Four pillars of essential travel that’s actually worth it for everyone involved
We all have those friends who go on vacations and come back with photos and some souvenirs, who invite you over to dinner and share one or two stories about their trip, along with a few photos, and that’s the last you’ll ever hear of it. Those friends that seem to travel with ease, who come back from their vacations with a tan, but with the same worldview. Those friends that squeezed 341 activities into their trip, but obviously haven’t stopped to think about what it meant—not to them, and certainly not to the local population.
Yesterday’s travel industry is full of excesses and senseless, high-calorie, fast-food style travel for the masses that simply wasn’t serving any greater purpose other than profit—usually at the expense of the rugged and delicate beauty of the very destinations and people that it was exploiting.
In an industry that has pushed ecosystems to the brink, while we are all reawakening to what travel can and should look like again after COVID, what the world needs now is #wholetravel.
1. The Destination
Travel implies a change in location, or at least the movement between locations. While it is certainly true that travel is traditionally about the destination above all else, I vehemently push back on the notion that someone simply “hasn’t lived” until they’ve visited a specific destination. You can spend all your savings, cash in your bonus checks, redeem your hard-earned miles and fly to your dream destination, only to see throngs of tourists running roughshod over it.
The problem with the book 1,000 Places to See Before You Die is that it sets the reader up for feelings of inadequacy, for unattainable goals, and for disappointment when they get to that destination and see it being overrun by throngs of parasitic tourists, pickpockets, and armed tourist police all upholding a thin veneer of cooperation in a system that’s obviously destroying the destination and its authenticity.
Travel is about so much more than just the destination. Read on for the three additional pillars that make up #wholetravel.
2. The Experience
Ever notice that time share company properties, all-inclusive resorts, and many 5-star hotel websites all start to look the same? It’s those stucco walls in some skin-tone shade. A bright blue pool with a swim-up bar. A happy couple on a jet-ski with perfect tans and matching bathing suits. Someone on horseback on the beach, or on a mountain path with a clear view of the nearest peaks. Silhouettes at sunset with a perfectly crafted kiss and a Mai Tai. Pedicures. Cucumbers on the eyelids.
Why does it matter where this cookie cutter travel experience is happening? I’ll never understand why so many people will spend thousands of dollars traveling to an exotic location to spend the entire time inside the walls of an illusion. And I’m not against these experiences. Honestly, I’d love a relaxing spa weekend as much as the next person; But certain experiences can be enjoyed independent of the destination itself. Don’t miss what makes a destination unique by neglecting what is quintessential about it.
Let’s look at it another way, though. Some experiences are obviously tourist traps! You travel all that way, spend all that money getting yourself to a place, and then pay a markup to do that thing that everyone does when they are in this place only to realize you could have saved your money, had a better day on your vacation, and done the very same thing somewhere else, maybe even close to home. Faced with this kind of disappointment, you can easily recognize that some experiences have their value independent of the destination itself. You don’t have to fly in a hot air balloon over Cappadocia. You can do that near your home town and you’ll probably have more fun recognizing familiar roads and imagining that your friends might be looking up as you float past. You don’t have to kiss the Blarney Stone. You can have a much better day in Cork, and then go home and watch an old SNL Coffee Talk sketch on YouTube and kiss your Pet Rock and get the same gift of gab, while having a story to tell that people actually want to hear.
Some experiences can be absolutely vital to visiting a place well, but it’s fewer than the guidebooks would have you think. Others are unfortunately exploitative, unsustainable, and not worth your time and effort. It’s important to learn to tell the difference. You get the idea. Now let’s dive in on the REALLY fun aspects of #wholetravel.
3. The Social and Political Context
Knowing and educating yourself on the social and political realities of the places you are visiting is when #wholetravel starts to take on a little more effort, and a LOT more meaning. More than just the unique history of a location, spend some time learning about its present. Here are ten questions that would probably only take an hour or so to get answers on for any destination you plan on visiting. When you know the context, you’re sure to be a much more conscientious traveler.
10 socio-political questions you should research before visiting any new country.
- Who is currently President or Prime Minister, or ruling royal family, and which ones are largely ceremonial vs. actually in charge?
- When were the last elections held, and were they “free and fair?”
- What is the cultural landscape of the country, including religious, racial and regional characteristics?
- What political or religious party is currently ruling?
- Has it been that way for a long time?
- What is the country’s history with regard to colonization?
- How does the country regard tourists and tourism?
- What is their attitude toward conservation?
- Is the country negotiating any major treaties or conflicts right now which are affecting how they might view you as a foreign national?
- Are the country’s various political factions able to peacefully settle their differences?
The list above is just a start, but you get the idea. Your views on your experiences will be so much better informed with this basic information. That includes your interactions with store owners, taxi drivers, tour guides, people smiling or glaring at you on the street, and other travelers from other countries. All of it will benefit from the extra context that just a bit of research provides.
4. Your Emotional Response
Perhaps the most essential pillar of #wholetravel is realized through self-reflection. As a globetrotter myself, I am guilty of visiting some places, having amazing experiences, and being well informed of the social and political context, without really taking the time to examine how it all impacted me. Yes, far too many travelers are just checking off another place in a long list, without creating the space for mindful reflection on how the journey might be changing us beneath the surface.
Here are some prompts that you can use to recognize and better classify what a specific travel destination or experience means to you.
- When was a time you felt surprised by something on this trip?
- What pre-suppositions did you have that might have led me to be surprised?
- e.g. I thought my first interaction with a stranger in this country would be scary and that we wouldn’t understand each other, but I was surprised to learn that the person who sold me ice cream has family in my own country and has already visited them there.
- Was there a moment that you surprised yourself on this trip?
- As a result of your experiences on this trip, did you learn something new about yourself?
- Looking back on your days on this trip, can you identify some days that were better than others? How was your own emotional state on those days?
- What about those bad moods? Were there any emotional mountains you climbed in your own head? How did it feel to reach the top?
- Try to identify a moment you experienced that was transcendent. Now close your eyes and go back to that moment. It should feel just as sweet. Now file this away somewhere in your own happy place so you can come back to it whenever you need it.
- Can you remember a time when you felt most welcomed? What about a time when you felt like you stuck out, or felt unsafe?
- Given the good and the bad that you’ve experienced, what is the first thing you think you should say when someone asks how your trip went?
- Which aspects of your experience are unique to you – based on who you are and how you reacted?