on so many old problems that weigh us down, the sooner the world re-opens, the better for humanity.