Why Travel?

 So – there’s this guy, a member of the Travelers Century Club and a friend of the family, who has travelled extensively around the world visiting more than 270 countries. I recently asked him whether he could summarize ‘in a nutshell’ what he thinks ‘makes people tick’.  Admittedly, that was asking a bit much,  for how can a simple one-liner sum up the entire human race?  Yet I felt that his insight, after so much travel, might shine particular light on ‘the human condition’.   A week later I received a reply, saying:  ‘The need to survive’.

I reflected upon this reply, seeing how it fitted in with my past anthropology studies – in particular Bronislaw Malinowski who believed that culture, by definition, itself was a survival mechanism designed to fulfil ‘Man’s’ biological needs. I’m not sure that’s exactly what my family friend meant, but he seemed somewhere in the same zone.  Anyway, I  then fell upon various internet sites discussing travelling per se. Why travel? That was a question occassionally raised. It took me back to my family friend who once stated in a newspaper article:

‘I guess a little part of me says: I’ve been there, done that, sent the postcard, smelled the coffee, worn the T-shirt. That’s how I am.‘ (Financial Times. 2010)

I can go along with that, along with getting the photo.  But now, with a little digging and browsing, I see that this question has been examined not only by bloggers, but by anthropology academics too.  The following is thus an attempted resumé of some ideas floating around this question:


Worldwide, a billion tourists are predicted for 2012, generating nearly 1 trillion dollars .

Travel is big business and it’s growing.



A trillion dollars!  That’s an awful lot of bucks!  I could buy a million super yachts for that – or a billion Skodas.

A billion tourists! That’s a huge amount of people needing an awful lot of ships, planes, coaches and trains to move them around – as well as an unimaginable quantity of pillows in an enormous number of hotels to put them all up.   But do they constitutes a cultural unity in any way?  Can they be defined as a single group holding certain values and behaviours in common?  Despite different motivations, is the urge to travel a universal human trait, something deeply embedded within our Homo sapiens psyche?  These are just some starting point questions; let’s see where this leads:


Firstly, traveller or tourist? What’s the difference?  ‘Travellers’ – as cultural inter-actionists vs ‘tourists’ – as passive cultural consumers?  Do you agree with that?  Or maybe that’s too simplified, ignoring intermediate categories?  Ok.  So, how about stating that voluntary aid workers, eco-tourists,  overseas holiday camp leaders, student exchange visitors, and global trotting language teachers etc. veer towards the more active end of the travel spectrum, whilst seekers of  ‘sun, sea and sex’ clog up the other end – as they do in the Spanish resorts; now little more than giant nightclubs encouraging the young to get drunk, high, laid, and vomit (see here).  And between these two extremes are the independant explorers travelling just for ‘the hell of it’ and the ‘culture vultures’ soaking up the grand architectural works; historical monuments; art, sculptures, music, and theatrical performances, on show around the world.   How does that sound?  Yes, I agree – categories blurr and overlap.


Moving on:  Chris Guillebeau, on his site (see here), is quite clear in stating his ‘whys’ we travel:

Because when you leave behind the familiar, you’re changed by the foreign.

– Because comfort zones become constricting zones over time.

– Because the world was meant to be experienced, not imagined.

– Because you’ll meet people who are different than you.

And his article has elicited numerous supportive responses.  I cite a few:

“It’s that desire to expand, expand, expand and not grow complacent.”

– “Travel inspires me through art, architecture and landscape.”

– “Going to a café next door can be a travelling experience.”

 – “Getting lost can help you find yourself.”

I agree, feeling that there is no single answer to why people travel.  But I’ll add a few more responses of my own –  all of which may be encountered at different times in our lives.  Presumably reasons why we travel change as we age.  Young people setting off on long ‘gap-year’ trips with rucksacks and shoe-string guide books, differ from the older, retired voyagers who prefer something more sedate:

1. Simple curiosity: The grass is greener, fresher, and different – elsewhere.

2. Flying the nest: Experiencing independence.  Was certainly true for me at 19 years old.

3. Adventure: Experiencing life to the full. Travel’s a buzz!  Exploration a thrill!

4. Becoming ‘exotic’ by entering the ‘exotic other’: Even David Beckham had his ‘sarang’ wearing moment.

5. Understanding ‘self’ by being in different settings: Existential awareness building and testing.

6. Genuine interest in other cultures: Fascinating – the food, music, architecture, countryside, people etc.  

7. Competitiveness: Traveling one-upmanship in ticking off destinations visited. Maybe, for some?

8. In our blood: An inherent survival mechanism we’ve never lost.

9. Getting away from it all: Blissful breaks from work, beat the winter blues, visit a friend overseas.

10. Business: The professional travellers, sports people, musicians etc.


Having drawn up this list I now find two underlying elements.  The experiential and the cultural – which seems pretty evident since we’re discussing travel.  But I’m stressing the personal and individual experience, even if we travel as part of a group.  For Spanish resort young clubbers (12,000 Brits per year in Magaluf alone) it’s reportedly (see here, again)  an unrestrained, individual rite of passage into adulthood.  For the more sedate coach loads touring the sites, cities, and stunning views, it’s the ‘spiritual pilgrimmage’ element.  Then again, let’s not forget the package tourists managing to fit in an organized cultural fix at least once within their yearly routines, mainly to towns with a beach and a few ‘local dish’ restaurants – and the more distant voyagers getting their kicks from completely disappearing off the screen of westernized life.  The travel/tourism experience is personal and individual for them too (by changing their time/space identities), in different doses.

This underlying element, to spice it up, I’ll call ‘living on the edge’ – in referring to the risks we take in going outside our normal, known, safe environments.  Sure, we take precautions and may not stray too far off the well-trodden tourist tracks, but the enticement to explore just round the corner and view the unknown is, to varying degrees, at heart of the travel impulse. We can’t ignore the heart-flutters that accompany travel curiosity – remember how it killed the cat?

Yes, if there is one thing that unites the one billion tourists and travelers it’s this ‘living on the edge’ factor.  Who does not feel that tingle of excitement in going off to a foreign land?  The professional, perhaps, for whom flying is more akin to commuting.  But for the rest of us, the adrenaline flows as we approach an airport, mentally preparing to fly.  It does for me anyway.   Then, as the plane takes off and we enter the blue skies above to look down upon white, fluffy clouds below, the horizon is far, far distant.  Yet, we are heading towards that horizon, and beyond!

Actually, not being a well-seasoned flier, myself, taking a plane has not reached the level of the mundane like that of taking a bus or a train.  And I’d venture to suggest that’s  true for the global majority.  In fact, I suggest that the flying experience, for the majority, isn’t that far removed from a religious experience.  It’s certainly an efficient means of transferring us into an ‘anti-structure’ (‘liminoidal’) time and place beyond our ordinary working lives.  Ok. I’m employing an anthropological concept here (Turner.V. 1967) to define ritual transition zones and the experience (eg. rites of passage, for Turner) of passing through them. But traveling, in the sense that it changes our outlooks and appreciations of the world, too can be considered as a ritual passage.  Perhaps the word ‘pilgrimmage‘ does best join the two concepts (religion and travel), and though seeped in sacred sentiment, in a secular context, by observing the routes to the ski resorts and beaches blocked by traffic in winter and summer, I see that the term has particular poignancy.

Travel, as Turner discusses with ritual process, feels tinged with danger.  Rationality tells us flying is the safest way to travel, but the heart beats faster as we board the plane because it’s taking us away.  Religious experience too requires daunting steps into unknowns – perhaps a slight fear of facing supernatural forces or coming close to an Absolute deity.  The only difference is that religious experience requires not a scientific rationality, but irrational ‘leaps of faith’ – whilst employing enculturally infused ‘awe’ for their efficacity.  However, in both contexts, there are hostesses/priestesses and the pilots/religious leaders organizing the event and guiding us every step of the way as we leave our known, comfortable, safe existences to explore other domains.   And thankfully so, for we can feel our safety more assured with their guidance.  And when we reach the other end, having transited an experiential reality, we arrive at a different place than from where we started – either spiritually or geographically/culturally.   For religious observers, spiritual enlightenment is the first step of a long, lifetime journey.   For travellers the flight out is just the beginning of a cultural journey from which one  changed.  And I’d say the same for tourists, to lesser extents.

Yes, of course, these days package tour trips to sunny resorts usually involve staying in hotels surrounded by familiar voices and other homeland cultural artefacts – from the bars and restaurant food, to the TV on the wall.  And they are far less adventurous than Himalayan trekking.  But then, not everyone is ready to go the whole hog in absorbing a completely new and different cultural experience.  So, in this travel context, home comforts are retained.  And anyway, who doesn’t enjoy the special treatment awarded by hotel staff or airline crew waiting on us hand-and-foot.  Indeed, perhaps some people travel solely for that reason:  To be pampered. And why not?  After a year’s hard graft at work we deserve it – although the commercialization of travel (tourism) with troops of holiday-makers swarming around the markets and complaining about the heat, the flies, the food, and the locals – can be rather annoying; as Monty-Python once explained (see here: from 2:00).     Yes, just a touch of adventurism, from a safe ‘experiential’ distance, may be prefereable to jumping in, feet first, and completely submerging oneself in a very different, even bizarre, culture.  Each to their own.  We’re not all Blashford-Snells!

‘Living on the edge’:   Adventure, to whatever degree we chose to take it.  ‘Living on the edge’:  Dabbling with the unknown and potential dangers, whilst retaining varying degrees of comfort and security.  ‘Living on the edge’:  Exploring social marginal zones – safely, in large tour groups from where we can observe, or as solitary integrating outsiders; welcomed in, but still outsiders nonetheless.  Yes, as a travel experience, marginal status itself can be a buzz.  Accepted within a new social group as outsiders we become the exotic and hence treated differently, even reverentially, than those belonging to that group.  Of course, cultural faux-pas are then easy to make and dealing with that risk, and their consequences, is elemental to ‘living on the edge’.  But with experience we learn to avoid them, or blunder through them, like unsocialized children, through fun, tom-foolery, and social conviviality, thereby presenting no danger, ourselves, as invitees, to our hosts.

             (image borrowed from travel tale site – see here)

Of course, marginalization of ethnic minorities into new cultures presents a whole different experience and discussion.  As travellers, or tourists, our inclusion into new cultures is transient.  Ex-pats and refugees (economic or persecuted) go through periods of exclusion and integration.  That is a different lived reality, or a perceived different lived reality anyway.  And that’s a different story.

The polemic to this discussion, though, is that whilst we bask in the sun, check out the local markets, dine on exotic cuisines, and view the sights, simmering under the superficiality of fabricated life is the effect tourism has on local communities: That is to say, how the influx of tourists and capital may change the infrastructure and politics of communities.  It does, you know.

Or, to anthropologize the process:  How the influx of tourists looking for the authentic ‘other’ changes the meaning of ‘authenticity’ itself.   In other words, how tourism in today’s postmodern world involves observing ‘creations of authenticity’, wherein false representations of local affairs (events put on as side-shows for the tourists) transform local communities in such a way that these fabrications become the realities.  This process is referred to as the ‘coca-colonization‘ of native ways of life, which, interestingly, also induces bilingualism, as locals take up jobs in the home tourist industry (waiters, tour guides etc).  Furthermore, the influx of visitors, whilst not always appreciated by locals, is more appreciated by those ‘milking’ the trade, finding work within tourism, and gaining in income and social status.  Hence, socio-cultural change is effected, but not necessarily in a bad way.  (Rapport, N & Overring, J.  2007)

For the good?  Well, when coastal dwellers are banned from there own beaches, fishing communitied denied traditional access to coral reefs, pastoralists expelled from traditional grazing areas, agriculturalists ejected from their lands for hotel construction, water resources depleted by tourist demands, when inquisitive eyes become intrusive, when western ways (drug use, prostitution etc) are emulated to induce a ‘polluted’ moral degredation, when locals complain of ‘apartheid’ (themselves becoming second-class citizens)… then resentment can flourish and tourism seen as a curse not for the good. Worse still when locals see their traditional cultures commercialized and degraded.   For the good?  Well, when local economies are revitalized and flourish due to the tourist industry – yes, then for the good. It can be a positive element when controlled.  Obviously it’s a political question. (MacClancey, J. 2002).

Yes, today’s postmodern world is increasingly synthetic and tourism plays a large role in this – for better or worse.  Cultures blend and merge through a borrowing, adapting, and mixing of symbolic forms which are globally spread and enter into our own cultures as daily seen images and designs; especially in advertising.  Don’t you just love those multiple Shiva arms emblazoned on a silver pendant?  It will look cool to wear that at some multi-cultural festival.   Yes, global heterogeneity is revelled in for its creative potential; even if the symbolisms are then lost as the aesthetics components alone are swiped or subverted.  But what the hell?  Sod the deeper meanings and just get off on the designs – man!   Those aboriginal dream-time designs look great on t-shirts, just as the didgeridoo goes great with a thumping electric bass.  And don’t those Amazonian Indians with their nose piercings and perokeet headresses, when adorning environmental posters, subliminally help eco-warriors ‘save the rain-forest’ campaigns. So let’s not consider our carbon footprint left in the skies as we jet off to the jungle, or the life-changing events imposed on ‘native others’ by joining a ‘first contact’ tourist trip turning tribes into tourist attractions? (see here).  Such considerations would be frightfully boring and frightfully uncool.


Don’t get me wrong!  Personally I’m all for global exploration – when it involves a sharing of humanity and learning from our fellow ‘Man’, however distant (geographically and conceptually) he (or she) may be.   Yes, it’s enriching, mind-broadening and even mind-blowing.   Done ethically, it helps break down cultural barriers and those sterotypical concepts of ‘otherness’, so that ‘others’ become not so distinct and different from ‘us’.   The same, but different, shall we say?   Like a granny smiths and a golden delicious apple?  And I’m all for protecting the planet and its indigenous cultures by whatever means.   And when the tourism industry helps bring health, wealth and happiness to places where disease, poverty and distress exist, then surely tourism is a good thing – isn’t it?

So no – I don’t wish to sound too cynical.  Who doesn’t enjoy jetting off to a foreign destination to get away from the daily grind, if only once a year – or less?  But consider the question of who benefits most from all this tourist trade that’s now generating, annually, a trillion dollars.  Consider whose standard of living is substantially improved?  African villagers?  Pacific island atoll dwellers? Burmese highlanders?  Bedouins?  Inuits?  City traders?  Hotel owneres? Directors of travels agencies – in the west?  Corrupt native officials?  Ah, now we’re getting the picture and can see where a touch of cynism may creep in.  Our innate urge to travel is making some people very rich as much of that trillion dollars finds its way back to western pockets.   I leave it at that, although maybe someone would like to respond?

Just a few personal reflections before I jump on a plane to my own summer holiday Xanadu. And as usual, personally speaking, the act of writing is my route to gaining a deeper understanding – even if no-one should read my words.


Macclancey, J (ed)   2002       Chicago      Exotic no more: Anthropology on the Front Lines

Rapport, N & Overring, J  2007   Routledge   Social & Cultural Anthropology:  The Key Concepts

Turner, V   1967      Cornwell     The Forest of Symbols:  Aspects of Ndembu Ritual


2 comments on “Why Travel?

  1. Huberaime says:

    Interesting post and thoughts, Philip. I won’t discuss it all now for it’s complex, but I think nomadism is in our genes and everybody somewhat feels like travelling. Sightseeing, experiencing, meeting, working are as many good motives: the essential for the traveller is to grow up. ‘We do not take a trip; a trip takes us’ (John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley, I 1). Best regards H.

  2. english13 says:

    – mentioning ‘Travels with Charley’, isn’t there just such a wide range of travel books too? I’ve read many other the years, from the crazy, ‘On the road’, Keroac fiction, to the toughest adventures such as Ranulf Fiennes ‘living dangerously’. To ‘grow up’? Yes, I’m more into the ‘becoming’ than the ‘being’.

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