Shortly before I embarked on my epic adventure, I explored what travel means (you can read about it here). Today, I want to revisit the topic as there is so much more to it.
Let’s start from the point that “travelling”, as we use it now, basically means backpacking or holidaying a lot. We attribute this term to those who visit other countries for pleasure, to learn, to meet other cultures. We forget that it is incredibly exclusive.
A few weeks ago I approached Bani Amor, a travel writer who explores the decolonisation of travel culture. They’ve been published in several media outlets including Teen Vogue, CNN Travel and Bitch Magazine, and are an all rounded awesome individual.
Over the course of some emails, we went back and forth how our society’s travel culture is deeply exclusive and built on systems of oppression. Because the way we use the term travel now is so indicative of wealth, whiteness and privilege, we often forsake the “other” travelling groups.
By using the term traveller we are eradicating the experiences of the original traveller communities like nomad societies and European Romanis that are discriminated against almost worldwide. Travel as a necessity is also excluded from this narrative. I’ll pose the question to you, reader:
Why do we judge migrants so harshly, but praise young people when they go on “an adventure” for pleasure?
I asked Bani what travelling meant for them, to which they simply replied:
Moving from one place to another
And there’s so much truth in that. By using this definition to understand what a traveller looks like, we can start adding more people to the conversation. By forcing ourselves to see travelling as just movement between places, the whole narrative of exploration starts to break down.
Which brings us to the rock-solid colonial and racist foundation upon which modern travel is based upon. Travelling can feel like an exploration of a new place or culture. In this scenario, there’s a clear “Us” and “Them” where one is seen as “less” or “abnormal”. In our correspondence, Bani told me that, for them, the only way to disrupt this is to look at the history of travelling and to “draw a straight line from the period of ‘exploration’ to now”.
Those who nowadays go “travelling” often are young, white, cis, able-bodied and from upper and middle-class backgrounds. The narrative seems to be that this way of travelling is the right way, meaning going away often, using the local resources to their advantage and seeking “authentic” experiences that will help them “find themselves”. Travelling, or visiting other cultures, is a means to humility and an act to enrich oneself.
We start to tell stories of a country and its “people”. How nice they were. How wise they are. How mindful, humble… You name it. You’ve probably seen a caption like this on Instagram. I myself have done this.
So what should we do, then? If we travel for leisure are we complicit with a culture of inequality? Well, yes. To Bani, the relationship between tourists and locals is difficult to solidify and brings power struggles of its own.
I believe most tourists should stay home.
And I have to say I agree to some extent with this. My home town is a top tourist destination among Europeans. Every time I fly home I’m surrounded by drunk stag do’s and screeching groups of teenagers on their first weekend away. Once, the airline texted me ahead of the flight with a polite reminder that anyone under the influence would not be allowed onboard.
However, because I also understand the importance of tourism in Mallorca’s economy, I am conflicted. Would I ask all British and German tourists to stay home? Catch me on a bad day and yes, I will. But not really. While travelling is unavoidable for some (think migrants and nomadic cultures), taking some time off should be more available.
Budget airlines, tours and accommodation open the thrill of visiting a new place to many. At least when it comes to wealth.
As a European, I hardly ever need to think about which bureaucratic processes I need to go through each time I get away. This is passport privilege – another of the biggest barriers to travel.
When I asked Bani what they thought the main barriers are, the answer was clear: settler colonialism.
The construction of nation-states through genocide and chattel slavery creates borders that restrict freedom of movement, particularly for colonized peoples attempting to enter colonizing lands.
And this is it. The harsh cold truth. “Exploring”, “travelling”, “conquering” has mostly been recognised as being done by settling nations. Think Britain, Spain, France and the rest of Europe, the US. Most tourists come from wealthy countries that are well connected. In a 2017 report by Business Insider, out of the top 10 countries with the “best-travelled” citizens, 8 were on Europe.
The history of colonisation restricts the movement of the colonised and opens up routes for the colonisers. And this is why travel is incredibly exclusive. There’s a lot more we can talk about – how the existing travel culture is ableist is a big one – but let’s stop here and think. Next time we go elsewhere, are we aware of our privileges and our destination’s history?
What moved you to write?
As a traveller and travel writer of colour, I didn’t have many opportunities in the travel writing industry, especially for writing from a radical or anti-tourism perspective. I decided to return to my activist roots and reclaim critical tourism studies from the academy to make it more accessible in the social justice space. I got tired of the censorship and the fact that all my editors were white.
When did you start understanding the barriers to travel?
When I was a teen and knew I had no access to leisure travel. My family wasn’t able to do that. I began travelling out of necessity as a teen and had very little to no support in navigating place as a solo genderqueer low-income youth of colour. Everything was a barrier!
What are your favourite travel books and authors?
Meeting Faith: The Forest Journals of a Black Buddhist Nun by Faith Adiele, Go Girl!: The Black Women’s Guide to Travel and Adventure by Elaine Lee (ed.), A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid, I Wonder as I Wander by Langston Hughes, Catfish and Mandala: A Journey Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam by Andrew Pham, Belonging: A Culture of Place by bell hooks.
Where’s the last place you went to?
If you were to speak to your teenage self, what piece of advice would you give them?
Stay away from older men!