Is travel just another form of consumerism?

When I was 10 years old, my father had his first heart attack. As a result, I became an ardent non smoker. When I was 13, I saw a pair of cows get slaughtered in Bangladesh. As a result, I became a vegetarian.

Over the ensuing two decades, I, the non-smoking vegetarian, developed a keen awareness of the fine line between conscientious environmentalism and smug arseholery. (Note: the latter pontificates on how you should live your life, the former does not.)

There are numerous beliefs and pursuits, like vegetarianism and non smoking, that can inspire excess levels of smugness. Prominent among them is travel.

When Peter and I started Atlas & Boots, we wanted to resist the cult of travel and avoid becoming the garrulous evangelists people dodge at parties because all their sentences start with ‘When I was in…’

Atlas & Boots

“When I was in South America” – a phrase we all dread at parties

Sometimes, we’ve wavered in our resolve but by and large, we’ve tried to share our travels without telling you that you should/could/must follow our example.

I won’t lie though: beneath the restraint, I have always believed that travel is a force for good.

I don’t have a car or a TV or a microwave, but I’ve seen the world and I’ve always believed that experiencing things is more valuable than owning them.

It was unsettling then to read the following passages in Sapiens, the international best-selling book by historian Yuval Noah Harari.

Even what people take to be their most personal desires are usually programmed by the imagined order. Let’s consider, for example, the popular desire to take a holiday abroad. There is nothing natural or obvious about this. A chimpanzee alpha male would never think of using his power in order to go on holiday into the territory of a neighbouring chimpanzee band. The elite of ancient Egypt spent their fortunes building pyramids and having their corpses mummified, but none of them thought of going shopping in Babylon or taking a skiing holiday in Phoenicia. People today spend a great deal of money on holidays abroad because they are true believers in the myths of romantic consumerism.

Romanticism tells us that in order to make the most of our human potential we must have as many different experiences as we can. We must open ourselves to a wide spectrum of emotions; we must sample various kinds of relationships; we must try different cuisines; we must learn to appreciate different styles of music. One of the best ways to do all that is to break free from our daily routine, leave behind our familiar setting, and go travelling in distant lands, where we can ‘experience’ the culture, the smells, the tastes and the norms of other people. We hear again and again the romantic myths about ‘how a new experience opened my eyes and changed my life’.

Romanticism, which encourages variety, meshes perfectly with consumerism. Their marriage has given birth to the infinite ‘market of experiences’, on which the modern tourism industry is founded. The tourism industry does not sell flight tickets and hotel bedrooms. It sells experiences. Paris is not a city, nor India a country – they are both experiences, the consumption of which is supposed to widen our horizons, fulfil our human potential, and make us happier.

The case is put forward so objectively, so cogently, and without a hint of snark that it’s difficult to argue against it.

Just two weeks ago, I wrote about our experience of whale watching in Mirissa which had 20 boats chasing down a sole blue whale. The creature had clearly become a commodity: a parcel of experience that we could take home with us just as a duty-free handbag or bottle of whisky under one arm.

Instead of Volvos and iPads, we travellers buy tigers, temples and tribal villages. Whale safari? $100. Nile cruise? $1,000. A sense of self-worth? Priceless.

Instead of Volvos and iPads, travellers buy tigers, temples and tribal villages

The outdoors isn’t impervious either. We may be able to access parks and public lands for free but the periphery constitutes a billion-dollar industry: the hiking boots and crampons, goose-down jackets, gaiters and GoPros.

It’s clear that travel is indeed a form of consumerism, which leads us to a second question: is this a problem?

Well, no – or at least no more than its material equivalent – but I do think that we who travel often should be aware of the mercantile nature of our noble passion.

If we can accept and internalise the fact that we are consumers just like everyone else, it would help do three things.

First, it would encourage us to reduce our footprint; to choose less impactful modes of travel; and use less consumptive hotels and services. Treating travel as a series of transactions would strip away some of the romanticism and encourage us to make practical, informed decisions about what and how much we choose to consume.

On home soil, would you pay a stranger’s child to pose for you?

Secondly, it would encourage more ethical behaviour. In Bolivia, we watched a very young girl in traditional dress offer tourists a photo in exchange for money. Many gladly obliged. If they were to understand that they’re not just enjoying a holiday but also buying a part of the girl, would they behave the same way? If the answer is yes, I would ask if they would pay a stranger’s child to pose for them on home soil.

Finally, it would highlight that perhaps, despite our most deeply held beliefs, we travellers are not much different to the 9-to-5ers, the commuters, the shopaholics and fashionistas. We would realise that we’re not enlightened or superior; that we, like everyone else, are finding our way through this crazy capitalist world and just trying our best to be happy.

Lead image: Dreamstime

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