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We Need to Stop Pretending Travel Will Fix All of Our Problems

by Matt Hershberger Oct 27, 2017

This week, everyone who works in the travel media industry was sent, by two or three well-meaning friends, a link to a job posting on the New York Times that read “The New York Times wants to hire a journalist to travel the world.” For those of us who have been in the industry long enough, the appearance of the dream job wasn’t really a surprise: there are two or three of these “paid to travel the world” postings a year, they all go viral, they all get thousands of submissions (the NYT job received 3,100 applications in the first three days), and they are, as such, virtually impossible to get.

More surprising was the source — the New York Times travel section is notoriously difficult to break into because of their strict journalistic ethics code. Their policy has long been that they will not even consider hiring writers who have gone on expenses-paid press trips in the past two years, and that basically empties their candidate pool. With the collapse of available journalism jobs over the past fifteen years or so, most people who want to become travel writers have had to turn to hosted press trips and working for publications that do not set quite as rigid lines between themselves and their advertisers. These are the publications that usually advertise “dream jobs.”

Many travel writers, like myself, actually don’t travel that much, simply because if you don’t want to have to write a paid-for puff piece in exchange for a trip, then you have to self-fund your travels, which is hard to do when you’re working as a freelancer and don’t have a trust fund. So you find ways to bundle your travels in with other things, like bachelor parties in Charleston or New Orleans, company retreats in Costa Rica, or weddings in Toronto.

In short, having a strict code of ethics as a travel writer is both a pain in the ass and expensive, but it’s worth it if you have the prospect of working for one of the most respected newspapers in the world. So upon reading the job description and realizing that the New York Times had finally jumped on board the “dream job” cliche, the response among most of my colleagues was: “Whaaaaaat?”

Travel is the new consumerism

The “dream job” cliche is part of a larger trend that glorifies travel as the literally the best thing a human can do. It’s especially popular among the younger generations. Millennials, the common knowledge goes, prefer experiences to things. It’s the first thing that comes up when I type “Millennials prefer” into Google:

We Millennials grew during an explosion of American consumerism, and we saw that acquiring more and more things did not make people happier. So we decided instead to acquire experiences. There’s some research that this will, in fact, make us happier: CNN has reported on it, as has Forbes, as has The Atlantic. But traveling more has not meant that millennials are not still consumers like their parents. It just means they consume different things. And while experiences do make you happier than things, consumption is ultimately driven by dissatisfaction, regardless of what you’re consuming.

Take our relationship with social media: We spend our days looking at the photos posted by our friends who quit their jobs to travel (the photos, incidentally, rarely show their low bank account balances, their debt, their trust funds, or the fact that they’ve worn the same pair of underwear for a week). We follow Instagram accounts run by women who apparently can’t take two steps without finding themselves scantily clad in front of a waterfall. We stare longingly, during the drudgery of the working hours, at photos of epic beach hotels. And we’re encouraged by countless articles to put new places on our bucket lists. Bucket lists, if you’ve never heard of them, are just shopping lists that also remind you that you’re going to die someday.

The whole mindset is designed to make you feel like you’re missing out, like you’re not living your fullest life. And if you come to that conclusion, well, then finances be damned: I have but one life to live, I’m going to buy a plane ticket and a tour package.

You’ll lake this place a lot ⠀ ⠀ @NoWayOut76

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We in the travel media industry have a pretty good rationalization for supporting this mindset, and it’s not necessarily because we want to make people happy. It’s because we wholeheartedly believe that ubiquitous Facebook profile quote from Mark Twain: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

It’s not 100% true, as plenty of people go abroad and blunder around, learning nothing and breaking things (I prefer the Thomas Fuller quote, “Travel makes a wise man better, and a fool worse.”). But most people are deeply changed by longer periods of time spent abroad, and by the inevitable realization that wow, things can be done differently in different places and people can still go on living happy, pleasant lives.

We, the travel writers, have seen the transformative power of travel. We’ve experienced it ourselves. And look, if a listicle on the most bitching waterfalls in Transylvania gets a homebody out of their country and into the broader world, then so be it.

Travel does not make you happier

By the age of 27, I had been to 5 continents, 37 countries, and hundreds of cities, and I had spent nearly two years of my life living abroad. I was a travel writer — My dream job! I had quit the office job to travel the world! — and I was making the world a better place by getting people to go out and explore it. My readers would be happier, I thought, and they would live more fulfilled lives.

But if you had turned that back on me and asked, “Are you happier? Are you more fulfilled?” then the answer to both would have been a definitive no. At the time, I was struggling through a depression which had set in during my travels. I’d begun to suspect that the only reason I’d traveled so extensively was because I had a deep-seated anxiety that I was an uninteresting person, and that the only way to make myself interesting was to go a bunch of exotic places and have swashbuckling adventures. I’d been to the exotic places, but my adventures were largely prepackaged, and such, lacked both buckle and swash.

I’d also become a sadder person while traveling. Many people talk about how magnificent a place the world is, and this is true — but there’s also a lot of poverty, suffering, and pain in it. It is easy to distance yourself from a hurricane, a war, or a massacre when it’s on TV — it is harder when you’ve been to the place it happened and have met the people it happened to. Those people, unlike the wailing, screaming victims you see in news coverage, smile and laugh just like you and your friends, and you are suddenly faced with an appalling and obvious truth, that they have suffered enormously, and that they are just as human as you are.

On top of that, there were the complicated feelings that came with being an American in certain countries. Being in Vietnam, among people we’d carpet-bombed, napalmed, and doused with Agent Orange. Being in El Salvador, among people whose families had been executed by US-trained death squads. Being in Argentina, among the mothers of the people “disappeared” during the military junta’s US-backed Dirty War. Or even less seriously, of being a tourist in a city like New Orleans or Barcelona, where tourism had displaced long-time residents by jacking up prices and cannibalizing local economies.

I stand politically on the left, but I still have spent most of my life believing America was a force for good, and that I, by extension, could also be a force for good. It was hard to continue believing that while standing next to people who had undergone enormous, unimaginable suffering, nominally in the name of serving my country’s interests, and, by extension, me. Travel made me question my entire identity, and the ensuing existential crisis (which ultimately, I think was for the best) lost me a few years in the haze of depression.

A new quote

The travel industry is governed by quotes. There’s the Mark Twain quote, there’s the “throw off the bowlines” quote that’s misattributed to him, there’s the St. Augustine “the world is a book” quote, and countless others.

One more needs to be added to the list. It’s from Thomas Jefferson: “Traveling makes men wiser, but less happy.”

It is fun to fantasize about traveling the world, about dream jobs paid for by prestigious publications. It is even more fun to actually travel the world. But to continue suggesting that travel cures bigotry, amplifies happiness, and guarantees fulfillment is to paint an incomplete picture. It reduces travel, something wondrous and awful, to just another form of empty, thoughtless consumerism. A dream job is still a job. A world you know more about is still the world. You are still you. You can’t escape that.

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