|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.