The Case Against Travel | The New Yorkers

What is the most uninformative statement that people are inclined to make? My nominee would be “I love to travel.” This tells you very little about a person, because nearly everyone likes to travel; and yet people say it, because, for some reason, they pride themselves both on having traveled and on the fact that they look forward to doing so.

The opposition team is small but articulate. GK Chesterton wrote that “travel narrows the mind.” Ralph Waldo Emerson called travel “a fool’s paradise.” Socrates and Immanuel Kant—arguably the two greatest philosophers of all time—voted with their feet, rarely leaving their respective home towns of Athens and Königsberg. But the greatest hater of travel, ever, was the Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa, whose wonderful “Book of Disquiet” crackles with outrage:

I understand new ways of life and unfamiliar places. . . . The idea of ​​traveling nauseates me. . . . Ah, let those who don’t exist travel! . . . Travel is for those who cannot feel. . . . Only extreme poverty of the imagination justifies having to move around to feel.

If you are inclined to dismiss this as a contrarian posture, try shifting the object of your thought from your own travel to that of others. At home or abroad, one tends to avoid “touristy” activities. “Tourism” is what we call traveling when other people are doing it. And, although people like to talk about their travels, few of us like to listen to them. Such talk resembles academic writing and reports of dreams: forms of communication are driven more by the needs of the producer than the consumer.

One common argument for travel is that it lifts us into an enlightened state, educating us about the world and connecting us to its denizens. Even Samuel Johnson, a skeptic—“What I gained by being in France was, learning to be better satisfied with my own country,” he once said—conceded that travel had a certain cachet. Advising his beloved Boswell, Johnson recommended a trip to China, for the sake of Boswell’s children: “There would be a luster reflected upon them. . . . They would have at all times regarded as the children of a man who had gone to view the wall of China.”

Travel gets branded as an achievement: see interesting places, have interesting experiences, become interesting people. Is that what it really is?

Pessoa, Emerson, and Chesterton believed that travel, far from putting us in touch with humanity, divorced us from it. Travel turns us into the worst version of ourselves while convincing us that we’re at our best. Call this the traveler’s delusion.

To explore it, let’s start with what we mean by “travel.” Socrates went abroad when he was called to fight in the Peloponnesian War; even so, he was no traveler. Emerson is explicit about steering his criticism away from a person who travels when his “necessities” or “duties” demand it. He has no objection to traversing great distances “for the purpose of art, of study, and benevolence.” One sign that you have a reason to be somewhere is that you have nothing to prove, and therefore no drive to collect souvenirs, photos, or stories to prove it. Let’s define “tourism” as the kind of travel that aims at the interesting—and, if Emerson and company are right, misses.

“A tourist is a temporarily leisured person who voluntarily visits a place away from home for the purpose of experiencing a change.” This definition is taken from the opening of “Hosts and Guests,” the classic academic volume on the anthropology of tourism. The last phrase is crucial: touristic travel exists for the sake of change. But what, exactly, gets changed? Here is a telling observation from the concluding chapter of the same book: “Tourists are less likely to borrow from their hosts than their hosts are from them, thus precipitating a chain of change in the host community.” We go to experience a change, but end up causing change to others.

For example, a decade ago, when I was in Abu Dhabi, I went on a guided tour of a Falcon hospital. I took a photo with a falcon on my arm. I have no interest in falconry or falcons, and a generalized dislike of encounters with nonhuman animals. But the falcon hospital was one of the answers to the question, “What does one do in Abu Dhabi?” So I went. I suspect that everything about the Falcon Hospital, from its layout to its mission statement, is and will continue to be shaped by the visits of people like me—we are unchanged changers, we are tourists. (On the wall of the foyer, I recall seeing a series of “excellence in tourism” awards. Keep in mind that this is an animal hospital.)

Why might it be bad for a place to be shaped by the people who travel there, voluntarily, for the purpose of experiencing a change? The answer is that such people not only do not know what they are doing but are not even trying to learn. Consider me. It would be one thing to have such a deep passion for falconry that one is willing to fly to Abu Dhabi to pursue it, and it would be another thing to approach the visit in an aspirational spirit, with the hope of developing my life in a new direction. I was in neither position. I entered the hospital knowing that my post-Abu Dhabi life would contain exactly as many falconry as my pre-Abu Dhabi life—which is to say, zero falconry. If you are going to see something you neither value nor aspire to value, you are not doing much of anything other than locomotion.

Tourism is marked by its locomotive character. “I went to France.” OK, but what did you do there? “I went to the Louvre.” OK, but what did you do there? “I went to see the ‘Mona Lisa.’ ” That is, before quickly moving on: apparently, many people spend just fifteen seconds looking at the “Mona Lisa.” It’s locomotion all the way down.

The peculiarity of tourists allows them to be moved both by a desire to do what they are supposed to do in a place and a desire to avoid precisely what they are supposed to do. This is how it came to pass that, on my first trip to Paris, I avoided both the “Mona Lisa” and the Louvre. I did not, however, avoid locomotion. I walked from one end of the city to the other, over and over again, in a straight line; if you plotted my walks on a map, they would have formed a giant asterisk. In the many great cities I have actually lived and worked in, I would never consider spending whole days walking. When you travel, you suspend your usual standards for what counts as a valuable use of time. You suspend other standards as well, unwilling to be constrained by your taste in food, art, or recreational activities. After all, you say to yourself, the whole point of traveling is to break the confines of everyday life. But, if you usually avoid museums, and suddenly seek them out for the purpose of experiencing a change, what are you going to make of the paintings? You might as well be in a room full of falcons.

Let’s delve a bit deeper into how, exactly, the tourist’s project is self-undermining. I’ll illustrate with two examples from “The Loss of the Creature,” an essay by the writer Walker Percy.

First, a sightseer arriving at the Grand Canyon. Before his trip, an idea of ​​the canyon—a “symbolic complex”—had formed in his mind. He is delighted if the canyon resembles the pictures and postcards he has seen; he might even describe it as “every bit as beautiful as a picture postcard!” But, if the lighting is different, the colors and shadows are not what he expected, he feels cheated: he has arrived on a bad day. Unable to gaze directly at the canyon, forced to judge merely whether it matches an image, the sightseer “may simply be bored; or he may be conscious of the difficulty: that great thing yawning at his feet somehow eludes him.”