Traveling is Overrated

I've been told that everybody likes to travel. Yet the idea of tourism looks totally broken to me and fueled by the wrong incentives. Here's a different approach to traveling, one that puts us in the driver seat, taking active control of the journey.

August 15th marks the epicenter of the Kingdom’s summer. Nothing moves. There is nobody around. The whole town has agreed to drop the ax at once and go on vacations. Hence I can’t think of a better time to share a controversial thought around a sensitive topic everybody seems to agree with, but me.

Everybody likes traveling.

Tons of empirical data out there back this statement up. Traveling has become one of the most cited interests under the hobbies category for any resume to look sane — with belligerent competition coming from reading books and going to the movies. It also seems to be ranking high among the best topics to craft the perfect water-cooler pitch, while signaling social adaptation. But jokes aside, here’s the controversial opinion.

I don’t like to travel.

More precisely, I dislike performing like a tourist in a foreign country. Your typical summer vacations, visiting a city or country following the worn down steps of millions of vacationers before you. And because I have been there, my assumptions derive from personal experience — I am not a theoretical hater.

The thesis revolves around the idea that most of us travel for the wrong incentives. When visiting a new place, we aim to do it all: learn about their culture, history, architecture, gastronomy, and all that is physically possible given the small amount of time at our disposal. We treat the experience as a checklist we haven’t come up with, but one everybody seems to agree upon.

Rushing from one place to another, superficially dispatching layers of concrete with funny shapes, taking the mandatory pictures, visiting museums we don’t care about, and eating at the most crowded restaurants. At the end of the day, emulating the exact same steps of an endless stream of tourists willing to outcompete us by fitting one more landmark in their agenda. A crazy race to the bottom.

Here’s where I stop and can’t help but ask: do we really like all this? If we liked it that much, how come aren’t we behaving like this in our town? How many times have we visited hometown’s landmarks or museums? Have we ever entertained this thought for just five minutes? I’m not making a case against tourism, but I’d argue it has a fundamental flaw.

There’s another way to frame it: assuming most people invest their spare time doing whatever they like most, it follows that if we were to rank somebody’s activities by time-spent we’d probably find the ones they like the most at the very top. Or in other words, we (usually) do whatever we like during our spare time.

The problem is that for some strange reason, this logic breaks during travel time. None of the most liked activities is performed while in tourist mode. We stop doing what we like most and start doing tourist things. The context transforms us.

This I don’t understand: if we don’t usually do something during our “regular routines” must be because we dislike it. Otherwise, we’d devote more time to doing it. Then why, all of a sudden, we switch modes when stepping food abroad and embark on activities we aren’t even interest in?

Travel Different

What I suggest might be a better approach to tourism, would be to apply some common sense and double down on the things we know we like in the first place. Align our traveling desires with what we enjoy — more precisely, with two key ingredients: personal interests and friends. Travel becomes then a way to explore, nurture, and develop a genuine interest of ours in another geography, surrounded by people we care the most. We get to be the new locals in a foreign place.

Doing more of the things we already like. Being curious about how other cultures approach the things that excite us. Taking an active role in the journey, instead of being presented with the boring defaults.

Travel becomes then a way to explore, nurture, and develop a genuine interest of ours in another geography, surrounded by people we care the most. We get to be the new locals in a foreign place.

On top of that, I found out, interest-based traveling has other unexpected side effects.

  • Escaping the crowd. By pursuing something we love, we are constraining the scope of the journey. Leaving all the rush, pressure, and masses behind. Plus avoiding competition because we will be chasing a niche that won’t be listed in all tourists guide.
  • Built-in enjoyment. Since we will be following a passion of ours we are flipping the travel equation: instead of being passively presented with random, inconsequential tourist stuff, we are actively looking for something personally meaningful.
  • Become an active character during the trip, instead of a passive one. Layman’s tourism ends up being boring because of the lack of domain knowledge around our visits. We become passive consumers presented with whatever the city or the tourist guide has to offer. Seeking what’s already an area of expertise puts us in the driver seat, taking active control of the journey.
  • If on top of that we’re visiting a friend, we’ll get the added benefit of avoiding the tourist places and discover go where locals go. An insider visit of sorts, experiencing the city through their own eyes. Plus he or she’ll be delighted you came to visit, hence making sure you are having a great time.

These are my five cents about why traveling is broken and how to fix it. Just give it a try. Look inside, ask yourself what you enjoy the most. Look around, research which countries are doing interesting stuff around your passions. Plan a magnificent trip around the things you like (ideally with a local partner) and you’d have changed traveling forever.

First published on August 15, 2017