I mean the persistent lure of travel—even in the face of all those airport horror stories, outrageous costs, cancellations, crowds and cattle-car accommodations. One ex-traveler put it this way: “Prices everywhere you go are absurd, and still, crowds are everywhere. Places are understaffed, expensive, the service is atrocious, and the quality of the food is all but gone.”
Why do people willingly endure these indignities, and what do they gain from the experience? They think that travel will somehow transform them, make them better, more cultured people, give them more notches in their conversational belts, and so on. Travel, they think, broadens the mind, a notion I had some fun with a couple of years ago. And how many of you have dozed off listening to a returned traveler’s stories?
Tourism (and who wants to be labeled a tourist?) has grown exponentially—and so have all its environmental impacts—as those with leisure, money and opportunity have proliferated.
In 1950 there were 25 million international tourist arrivals, in 1970 the number was 166 million, and by 1990 it had grown to 435 million. From 1990 to 2018 numbers more than tripled reaching 1.442 billion. By 2030, 1.8 billion tourist arrivals are projected.
A recent New Yorker story brought to mind some of the reasons why I no longer will undertake any long-distance travel. I guess money is one reason. But an older person would have to be some kind of masochist to go through the indignities I mentioned earlier.
Some of my best friends are travelers, and I excuse their behavior on the grounds that they are bored. All travelers feel the need to expose themselves to something different, to feel something different, to expand their stale lives. But in the end travel makes you a spectator, not a participant, in another culture.
Travel may in some sense be fun, but it also dehumanizes. It makes us into zoo-goers with cameras. It can produce a false sense of empathy or a pseudo-compassion. We can happily identify with, say, the lifestyle of the Danes and show pained sympathy for the poverty in Lesotho. Travel always, I think, gives one a false sense of empowerment.
Celebrity travel to the most dangerous environments is just such a search for new sensations permitted by money and access. At bottom this is not science but one-upmanship on the fools who fly coach. Yet, as recent events have shown, you can’t fly too near the sun without your wings melting.