Ten Reasons Why Travel Won’t Make You Better
With the death of Anthony Bourdain, there have been many well meaning articles which encourage people to travel so that they can become better people. This is a common theme in travel writing- the transformative power of travel. However, I am uncomfortable with this framing- especially the claim that travel makes you better. Sometimes this claim is qualified by saying that it will make a person more adventurous, more comfortable with strangers, smarter, more flexible, more self aware, etc. I think this is a dangerous narrative, and that believing that travel makes a person better can actually make a person worse. At the very least, it is a hollow, self-congratulatory platitude for those who have had the privilege of traveling. So, to buck the trend of “travel makes you better” here is a top ten list of how travel doesn’t make you better.
1.Better is Comparative
What is better? Better is a comparative adjective. Thus, to argue that travel makes someone “better” means that there is an unnamed subject that the traveler is better than. Perhaps travel makes a person better than the person they were before they traveled. The comparison is between the past and present self. More darkly, the comparison could be between the traveler and those who have not traveled. This is problematic because travel is a privilege, which will be addressed later. While it may seem benign to suppose that travel makes an individual better than they were before they traveled, this argument concedes that the worth of a human being has something to do with how much they have traveled. Am I a better person because I have traveled? No, the quality of my humanity is no better. I may be more knowledgeable about certain subjects, have some fond memories, or feel proud of confronting my fears but my overall “betterness” is non-existent. I am no better than the human I was before I traveled and no better than any human who has not traveled. Really, this vague notion of “better” is inherently hierarchical, as it divides humans (even as individuals) into better and lesser. The danger of this is that, once again, travel is a privilege that not everyone has access to. It also assumes that travel is intrinsically good.
2. Better is Subjective
Most people who argue that travel makes you better are probably not intending to divide the world between better and lesser people. The sloppy comparison is not meant to be harmful. It is just an example of the taken for granted expressions of common speech. When travel blogs argue that travel makes you “better” it is meant to express that travel improves a set of specific characteristics of an individual traveler. For instance, a travel blog might argue that travel makes a person better at problem solving or better at talking to strangers. Arguably, travel can make someone better at some things. For example, a person who travels frequently may be better at navigating public transportation systems or packing a suitcase (of course, these very specific applications of “better” are not typical of the “travel makes you better arguments” ). It seems reasonable that a person who packs suitcases often may gain skills in fitting objects into a small space and deciding what not to pack as a matter of experience. Compared to someone who does not pack suitcases, this seems true. However, “better” must still be operationalized. How does one measure the quality of betterness at packing suitcases? The volume of objects that are fit inside? The amount of time it takes to pack said objects? If these were deemed the measures of “betterness,” travel is not the only act that creates the improvement of these skills, but rather the act of frequent packing that is associated with travel. A person could develop this skill as a hobby, as a competitive sport (the made up sport of timed packing contests), frequent moving, because of work travel, or maybe even playing Tetris. The big idea is that most uses of the word “better” are subjective. “Better” is not an objective measure (as in the packing example, where it is based upon time and volume) but rather personal opinions, emotions, norms, or less measurable qualities. A person who travels may indeed be “better” at talking to strangers by some objective measures, but this is unlikely to be universally true or true only on account of the travel experience. Finally, the improvement of this skill is only subjectively important.
Travel probably has made me “better” at packing and camping… but only marginally.
3.Better is Fleeting
Years ago, I spent a semester in South Korea, I studied Korean history and language. When I returned to the United States, I maintained my interest in the country for a short time by taking a another Korean history class and reading books. For a time, it could be said that I was “better” at Korean language and “better” at history (as compared to my pre-travel self and the average American who had not studied these things). But with time, this knowledge has faded. While I am still more knowledgeable about topics related to Korea than I would have been had I never studied or traveled there, there are still plenty of things I never learned, will never know, and have long forgotten. The disciplined study of of another language or a country’s history, art, popular culture, music, etc. is a lifelong pursuit that cannot be accomplished simply with a visit, no matter the length. Even becoming an expert in a subject area related to a specific country or area is an ongoing struggle to stay abreast of the latest research. Without ongoing effort to learn more, question what is known, build upon existing knowledge, and make connections to other areas of knowledge…”better” is subject to entropy. Thus, while travel may make someone “better” in the sense they are more knowledgeable, this kind of better declines with time unless effort is made to maintain or improve upon the original set of knowledge.
So many forgotten experiences…so much lost knowledge…
Some travel blogs argue that travel makes someone better, not in the area of knowledge, but in personality traits such as flexibility, problem solving, interpersonal skills, etc. I imagine that these areas are more variable in their decline. A person who learned to problem solve while traveling may have gained a lifelong skill, or, perhaps in other contexts, that same person could become rigid. On the other hand, some of these traits might grow better with time, irrespective of travel. I imagine that the average person who must work and interact with people would over time improve their interpersonal skills simply as a matter of surviving in a society wherein some level of interpersonal skills are required for maintaining a job, maintaining friendships, and navigating social interactions to meet basic needs like food and shelter. In any event, whatever “better” is, ultimately it is illusive, temporary, and contextual.
4. Better Rarely Matters
Suppose travel does make a person better in some ways. I think that my geography skills are probably better than they might be had I never traveled (though my studious roommates who do not internationally travel are much better at geography than I am AND my comrade who has a P.h.d in GIS is infinitely better at geography than I am). So what? Why does it matter? Why does it matter that I might be better than average at geography or alternatively worse than others at it? My worth as a human being is not dependent upon my geography skills. Knowing geography is useful in some contexts (such as teaching geography, current event literacy, or trivia), but the masses of the world do not live or die by my knowledge of geography. The masses of the world live and die in poverty, by preventable disease, by the wars inflicted by my own country, and the legacies of colonization exasperated by the inequalities of global capitalism. My knowledge of geography is important only inasmuch as it can be used to understand and dismantle systems of power. Can travel offer insights that can work towards this end? Of course. It can connect people to others, be a tool of solidarity and collaboration, can mobilize others towards common causes, or be a source of education on injustices. This matters, but only because I value the advancement of social struggle. Travel that makes a person a “better” activist in terms of their effectiveness in advancing struggle certainly has value. Travel that connects and fuels social movements has value. But, almost all of my travel is for pleasure, education, and self-fulfillment. Whatever I gain in the interest of these things, even if I personally become “better”- means little to the rest of the world…which traveling should teach is often entrenched in poverty. What does it matter if I become better at talking to strangers, packing a suitcase, navigating public transportation, or gain the sense I am a more whole person? What does it matter if I become more knowledgeable about a country’s history or culture? What does better matter unless it is a means to an end? The end of self betterment is not globally liberating. The end of fond memories or confronting fear will not ensure a more just world. Becoming a “better” person simply doesn’t matter. We all die. So the goal of becoming a better person for its own sake is a dead end. Becoming a “better” person…in the interest of becoming a more useful and effective member of movements for social change expands the self beyond an individual life or needs. Of course, this is also draining, disappointing, and doesn’t make for great Instagram photos. I am not selfless and tireless enough to only travel in the interest of building social change. So, what does my “better” matter, if not for those things? What does anyone’s “better” matter, if not for those things? And, since travel is not required to become better at the things that truly matter (as much as anything matters in the indifferent universe), does travel matter?
Some of my knowledge from travel is useful when I play trivia with friends
5.Travel is a Privilege:
A major problem with the notion that travel makes you better is that not everyone can travel. 80% of the world lives on less than $10 a day. For most of the world, international travel is not an option because it is simply too expensive. This means that travel is mostly a source of “betterment” to people from wealthier countries (i.e. often those with colonial histories which enabled earlier economic development at the expense of exploited colonies). Within wealthier countries where more people may have the leisure time and resources to travel, race, class, gender, sexuality, age, ability, and other sources of social inequality limits who is able to travel and who is not. I have certainly seen many Australians traveling in Europe, but I would be hard pressed to find an aboriginal Australian among them. This isn’t to argue that aboriginal Australians never travel, but since 19% of the population lived in poverty (in 2014), it would be harder for many of them to afford travel. 16% of Americans live in poverty, but 27% of African Americans live in poverty and 26% of Hispanics. Larger segments of racial minority populations simply cannot to travel on account of poverty, not to mention other barriers such as incarceration or safety issues. 12% of Americans have disabilities. While having a disability does not mean that a person cannot travel, depending on the disability, it could create barriers or restrictions to travel. Travel safety is also an issue. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, queer, etc. travelers may be restricted in where they can visit to do fear of repression, hate crimes, incarceration, etc. Travel is far easier if you have money, are cisgender male, straight, white, healthy, young, and child free. Of course, there are plenty of people who are not these things and who travel. Still, 63% of Americans have never been outside the country. It is easy to think that Americans are ignorant, xenophobic bumpkins. In a survey (conducted by a luggage company), 76% of respondents said they wanted to travel but it wasn’t financially possible and 25% said they lacked the time. Only 10% responded that they had no interest. The bottom line is that most people in the world cannot afford to travel or have social barriers to travel. It seems unfair to rate some people as “better” for doing something that is out of the reach of so many more.
A street in Bridgetown, Barbados
6. Not Wanting to Travel is Okay
One of the myths behind travel is that it will open up the world, transforming the traveler into someone who is no longer closed minded, ignorant, prejudiced, provincial, etc. This implies that people who do not travel are closed minded, ignorant, prejudiced, and so on. Now, I certainly want people to look at the world beyond borders. I want people to think against our foreign policy and national interests. I agree that society would be better if there was less racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism, ableism, and all the other “isms.” But, a person does not have to travel to be an open minded internationalist who wants to end social inequalities. Travel is not the only means nor the best means to become open minded and globally aware. There are plenty of travelers who travel with their prejudices and ignorance. There are plenty of travelers who change very little after their experience. Travel is not the magic key to betterment.
Most of my friends do not travel. Yet, all of my friends are aware of the world and committed to social justice. Some of my friends do not travel due to income, lack of vacation time, health, criminal background, and other barriers. I have one friend who adamantly says he does not want to travel. Is there anything wrong with this? Why would there be? Not everyone wants to travel, just as not everyone wants to plant a garden, watch birds, go for long hikes, collect stamps, go to sporting events, attend concerts, scuba dive, or any number of other activities. Not wanting to travel doesn’t make someone “bad” or stupid, or closed minded, or inferior. It is simply a matter of preference. A person can prefer not to travel, but still have a deep interest in learning about the world and still have a strong commitment to changing social injustices. Just as a person can travel and be entirely indifferent to social injustice and blind to privilege. There are many ways to learn about the world. Formal education, self-education, employment, community engagement, volunteering, activism, hobbies, etc. can connect individuals to people who are different from themselves and broaden the mind to social justice issues.
7. Travel Can Be Unethical
There are many unethical aspects to travel. Firstly, travel requires transportation- which generally means using more fossil fuels than one would use if they just stayed home. Travel can also be a source of waste. For instance, the airline industry produces 5.2 million tons of waste each year in the form of such things as empty bottles, uneaten meals, packaging, etc. https://www.cnn.com/travel/article/airlines-cabin-waste/index.html
Many countries lack waste management systems, so even if a person wants to recycle or compost, there is a lack of infrastructure to support this, much less the more basic service of garbage collection. I have certainly littered when in other countries simply because proper trash disposal was nowhere to be found. Increased travel to natural areas can impact plant and animal populations and increased travel anywhere creates more demand for tourist supporting infrastructure such as roads, hotels, stores, and restaurants (which can result in loss of human neighborhoods or natural habitats depending upon where these are built). Travel does not make a person “better” in terms of their environmental impact.
An underground landfill fire in Grenada- indicating a waste management problem
Travel changes economies. With the decline of industry in my own region, the economy has shifted more towards tourism. The impact of this has been the expansion of lower paying, non-union, service industry jobs with higher turnover and greater sensitivity to economic downturn. Of course, workers can always fight back for higher wages, better conditions, and unions- which has been happening in the service economy, but this takes time and organization. On a global scale, catering to the tastes of tourists can mean a homogenization or Disneyfication of culture, shift in labor from subsistence to tourist economies or from production to service economies, marketization of culture and environments, privatization of resources, and dependency on tourism (which is a variable source of income), increased reliance on imports (as the economy shifts from producing things to services or to meet the needs of tourists) etc.
At the same time, economies change and tourism fills the gap of industries which once were (but are no longer profitable). It is very hard for island countries to maintain a global, “competitive advantage” due to trade laws, transportation costs, lack of land, lack of money for capital investment, etc. For instance, it would be very hard for many Pacific Island countries to be major exporters of produce, since the islands are far from each other, often small, and far away from global markets. Because of colonization and globalization, subsistence ways of life have been disrupted. Tourism is a way to generate some income and create some jobs. Tourism isn’t necessarily evil and may have the positive impact of injecting money into these economies. However, the plight of these countries is a complicated mix of colonization, current trade practices, climate change, and tourism. A well meaning tourist can attempt to patronize local businesses or engage in ecotourism, but the global economy is set-up to prohibit the development of some countries and continue the dependency of poorer countries on wealthier ones. Travel is an aspect of this dependency and the consumption practices of a single traveler, no matter how well meaning, cannot alter the nature of global capitalism. Thus, travel does not make a person “better” in terms of their role in the global economy.
8. Travel is Made Possible by Imperialism
From a socialist perspective, imperialism is a stage of capitalism wherein due to declining profits, developed economies look to perpetuate capitalism and avoid crisis by expanding trade into global markets, integrating more workers into their economies, and by destroying economic competitors. This is the motor behind globalization. As a U.S. citizen, I have found that ease of travel often correlates with degree of integration within the global economy and acceptance of the United States foreign policy. For instance, travel to North Korea is currently banned for most Americans (by our own government), Cuba was historically a place U.S. citizens were banned from traveling to due to our trade embargo, and American travel to Iran was briefly banned last year after the U.S. travel ban. Ease of travel is a function of U.S. imperialism (but also imperialism in general). For instance, in countries like Belarus and Turkmenistan, I was unable to use my ATM card. This seems like a minor inconvenience, but generally, this also means that these countries are not well integrated into the global banking system. On the other hand, some countries literally use U.S. dollars. All U.S. “territories” (i.e. modern colonies) use US dollars, including Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Zimbabwe also uses U.S. dollars. For countries which don’t, I never have any issue converting my money, since it is widely accepted as a matter of our position in the global economy. The same cannot be said for someone carrying Albanian lek, who would be hard pressed to convert their money due to its obscurity and relative lack of value. In most countries I have traveled to, I have been able to find English speakers. Again, this is a matter of both American and British imperialism- which has spread the English language around the world and made it a language of economic and political importance. Likewise, Spanish and French are also used due to the history of colonialism and imperialism. Infrastructure which today supports tourists, such as ports, airports, and roads, were often built by colonial powers in the interest of extracting resources from these countries or to support military interests (an extension of imperialism). For example, Kinshasa airport was first built by the Belgians, Cairo International airport was first used as an airfield by the U.S. during World War II, Ahmed Ben Bella airport in Algeria was first used by the French in WWII as an airfield, etc. This isn’t to argue that countries do not build their infrastructure on their own, independent of imperialism, but that imperialism has shaped the globe, making it far easier for me to travel than someone from a country that was never a world power. Can I really argue that travel makes me “better” when my ability to travel has been lubricated by imperialism?
(In North Korea in 2010)
9. Travel Has No Intrinsic Value
The nature of value is complicated, since the word value is used in a variety of ways. In a Marxist sense, something has use value if it has “usefulness” or utility and exchange value if it can be expressed in price or traded as a commodity. Travel is a set of experiences, but not a singular entity or commodity. It may be many commodities which are consumed in the process of travel. In this sense, to my best understanding, travel does not have use value or exchange value, though aspects of travel may possess these things. Travel can be broken down into meals, hotel stays, flights, bus tickets, tours, and so on, which have exchange value. But, this is a very mechanistic view of what value means.
When most people talk about the value of travel, they are referring not to the economic value, but the value of memories and experiences. Of course, on an individual level, these things have value. The problem is that some people idealize this value above other experiences. Is the value of travel greater than the value of other things? It is tempting for some travelers to revel in the freedom of travel and to frame it as superior to such things as working 9-5, having children, settling down, staying in one place, forming routines, being tied down by responsibilities, and so on. Does travel have more value than working? Well, travel is often a lot more fun than working. But, is the value of fun greater than the value of work? What is the value of work (not in the Marxist sense) but the everyday, more generic sense? I work at a domestic violence shelter, as a substitute teacher, and at a women’s health clinic. Reproductive health is a heck of a lot more important than having fun! Access to abortion and other reproductive health care is fundamental to the equality of women (or anyone with the capacity of becoming pregnant). If everyone who worked in this field suddenly decided to take prolonged vacations, resulting in the shutdown of reproductive health services (this is an unrealistic scenario) society would be worse off. My own work in this area is minimal and part time, so it is important not to overstate my own contribution to this area. The main point is that travel is often framed as better than work, but work has a lot of value. My full time job is at a domestic violence shelter- it is hard to imagine that travel, which is done for fun and selfish reasons, is of a higher importance or value. Travel is important to me, but the social value of sheltering survivors/victims of domestic violence is greater than the value of travel. Leisure travel does not address a social problem or meet a social need.
I don’t wish to overstate the importance of work, since work can be draining, stressful, exploitative, a source of struggle, and necessity for survival. Because work is alienating and exploitative, escape from work through travel is idealized. But, escape from work does not improve labor conditions or improve the lot of working people. It does not alter the conditions of work. Still, people SHOULD work less. There should be more vacation time and more time to pursue anything which broadens the human experience, including travel, hobbies, community engagement, relationship building, education, etc. Yes, travel is one of the things that can enrich the human experience. But, so can having children, building meaningful relationships, connecting with a community, planting gardens, going for hikes, or any number of experiences. Work also has the potential to enrich the human experience, but to do so, it must be liberated from capitalist exploitation.
10. Travel Can Make You Worse
Finally, there is no rule that travel will make you better (whatever that is). Travel can make a person worse. By worse, I mean, it can give a person a sense of inflated importance. It can make someone believe that they are more knowledgeable or have lived a superior lifestyle. Like the character in Rocky and Bullwinkle, who prattled on about his marvelous adventurous, it can make a person a egotistical, elitist, and out of touch. Look at me! I’ve been there! I’ve done that! I know all about that! I know the best place to stay! I know the best deals! Of course, I fall victim to this as well, since I often write about travel- pretending that I have some important knowledge or insight to pass on. Well, I am doing that right now- passing on the insight that travel does not make you better!
Travel can make you “worse” in other ways. Travel can be tiring, stressful, socially exhausting, confusing, make people sick, costly, dangerous, frustrating, disappointing, etc. The toll of the challenges of travel can bring out the worst characteristics in some travelers. I myself have become withdrawn, anxious, depressed, fatigued, frustrated, judgemental, etc. while traveling. I can hardly say I am my best self when faced with challenges and new situations. I have certainly observed other travelers melt down or engage in maladaptive behaviors to combat or mute the stress of travel. Excessive eating, drinking, and spending are some ways that others might cope with the hardships of travel. Drinking too much is especially common. While there might be some awesome, cool, well-adapted, roll-with-the punches travelers out there, there are probably many more than have yelled at hotel staff or looked at difference with disgust.
In a material sense, travel can make you worse. When I spend money on travel, it means that I am not spending money on other things. I am going to be far worse off in my retirement years because I spent money on travel rather than saving for old age. I am not building my savings for a rainy day or unforeseen catastrophe. Travel is not the most prudent thing to spend money on. However, I value the experiences so I continue to spend money on them.
Travel can make a person’s health worse. I have been fortunate that I have never become majorly ill from travel, but travel does expose people to diseases that they might not otherwise encounter. I have almost zero risk of contracting malaria or yellow fever if I just stay home…
This may seem rather negative, but I really feel that travel does not make you “better” just as formal education does not make you “better”, having a professional career does not make you “better,” or any number of other things makes a person better. I enjoy travel, but it does not make me better. In some ways, it makes me worse than others. I would love to travel more than I do. I encourage others to travel. I admire those who travel. However, I don’t know that it is the path to betterment or that such a pursuit is even a worthy goal. What is betterment outside of comparison, hierarchy, or elitism? In what ways does “better” concede to an economy that makes money by making us believe that we need to be more than what we are? Of course, at some basic level I want to improve upon myself, grow, change, and experience new things. But does accomplishing this make me better than others or better than my past self? At the core of these sorts of questions is the bigger question of what is meaningful in a world where everything dies or changes, where life is short and harsh for many, and never fully realized by the vast majority of us. Through the prism of pain and dying, the “best” among us are those who work the hardest to make the suffering in the world less and work to build a world wherein more people can explore their full humanity. Travel can sometimes support this goal, but for me, it tends to be a diversion.