My Unsolicited Perspective
Travel can be used as a force for good. It can evoke empathy, bring people together and tell meaningful stories. It can be a tool for wealth distribution and economic empowerment.
Unfortunately, travel is frequently oversimplified; it is dominated by yearly media bucket lists, influenced by a thirst for social media likes, and homogenized by mass produced itineraries. Raise your hand if someone in the last six months has said to you, “this is the year to visit Cuba before it changes”.
Myanmar, once a tourism dead zone, is now the darling of the backpacking scene. You can sit atop the beautiful pagodas of Bagan with a throng of other tourists, who’ve made the trip because they were told “now is the time to visit.” In your search to find that last glimmer of authenticity, you might realize you’re an accomplice to unintended consequence.
Using public opinion as a compass, isn’t good for tourism. It often dismisses the needs of local people, misinterprets or ignores the resilience of natural ecosystems, and strangely enough, neglects the core values and interests of travelers themselves. There is no inherent value in “getting off the beaten path” and you won’t feel better checking off an item from someone else’s annual travel bucket list.
I’ve sat at hostel bars and listened to arrogant people proclaim they “travel the right way”, so I know what you’re thinking, “who is this elitist trying to tell me how to travel?” I’ll admit, this tiptoes the line of being too preach-y, but my intent is good. My goal is not to tell you how to travel. My goal is to encourage you to think about how YOU want to travel.
I like to consider the following questions when I plan a trip. The aim of these questions is to develop genuine and exciting travel plans, that reflect my interests and identity. I firmly believe a little mindfulness and creativity can combat the negative qualities of mainstream tourism.
A Few Questions to Consider
Can I infuse my interests, hobbies, and passions into my plans?
There is no reason your travel style shouldn’t reflect your personality. If you are a foodie, take a food themed trip. If you’re a history buff, take a history-themed trip. The world of niche/themed travel is growing. For reference, here are a few trips I’d like to do in the coming years:
A long weekend in Detroit exploring the theme of death and rebirth by visiting abandoned industrial sites and checking out the emerging creative and culinary scene.
A week on a houseboat in the Atchafalaya Swamp of Louisiana. I’m intrigued by this pocket of Americana and would love the opportunity to slow down and experience this unfamiliar way of life.
I am a big fan of design. I’d love to return to Medellin, Colombia and explore in depth how they’ve utilized urban planning to turn around a city.
Can I be more creative?
Have the courage and creativity to do cool shit! Alastair Humphreys has made a career out of this and has taken on the honorable challenge of helping others do so. I suggest reading through his blog for inspiration or checking out his newest book, for a more thoughtful breakdown of this idea. Think out of the box and have fun.
Will this challenge me?
Do something to expand your worldview and foster personal growth. Pick two points on a map that represent a physical challenge and try to chart a path between them. If you’re a socialite take a solo trip; if you’re an introvert join a group trip. A challenge gives you a license to immerse yourself in a place. One example I love is, Chris Herwig, who made it his mission to create the largest photography collection of Soviet bus stops in the world, traveling 18,000 miles to do so. Purpose driven adventures can bring meaning to an independent trip or unite a group of people under a common goal.
Have I left room for uncertainty?
Don’t plan everything. Figure out what’s really important and leave the rest for later. Crossing Namibia with a group of friends in a two-wheel drive rental car may not have been smart or well planned, but it will go down as one of the greatest trips of my life. Moments of uncertainty, like finding a place to stay when a freak thunderstorm flooded all the nearby roads will always stay with me.
Am I allowing myself to be vulnerable?
Like the point above, it's worthwhile to deliberately seek uncomfortable situations. Vulnerability is scary, but it is also an invitation for the world to connect. Some of my most impactful experiences have come when I felt the most vulnerable; sitting alone at a restaurant in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, and getting invited to dinner by two nearby women or hitchhiking in the back of a crank-started truck on a remote Burmese road. When planning a trip, identify the moments that make you uncomfortable or nervous and figure out a way to embrace them.
This is one of the most viewed Ted Talks in history, but I still love it. Travel is an opportunity to practice empathy. Why waste it?
6. Do I have to go somewhere foreign or far away?
Meaningful travel is not correlated with total distance or measures of remoteness. Consider going somewhere that is intentionally contrarian. The things which make travel fun: novel experiences, shared excitement, human connection, and foreign sensations can be found anywhere. Give yourself a reason to go somewhere you’ve never considered, and make it an adventure. The world becomes addictively fun when you learn to see every place on the map as a potential adventure.
7. Have I prioritized a few big experiences?
Trip planning generally revolves around choosing a destination, booking a flight and hotels, then filling in the details of what to do as an afterthought. Next time you plan a trip, consider flipping the script. Start with an interesting experience and fill in the details. You could hike an unnamed mountain, retrace the steps of a famous pilgrimage, or attend a cultural festival.
How You Travel Matters
It’s easy for an admittedly privileged, single male, with no attachments, limited responsibility, and good health (that’s me 🙋) to make these suggestions. It will be more challenging for those traveling in large groups, with children, or with limited time, but it’s not impossible.
This post isn’t meant as a condemnation of inexperienced travelers, tourism industry professionals, content creators, or those who vacation solely to relax and detach. It is simply a plea for greater mindfulness and creativity; an alternative to the harmful travel habits and mentality we consider normal. Travel is an investment in yourself, the destination you’re visiting, the people you encounter, and the landscapes you traverse. How you travel matters.