Maurice Sanders thinks about... Travel

*** Maurice Sanders thinks about... Travel ***

Travel has a lot of baggage. And not just the sort that Ryanair hates so much, but conceptual baggage that disables debate about the purpose, means and ethics of travel and blocks access to wider, but connected, issues of population growth, environmental degradation and climate change.

In historical and cultural terms, travel is linked to the idea of journey and discovery. Human beings have always made journeys even if the motivations for making them differed widely. For some, simple adventure was the prime mover whilst for others trade and profit provided sufficient cause. Perhaps a distinction should be made here between mass migrations that were forced on whole peoples - and still are - and the choice that individuals made to temporarily leave behind their present circumstances in order to make a journey from which they intended to return. Simply put there is an important distinction to be made between migrants and travellers. Travellers see their journeys in terms of a return to a starting point. Migrants have a one way ticket.

Whilst travellers may have been motivated by a variety of causes for which they could give reasons, their journeys were encompassed, in a very real sense, by a geographical conception of the world. It was out there and could be measured by the clock, compass and calendar. Moreover, for travellers up until the 20th century, a journey was in many ways a tabula rasa upon which providence would write a daily entry. Indeed, the open-ended nature of the journey was part of the attraction for the traveller and for the subsequent reader of accounts of them. In cultural and psychological terms, the journey was a process of moving from a state of unknowing to knowing about the world. Maps, both physical and mental, were integral to this type of relationship with the world.

The second half of the 20th century saw significant growth in another type of travel which is popularly referred to as tourism. True, the Grand Tour was a feature of the lives a few wealthy individuals from the cultural elites of Europe but even they were bound by the constraints of time and distance. Now mass tourism will take a person for a weekend in Estonia, a shopping trip to New York or even a ‘fortnight’s backpacking adventure’ as a recent article in 'The Observer' described it. At this point it may be tempting to repeat all the traditional criticisms of mass tourism made by those who claim that tourism is just holidaymaking in a warmer place rather than travel as understood in the wider historical and cultural sense. However, this argument could be turned on its head by saying that at least holidaymaking in Majorca for two weeks with the kids is authentic, unpretentious fun that makes none of the cultural claims that travel makes for itself. Does it matter that the journey from airport to airport via an airplane would be better described as a transfer rather than a journey?

Rather than takes sides in what may be an arid debate about what holidays are for it may be more rewarding to look at what both have in common in terms of wider cultural and psychological implications. What seems to have happened to many people in the West, whether they are gap year backpackers or two week holidaymakes, shoppers in New York or art lovers in Florence, is that the link between travel and geography has been broken to be replaced by travel and lifestyle. For many, where you are is only important to the extent that it adds to a personal narrative that is rooted in specific, social, economic and cultural conditions back home. Just as big game hunters used to hang the heads of their kills on the walls of their houses back home so the modern traveller displays the digitised images of the Great Wall of China and the Sydney Opera House as evidence that these have been seen and thereby added to stock of commodities that find a place of an on-going narrative of consumption in mature capitalist economies. Trophy holidays are a big part of the modern traveller’s desire to travel.

Does it matter as long as they enjoyed themselves? At one level probably not. It is far better to enter someone else’s country as a visitor, however described, than as a soldier or an imperialist. But does it not lead to a commodification of the world and its visual treasures and the concomitant fragmentation of the world as a geographical whole? As long as the link between travel and geography was clear then physics, chemistry and biology were always within touching distance in terms of our shared understanding of the place of human beings in the world. Modern travel has encouraged people to travel to be rather than to see. This has made it difficult for individuals to think of themselves in terms of membership of a species bound by constraints of geography and environment like every other species. Everyone’s got their own sat/nav but no one’s got the map.

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