Why We Travel

June 6, 2007 by

Best of the Viator Blog, Travel Advice & Inspiration

Why we travel - Viator
Why we travel

Have you noticed the latest trend in travel?

It’s been building slowly, ever since the debut of MTV’s Real World series back in 1992. It was followed by the Survivor reality television series in 2000, and quickly followed by cookie-cutter reality shows such as Temptation Island, The Amazing Race and the latest monstrosity, Pirate Master. Arrrr.

The common thread here is an “exotic” location. Temptation Island was filmed in Belize, a Central American country few Americans could have located on a map. Yet thanks to Temptation Island, all of a sudden the idea of a Belize holiday wasn’t so far fetched.

On the face of it, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a holiday in Belize.

But TV executives know a good thing (read: money maker) when they see one, and the combination of far-flung locations and people doing all sorts of stupid things was — and still is — a tempting concept. Witness the latest crop of reality shows. I’m talking about 1,000 Places to See Before You Die, Bizarre Foods, The Best Places to Find Cash and Treasure, Man vs. Wild, I Shouldn’t Be Alive, Going Tribal, Everest: Beyond the Limit, Survivorman, and one that really gets me annoyed, the television travesty known as Edge of Existence.

Let me quote for you a description from a recent episode of Edge of Existence: “Intrepid adventurer Donal MacIntyre braves the scorching heat of the Arabian Desert to live with Bedouin tribesmen. Donal is on a mission to understand why the Bedouin choose to live in such an unforgiving place when life in the towns could be much easier.”

Actually, the show is about Donal rolling around in the sand dunes, complaining of the heat, lots of shots of him stumbling and thirsty and pushing himself to the limits of physical endurance in order to show the Bedouin how ‘life in towns could be much easier.’

I guess this makes for compelling television. It certainly does not make for compelling travel. And here’s the rub: these shows are inspiring an entire generation to make bad travel decisions. When I started backpacking, travel was all about discovering new cultures, interacting with locals, becoming better people. My generation came of age using Lonely Planet. We were all about discovering ourselves, and the world, through travel.

And today’s generation of travelers? I worry their role models are what I call extrem-elers, or extreme travelers. The new trend in travel is parachuting into inhospitable locations to see if you can survive. Interacting with locals? Only if they’re head-hunting savages. Eating local foods? Only if it includes bugs, worms or other nasties. Doing good deeds and making a difference? Only if there’s a cash prize at stake.

I’m not wearing rose-colored glasses here. When I was 18, I was not a saintly do-gooding traveler. I visited Germany (for the beer), Ireland (for the beer), Amsterdam (for the — mom, are you reading this??), Morocco (because it sounded cool), London (more beer), you get the idea. We were traveling to have fun, to meet people. Along the way we had a great European adventure and learned what it meant to be “travelers”.

And that’s why we travel. To learn. To make new connections. To gain new experiences and to grow as individuals. I worry these messages are getting lost on the current generation of young travelers. I worry that, thanks to the explosion of mediocre reality-television shows, travel is becoming a mere synonym for testing your limits. For putting yourself into extreme situations. For getting sun stroke. For eating bugs.

So here’s my proposal: If you agree with me, grab the nearest teenager you can find and start a conversation about travel. My 18-year-old sister is graduating from high school next week. Her summer travel plans include Ibiza (for dance clubs), Cannes (to meet movie stars), Prada and Fendi (it’s unclear if she believes these are small European countries or not). She’s obviously not an extreme traveler. Even so, like the rest of her generation, she can probably use some sound road-tested advice about the meaning of travel in the 21st century.

Scott McNeely

17 Responses to “Why We Travel”

  1. KellyG Says:

    Yeah this is why I refuse to watch TV that doesn’t have a writer. So wrong.

  2. Melissa Says:

    Although I agree with your philosophy on travel as a growth experience (I have read quite a few travel memoirs written by women from the Victorian Age to the present), my experience teaching college students has illustrated one disturbing fact – apathy has whittled down any internal need for growth, which, surprisingly, ties into the need for the bigger, better, brighter thing to break through and get them excited, like, for instance, reality tv, especially extreme reality tv. These kids aren’t going to watch the Discovery Channel’s Planet Earth, an amazing series – they want to see Survivorman, and can you really blame them? I mean when a movie like Hostel II, whose target audience is the very generation under discussion, needs to show girls crying in terror, alluding to the unspeakable things that we know will happen to them, how can we compete?

  3. Scott Mc Says:

    Wow Melissa, that’s a great point. If apathy has indeed smothered the desire for self-improvement and personal growth, then my whole argument falls apart. So what you’re saying is: kids today are so apathetic, there’s no room for travel in the way I’ve defined it.


    I hope you’re wrong. But I fear you may be right.

  4. Melissa Says:

    Scott please don’t be discouraged…I find that out every 25 students, there will be at least 2 who understand that to really appreciate a culture is to be immersed in it – that travel is about learning what the world truly has to offer. Those are the gems I try to keep in my heart and mind when confronted by apathy.

    I hope your sister discovers this for herself and that your travel advice falls on receptive ears.

  5. Suzann M Says:

    The good part about travel, in and of itself, the experience of your destination will change you. Even with more and more travel destinations offering all the comforts of home, eventually you will come across situations and places where you have to awkwardly rely on the kindness of strangers. Whether it’s acting out mimed questions for directions to the Rome Marriott, finding yourself with a flat tire in the middle of the desert, or being kidnapped and ransomed for a rug (ahem, Scott), there’s nothing like a kink in your plans to break the spell of apathy. These young’uns might not have had as much hand’s on experience and might be happy to watch things happen ala Survivorman, but with time comes travel and with both come experience. So, when the unexpected happens, have hope that their 2-D ideas of reality will become very alive in and very much in technicolor.

  6. Andrew Says:

    Great article. Just for the record, I’m 19 and I LOVE BBC’s Planet Earth. It inspires me to travel more, to go see more of the world.

  7. Ken Says:

    Scott – I venture that the vast majority of people who are watching extreme television are not ever, ever, ever going to travel to any of these places. They are probably part of the 80% of the American population that does not hold a passport – The TV show is their travel. The ones that are planning to go out and explore are simply not tuning in these shows.

    ( – except maybe “Trading Spouses – Meet your New Mommy on Fox” – now that is some quality TV!)

  8. brad Says:

    What is a ‘bad travel decision’? To travel is, simply, a good decision.

  9. Scott Mc Says:

    I don’t know, brad, I think there are plenty of examples of ‘bad’ travel decisions. There’s the whole eco angle — traveling in pristine & fragile nature areas in an off-road SUV is a bad idea, no matter how honorable your intentions. I reckon that going to a foreign country and not meeting a single local is likely a bad travel decision. And I speak (from painful experience) that taking your unenthusiastic and woefully under-prepared girlfriend on a multi-day trek in India is a bad travel decision.

    I am definitely from the school of ‘don’t worry, just go’ when it comes to travel. But that doesn’t mean every trip I take has been worthwhile or valuable. Everybody needs a break now and then. And I’ve done plenty of sitting on the beach in [insert tropical beach destination here] drinking beers without a care in the world. But I try not fool myself into thinking that this is serious travel with any positive impact beyond my own (basically selfish) sense of pleasure. It’s fun. It’s relaxing. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. But it ain’t good travel with a capital G.

  10. brad Says:

    hey scott – no worries. just stirring and adding to the blog. i just started in the sydney viator office and was poking around. for some reason your name rings a loud bell. ciao. b

  11. Scott Mc Says:

    OK folks, there’s another show I must add to the list. I’ve seen a few ads for it on TV and it took me a while to realize it was not a joke.

    No, sadly, it’s not a joke. It’s called Last One Standing and it’s on the Discover Channel here in the U.S. The show’s motto? “Welcome to Full Contact Culture”.

    In the previews a bunch of frat boys are hitting each other with sticks in Africa. Lots of shots of young Americans with tribal make-up on, saying stuff life “somebody’s gonna die” and “this is for real…”

    As if. It’s all part of the mediocrity that I’m talking about above.

    People — why won’t they stop making these TV shows?????

  12. lara dunston Says:

    Scott, interestingly enough I recently saw a media release summarizing a research report that came out last year conducted by a popular Australian tour company that caters for the 20-somethings. Their research – independently conducted too – showed that young Australians (18-28 I think…) wanted more out of our travel – they wanted to learn how to paint in Florance, learn to tango in Buenos Aires, learn Arabic in Syria, Thai cooking in Chiang Mai, etc, etc – and that there was a distinct growing trend. So don’t despair, I think there’s hope yet!

  13. Scott Mc Says:

    Lara I hope that is true! I really do.

    I wonder if that same trend is happening in the USA as well as Australia.

    My gut feeling: it’s not.

    (Am I being too self-righteous again, Vagabondish? 🙂 )