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Travel Has Changed—So Must We

By Eric Weiner

Sep 17, 2020

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Illustration by VectorLe/Shutterstock

Our future trips may still be uncertain, but one thing is clear: We can make travel better. Here’s how to begin.

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I will travel again. That much I know. The question is how. I don’t mean whether I’ll be wearing a mask or carrying hand sanitizer—I will be—but a bigger, more philosophical how, and its close cousin, why.

These are questions I thought I had answered. I’ve spent a lifetime traveling and thinking and thinking about traveling. Along the way, I cobbled together my own “philosophy of travel.” Go solo, do no harm, see as much as possible. It was a good philosophy, I thought, one that enabled me to travel ethically while still enjoying myself.

But a backlash was brewing, as the scourge of overtourism came into sharp relief. Crowds of eager travelers were sullying the environment and fraying the social fabric of overrun destinations. Friends, meanwhile, questioned my outsize carbon footprint. In Sweden, they invented the word flygskam, “flight shame,” to describe this phenomenon and a hashtag, #jagstannarpåmarken (#stayontheground), for its remedy. The Dutch airline KLM launched a “Fly Responsibly” campaign, which sounds awfully close to “Drink Responsibly.” Was travel, I wondered, the new alcohol? Or worse, the new smoking?

No, I told myself. Whatever toll my journeying took on the planet was more than compensated for by the good accrued. But the truth is: I never stopped to fully define this alleged “good.” I was winging it. I secretly began to suspect that my friends, and the Swedes, might be right. Maybe travel was the new smoking, and I was a two-pack-a-day guy.

Was travel, I wondered, the new alcohol? Or worse, the new smoking?

Then came COVID-19, upending the world and shining a harsh light on global wanderers like me. When it became clear it was international travel that enabled the coronavirus to spread so rapidly, I realized how incomplete, how inadequate, my philosophy was. I needed to dive deeper into the how and the why of travel.

Locked down for the past few months, I had plenty of time to think—about past travels, naturally, but also future journeys. What will they look like? What fresh attitude will I bring to them? I devised a few new principles, refined a couple of existing ones, and stitched them together into a kind of Travel Manifesto. “Manifesto,” I realize, is a strong word. It suggests boldness and daring—revolution, even. This is precisely what I need, what we need: a new way of traveling.

I can’t guarantee I will adhere to my Travel Manifesto religiously, but this is what I aspire to, and aspirations matter. We may miss the mark, but at least we know what we’ve missed and by how much. Then we dust ourselves off and try again.

Travel Selectively 

I can’t go everywhere. There, I said it. I feel better already. By trying to see everything, I run the risk of seeing nothing. If I’ve learned anything during this time away from travel, it’s that it’s better to travel well than to be well traveled. Better to experience places than collect them. When we collect places, we’re in “getting” mode. When we experience them, we’re in “being” mode. And that’s when we create the memories that last. 

Going forward, I will triage my trips, careful not to confuse the popular with the good. Popular places are, by definition, over-traveled. There’s something to be said for scruffy places, frumpy places, even boring places. Perhaps there are no boring places, only boring travelers. As I dream about, and plan, future travels, I won’t necessarily skip the Istanbuls and the Tokyos, but I’ll be sure to include the Izmirs and Okinawas.

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I was recently inspired by a friend who insists on eating only “quality calories.” Not necessarily calories high in protein or low in sugar, but calories they will enjoy fully. Every journey comes at a financial cost, an environmental cost, and a social cost. Before booking that flight, I will now ask myself: Is the cost worth it? Are these quality miles? I’ll find the answer not on a spreadsheet but in my heart. 

Travel Purposefully

Traveling for leisure is a relatively recent phenomenon. For most of human history, people traveled to flee a war (or to start one), to seek God or treasure, to chart new sea routes, or to explore new wonders. It’s time we turn to purpose-driven travel, especially now that the pandemic has laid bare the hidden (and not-so-hidden) costs of tourism.

When we take a vacation, in a way we vacate ourselves. When we travel with purpose—even if that purpose is as simple as traveling with an open mind and a kind heart—we fill ourselves, and, ideally, consider our impact on a destination. Our purpose needn’t be overly ambitious. We can’t all save the world or the dolphins or anything else. But we all can travel for good. That “good” can take many forms: It could be as simple as supporting Black-owned businesses in a new city or as all-encompassing as a collaborative expedition with climate scientists. High on my list in this new world: Helping biologists gather data in the Serengeti. Less important than the particulars is a fundamental shift in attitude, from getting to giving. 

Might all this purposing get messy? Sure. But travel has always been messy. The notion of the phantom traveler, traversing a place without leaving a mark, is a myth. Our presence changes a place. The question is how. Do we leave it better than we found it or worse?

Travel Slowly

Speed is the enemy of travel, because, as the French philosopher Simone Weil observed, speed is the enemy of attention. Of all the indecencies she witnessed on the factory floors of 1930s France, the greatest, she said, was the violation of the workers’ attention. The conveyor belt moved at a velocity incompatible with any other kind of attention, “since it drains the soul of all save a preoccupation with speed.”

Good travel is slow travel. Loiter. Linger. Find a café in Amsterdam or La Paz and plant yourself there for longer than seems normal. I guarantee you will see or hear or feel something you would have missed otherwise.

Variety may be the spice of life, but familiarity is its main course. Even before the pandemic, I found myself less interested in traveling to new destinations than in returning to old, familiar ones, and seeing them anew, through slow eyes. Each autumn, I travel to Kathmandu, plant myself by an old Buddhist stupa called Boudhanath, and watch the collage of people and commerce circling it. At first, I notice the small differences: a posh new café and a sign warning that “the use of drones is strictly prohibited.” Plenty about Boudhanath hasn’t changed, though. There are the Buddhist pilgrims circling the stupa at all hours, twirling metal prayer wheels, and there’s the young Tibetan woman selling oil lamps and sandalwood beads. The only reason I notice any of this is because I slowed down.

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As a rule, I estimate how long I should reasonably spend in a place—then add 20 percent. I’ve never regretted the extra time. A while back, I was planning on spending two weeks in Reykjavík, the Icelandic capital, but decided to tack on three additional days. It was during those three days that I met the two most memorable characters of my journey: a perceptive composer named Hilmar, who taught me the importance of “cherishing your melancholia,” and a smitten expatriate named Jared.

Now, after the forced stillness of quarantine, I’ve learned that my capacity for slowness is greater than I thought. I’m amending the 20-Percent Rule to a 30- or even 40-Percent Rule. You can travel too quickly. You cannot travel too slowly.

Travel Empathetically

When we travel, we usually expand ourselves not by turning inward but by interacting with other people. Do we see only differences—language, cuisine, customs—or do we also identify commonalities, a shared humanity? This is empathy. If we don’t empathize, at least a little, with those we encounter, we never really see them.

Empathizing with other people doesn’t mean becoming them. I know it’s fashionable to brag that you “travel like a local.” No, you don’t. You travel like a foreigner. That’s because you are one. And that’s OK. The empathetic traveler doesn’t try to fit in. She knows that is impossible and that there are advantages to seeing places at an angle. One of the best books about U.S. democracy was written by a Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville. This is no coincidence. An observant outsider often sees what insiders do not.

I know it’s fashionable to brag that you “travel like a local.” No, you don’t. You travel like a foreigner.

One great way to make yourself a more empathetic traveler? Travel alone. A solo traveler says talk to me. Traveling solo makes us vulnerable, and vulnerability lies at the heart of the travel experience. An added benefit: The lone traveler can roam with a lighter touch and a smaller footprint than a group. 

Travel Joyfully

Travel, of course, is not drudgery. At its best, it is not only meaningful but fun. Otherwise, why bother? Too often, I realize, I’ve either expected too much from a place (and left feeling disappointed) or expected too little and therefore closed myself off to what a place might offer. The solution, I’ve learned, is to expect nothing yet be open to everything.  

Expectations are the enemy of happiness. Expectations, even positive ones, rob you of the sudden beauty of a first impression. When I first saw the temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, I wasn’t sure if I was responding to the actual place or to some idealized image I’d absorbed from all those Instagram posts. Maybe Angkor Wat really is beautiful; maybe it’s overrated. There is no correct reaction, of course, only an authentic one—and it’s easier to have an authentic reaction if our perspective is unmuddied by the thoughts (and Instagram feeds) of others. That’s why I’ve learned to prepare, but not over-prepare, for a trip. I’ll read historical accounts of my destination but not contemporary ones—and, yes, I really do go on an Instagram fast.

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Jettisoning expectations also frees us up for the sort of serendipitous encounters that make travel meaningful and, should the travel gods smile on us, magical too. You never know when you’ll meet an Icelandic composer.   

Over the years, the travel gods smiled on me quite a lot. Then COVID-19 arrived. I realize I may never travel the same way again, even after the virus is vanquished. Thank goodness. A realignment was long overdue. I wouldn’t go so far as to say the pandemic represents an opportunity, but it has forced me to question my assumptions, to see the world, and myself, a bit differently. Come to think of it, isn’t that what travel is all about?

Eric Weiner wrote about traveling across the United States on an Amtrak train. He’s also an author, most recently of The Socrates Express: In Search of Life Lessons from Dead Philosophers (Avid Reader Press, August 2020).

>>Next: What All Travelers Should Be Doing During Coronavirus

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