The case against travel

Agnes Callard’s weekend essay in the New Yorker “The Case Against Travel” was certainly an interesting perspective to read while we’re on the road. I’ve been interested in the distinctions between tourists, travelers, expats, and immigrants since we lived abroad in our younger and apparently more deluded years. I even wrote a grounded theory paper about, then an open network of people offering a bed or entire room to guests traveling through, when I was in graduate school.

I came to a theory of travel based on calculated risk taking. The safety of hotels, hostels, etc. being a more sterile environment disconnected from the local culture and practice. Thus, a tourism where you’re forced to trust your host and they’re forced to trust you while you’re in their home offers the traveler a means of learning local language, custom, and traditions different from those afforded to hotel dwellers. It’s not better or worse, more or less authentic, but unique.

Callard’s piece argues that we have three choices for travel: Stay home, travel for work, or admit tourism is a fun-if-useless exercise in vanity. I won’t try to self-analyze our travels here or justify our current and past adventures because, as Callard’s says, “you can’t rely on introspection to detect a delusion.” I don’t think I fully agree that tourism necessarily must be an act that makes people worse, but she plays with some interesting ideas, even if she doesn’t quite go far enough.

The idea of tourism being primarily locomotive is especially compelling.

The peculiar rationality 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. 

— Callard, “The Case Against Travel”

One can experience this locomotion in a variety of ways, but there’s still plenty of it. You can even get a sense of it in our recent posts: We go to a place to do a thing. We finish there and go to the next place and eat some food. Then we go somewhere else to do something else. It’s a necessary component of being at leisure and away from the communities and spaces of your home: You have to find something to do even if it’s just walking straight lines across the city of Paris.

I was disappointed, though, by Callard’s strong fixation on the personal paradoxes of travel. She talks about the harms to the traveler, even using Portuguese philosopher Fernando Pessoa’s words to call it “suicidal” at one point, but stops short of acknowledging it’s more global harms: The carbon footprint of air travel, the extractive cultural experience of being dumped onto a Caribbean island for a shore day on a cruise, or the colonial gaze of her mythical (stereotypical) Iowa couple driving aimlessly around Mexico.

The closest she comes is her brief interlude about a trip to a falcon hospital in Abu Dhabi. In her telling, she went, held a falcon on her arm, and left. The hospital does a good job of making tourists feel like they learned something about falcons or did some cosmopolitan thing while they were there and over the course of time it’s become more of an attraction than a medical facility. That brief good feeling leads to more tourists coming to the hospital and emboldens the forces pushing it ever into the realm of tourist attraction.

Let’s just take a moment to acknowledge this is also how zoos and raptor and animal rescue facilities around the world work. They all have educational-tourist components, not just in Abu Dhabi. (Maybe they do it better in Abu Dhabi? Maybe she wishes for a world where tourism isn’t part of how we fund science?) The critique here could be harsher. Some, myself included,say that tourism is a form of modern day colonialism and is inherently extractive and harmful. The tourist’s job is to acknowledge this and attempt to engage in active harm reduction.

When we were in Hawaii a few years ago, I remember I wrote down in a pocket journal: I’m not sure anybody should ever come here again. I don’t remember exactly when I wrote it, but when I think about why I wrote it I think about the green sand.

The Big Island’s Papakolea green sand beach near South Point is one of four green sand beaches in the world. Unlike regular sand beaches that result from rocks grinding against each other in the ocean and washing ashore (or sometimes it’s trucked in) the green sand was created out of a specific combination of volcanic events that will never happen in that spot again. To get there, you can hike across sand dunes in the whipping wind or you can pay for a ride on a 4WD vehicle to take you across. You’re not supposed to take any green sand with you, but as anybody who has a kid in daycare knows, it’s impossible not to take sand home in your shoes, no matter how careful you are. It’s especially difficult when the wind is blowing it onto your clothes.

Going to the green sand is literally extractive, but also supports this whole micro-industry predicated on harming the delicate landscape around South Point.

The most ethical thing to do would be to not go at all. Don’t even get on the plane. Be like Emerson, Kant, or Socrates and stay home. (For as much as Emerson hated travel, he sure made a lot of life long friends while he was away.) But for the sake of argument, let’s say we’re not all as pure as these legends of philosophy and feel compelled to see and experience something other than our immediate surroundings. How do we do so while exacting the least harm on the place we visit? Is it possible to make travel experiences accessible and sustainable? Is it possible to learn from the people and places we visit without exploiting them?

These are far more compelling questions to think about than the question that guides this essay: “Am I truly being changed and enlightened by the people who perform my experience abroad?” And there a deeper variety of real examples to use to plumb them than the hypothetical person who goes to the Grand Canyon and sees what they already saw on a postcard one time. It’s disappointing Callard chose not to go there and instead constructed somewhat of a straw man of all the things she doesn’t like about people who travel.