Good Travel

Agnes Callard and Rebecca Jennings wrote two frustrating articles on travel. They're filled with bad logic, straw men, and poor economics. But they made me think about what good travel means, and for that, I'm grateful. It's a timely subject for me, as Nadia and I plan our trip to Portugal and Spain in less than a month.

The Case Against Travel
It turns us into the worst version of ourselves while convincing us that we’re at our best.
Stop trying to have the perfect vacation. You’re ruining everyone else’s.
Entitlement and endless optimization have turned travel into an unfun bloodsport.

My objections to Callard

Callard's article fails because it defines travel as tourism, and defines tourism poorly. “A tourist is a temporarily leisured person who voluntarily visits a place away from home for the purpose of experiencing a change.” Using this narrow definition, Callard complains about a past visit to Abu Dhabi and a guided tour of a falcon hospital:

"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 much 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 besides locomoting."

Callard forgets that travel can just be fun. It doesn't need to change you. It doesn't have to stir personal growth or deep learnings or whatever. It just can be fun.

Callard's neglect of fun probably stems from her personal background. She's a true academic, having devoted her life to philosophy and the pursuit of knowledge at the University of Chicago, one of the most academically-focused universities in the world. Her passion for growth is highlighted in her latest book, Aspiration: The Agency of Becoming. Her ambition is impressive in many respects, but a weakness in others—including, apparently, in appreciating the value of fun.

To be sure, I believe Callard genuinely believes in her case against travel. She's not being purposely contrarian or provocative for click-bait, as some have alleged. Nevertheless, I was disappointed with the poor logic in her piece. As one critic noted, Callard could substitute "reading" for "travel" and her argument would basically work the same.

My objections to Jennings

Jennings's intended audience seems to be Instagram-obsessed youth who travel to beautiful places to take pictures and show-off. I support her mission to get these folks to slow down in their travels. You can tell based on the number of Twitter-links included that she's very online. But outside of this context about her intended audience, a lot of her arguments are bad, or at least require more nuance.

"Publications and influencers compete to offer you the dreamiest-sounding getaways, guiding you to each trendy restaurant and café and what to order there...But it all ends the same: with thousands of people doing the same things, in the same places, at the same times."

People enjoy hating on tourist hubs. If we're talking about a small area like the Amalfi Coast being inundated by thousands of loud TikTok'ers, then I understand the pushback. But taken more broadly, it's wrong. I'm happy being a tourist in a touristy spot doing touristy things, and I think others should be too. The idea that there are places and activities purpose-built for travelers is amazing. If you can do those things while crowds are at a minimum—which only requires a bit of planning—then what's there to complain about?

"That there is not enough space at the restaurants we want to eat at, that the must-see museums sell out weeks in advance, these are not the fault of the individual travelers clamoring to go there, they’re the result of explicit decisions made by governments and corporations."

Jennings blames the rise of online travel agencies, slackening visa requirements, and deregulation of the airline industry for over tourism. This is a degrowth mindset—rather than open more locations to tourism and capital and increase the global supply of beautiful places, she implies we should limit tourism by making it more difficult and expensive. This is a highly elitist belief.

"In attempts to woo wealthy cool-seekers, developers design restaurants, hotels, and public spaces to look like facsimiles of the restaurants, hotels, and public spaces determined by Silicon Valley investors to be what cool people should want. A coffee shop in Beijing now can look the exact same as one in Buenos Aires and as one in your hometown."

Jennings draws a very old complaint on Pax Americana. Yes, the Starbucksification and McDonaldization of the world has its issues. But I believe market forces have naturally pushed back on these trends, and there are plenty of cafes in Beijing that look and feel uniquely Chinese. So this concern is less valid today than it was perhaps in the early 2000s.

What does a good traveler do?

  • See and appreciate beautiful art, buildings, and cities.
  • Consider the local culture and compare/contrast it with home. Think about why do people do things they way they do.
  • Read local history and think about its impact today.
  • Do fun things and eat good food, in different clothes, in a different environment, without the usual concerns over wealth or health.
  • Buy cheap knick-knacks for family and friends so they know you're thinking of them and value them.
  • Plan logistics well, but play and explore spontaneously.
  • Be gracious and patient, and appreciate the generosity of others.

What has travel done for me?

  • My study abroad in Jordan made me realize how much I love American culture, and I quickly gave up my dreams of becoming a diplomat.
  • My trips to Japan and South Korea were incredibly fun and great bonding experiences with my mom and siblings.
  • My summer in Bolivia showed me how poorly I played soccer compared to even the average Bolivian player, and made me appreciate the beautiful and flat fields we take for granted back home. I also became surprisingly close with my host family, who forced me to call them "mom" and "sister," and learned how quickly those attachments could form.

What does travel not do?

Travel doesn't make you a better person. Callard and Jennings are right to call out this belief. I hope it's not a common problem, but the perception clearly exists.

Travel doesn't automatically make you smarter. As my art history professor told us, exploring a museum or watching a good film should leave you intellectually and emotionally drained. These are not passive activities. Likewise, travel permits you the opportunity to learn, but you still have to commit the time and energy required to do so.