For many of us, travelling overseas has become the norm. But do we truly understand how privileged we are to do so? And when we do, how can we reconcile our desire to keep moving with our desire to ‘be better’?
I’m not sure I’d ever been this excited to go on holiday. It seemed off the charts. It was November 2021, some 18 months since I’d last set foot inside an airport. I was travelling to Madeira and every aspect of the journey, from my door to the plane’s, felt thrilling – even passing through security and forgetting to empty the water bottle had an air of novelty instead of the usual frustration.
The last trip abroad had been March 2020. I’d been in India for two weeks, where talk of Covid had been, disproportionately, light touch. But the pandemic was taking hold and borders were beginning to close fast. Refunds, vouchers and when we’d travel again were big talking points in my world.
The paperwork for Madeira had felt cumbersome, I recall, despite no pre-travel tests. Just printing and uploading vaccination records, booking a test for our return, and a Passenger Locator Form before leaving Madeira. In hindsight, I feel guilty this felt like a chore, although ever-changing rules didn’t help.
Looking back, chomping at the bit to ‘get away’ after months of waiting, I reminded myself that in between, I’d managed several trips around the UK. The notion that those weren’t ‘proper holidays’ screamed of something stinky. Why was that so different? Why did this trip ‘count’ more?
The reality is, travelling overseas has become an expected part of some people’s lives, including mine. You work, you live your ‘home life’ with family and friends, and then… you go away.
Whether it’s for better weather, a culture or food fix, to visit friends and family, or to do business, trips abroad punctuate our year. But it’s a luxury: for those of us who travel often and freely – or perhaps not even all that often – we are a minority. By a long shot.
According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization, there were around 25 million tourist arrivals internationally in 1950. By 2018/2019, 68 years later, this figure had risen to 1.4 billion arrivals.
Crunch some numbers and that’s 56 times more people travelling every year now. With the world population estimated at around 8 billion people (as of July 2023), it’s clear that far more people do not or cannot travel than those who do. Travelling abroad has increased massively, but it is not the norm.
I returned from Madeira utterly refuelled, rejuvenated by tropical scenes and long walks, late November sunshine, a Mediterranean vibe on an Atlantic isle, a change of cuisine, language and culture. It felt ridiculously good, but I kept wondering: how is it possible that travel comes so easy to some of us? How has an activity so exclusive become such an integral part of mine? How can something this good be denied or be unavailable or so difficult for the majority?
Fast forward a few months from Madeira. A second trip, a second reality check. It’s March 2022 and a family wedding in Kenya calls me to East Africa. The paperwork is a little more intense: pre-departure PCR test, a frustrating encounter with a faulty test collection point lid, a seemingly agonising wait for results, numerous – or so it seemed – requests to upload results and vaccination proof to different websites, wrangling with badly designed forms and QR codes.
Yet on arrival, a family member in Kenya reminded me just how much paperwork the average Kenyan citizen must do to enter the UK – pre-pandemic. Not to mention the costs of applying for a visa. I felt embarrassed. A PPE scandal of another kind: Passport, Privilege and Entry – something afforded to a minority of us with the ‘right’ passport. With so much freedom to roam, I found myself questioning the absurdity of our world, where outbound travel plays such a huge role.
How do we make peace with that? How do we make our travels ‘count’ without being overly worthy? The argument goes that tourism brings benefits. It can do, for sure, and there are plenty of ways it does – but we know tourism can also be exploitative and extractive when the visitor is prioritised ahead of the residents. At best, travel can carry something of a ‘saviour’ narrative – often, but not always, a white, ‘western’one – where presence alone is considered supporting a place.
The pandemic highlighted the fragility, and the stupidity, of this idea. Why should any country or people be so reliant on visitors from thousands of miles away to provide an economy? Shouldn’t every nation be able to thrive, or at least survive, without this? Of course, this isn’t the world we live in. Many nations, particularly colonised ones, were plundered, left depleted of their own natural resources, with gaping holes in leadership and infrastructure, and tangled in complex geopolitical woes – leaving them more dependent on external revenues.
There’s been a huge amount of talk around ‘being better’ since the pandemic halted leisure travel. Terms like regenerative travel and impactful travel have become part-and-parcel of post-pandemic travel talk. But what do we owe places and people we visit? And in the midst of the climate crisis, how do we reconcile our love affair with travel with that of the planet?
The environmental question is answered easily by those who’ve committed to not flying. Travelling by boat or train can work at times, but how many have the time or funds to travel ‘sustainably’ to say, Bolivia or Indonesia? We negate the reality of today’s world if we were to completely ban flying. But there are things we can change about the way we choose to travel.
We can no longer be persuaded by marketing speak, where this is a ‘green’ hotel or that’s an ‘organic’ restaurant or a tour ‘supports’ the local community, without asking challenging questions about how. Are they supporting the next generation through employment and training? Is there micro-finance so women can set up a craft business? Is the restaurant ‘locally run’? It’s not always easy to find out everything, but often, we don’t even ask.
We need to travel more sensitively, and be mindful of who was there first. We need to be braver if experiences feel uncomfortable, or an inexplicably expensive tour doesn’t appear to give back to the local community, or we see staff treated poorly.
Thinking back to trips taken over the years, I realise how lucky I’ve been to witness so much, but I don’t believe I paid enough attention to where my money went. If we’re to reconcile our privileged access to the world, what we do when we’re in situ must go hand-in-hand with something much deeper and more meaningful — if we genuinely want to ‘be better’.
Illustration by Eleanor Shakespeare