“Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us, or we find it not.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson
There have never been more people traveling across the entire globe than today. We are more connected today than ever before. The world has never been so small. There are travel reports instantly accessible about even the remotest places on earth. If you are curious how the beaches in Papua New Guinea look like, you google it, you go on Instagram or you scroll through the countless pictures on Pinterest. Long weekend coming up – you book the next flight to a country in the southern hemisphere and escape the nasty cold November in northern Europe. Two weeks sunbathing in Thailand – no problem. Three weeks hiking through the Andes in South America – why not. 4 weeks safari through Namibia – lets go. It has never been so cheap and easy to travel. Like so many other things that we have gotten used to consume regularly in our daily lives, flying has become a commodity in our highly developed western societies. Traveling is not a privilege anymore reserved to the “rich” westerners. Many other uprising countries – China being on top of the list – are following our example and are drawn to the excitement of visiting far distant places with the promise to come back with an expanded horizon, a relaxed mind and an abundance of pictures most of which most people will probably never look at again. But people don´t only spent their holiday more frequently at places as far away from home as possible, more and more people seem to have the urge to take a break from their studies or their work and decide to travel long-term. Three months backpacking through Central America, six months trekking and meditating in Nepal, one year biking from Europe to New Zealand, four years walking from Europe to India. The sky is the limit.
But why do people travel? What drives people to pack their bags to go into the unknown to explore and discover? What is the purpose of traveling? If there is a purpose at all…
It might help to distinguish between “going on vacation” and “traveling”. People primarily go on vacation to relax, to escape the daily office routine, to ease their minds, to “recharge their batteries” or to be free of responsibility for a short and limited amount of time. Others are longing for new stimulations of their senses and seek thrill and adventure to balance out their predictable every day lives. But what are the main drivers for traveling? In the past centuries, long before traveling became widely popular in the developed west, only the most adventurous were among this small group of people, whom today we call travelers. Columbus, Darwin, Marco Polo, James Cook among others were the pioneers of traveling. They sallied out in order to explore and discover foreign lands, to find and identify new cultures and other species, to seek fame and glory or to simply satisfy their adventurous spirit. But why are people traveling today? What drives them? What drives us? The reasons can be manifold. And while at first glance they seem to have shifted profoundly since the times of Columbus and Darwin, looking at it more closely, quite a few parallels can be drawn to the modern traveler. In the end the drive to explore, learn and discover is inherent in the nature of every human being. How else would you explain the remarkable scientific and technological achievements – for good and for worse – of our species, especially in the past 200 years? Some people who set out to travel, do so with rather dubious motives and just follow the trend – which traveling definitely is – only to find out sooner or later that jumping from one country to another and checking off one sight after the next is merely of ephemeral pleasure and creates the same anxiousness and restlessness that they felt when they were sitting in the subway on their way back from work, scrolling through Instagram and dreaming of having an equal exciting life that they can show off with. Traveling with such motives will rather sooner than later give you a wake-up call when you find out that traveling does not nearly give you the pleasure and satisfaction that they imagined. The main reasons why people travel, however, can in my opinion be broken down into the three already above mentioned traits of every human being: the desire to explore, learn and discover. Travelers set out with the goal to experience new cultures, learn new languages, collect stories, expand their horizons, only to find themselves sooner or later in midst of a battle between body, mind and soul. Let me explain… Traveling does something with you and you only find out what that something is when you hit the road. Traveling is enriching, exciting and inspiring, but it can also be exhausting, challenging and frustrating. Unfortunately, only few people live a life, which is in line with the purpose of their soul. Traveling might be a way, a tool, to reconnect to your soul again. Traveling provokes your inner voice that has been silent for a long time and eventually talks to you – but only if you are willing to listen. Why? Because traveling puts yourself constantly in situations where you are forced to act outside of your comfort zone. You can´t hide behind your daily routines and responsibilities anymore. However, while traveling has the potential to aid in removing your inner blockages that piled up over the years of routine, it might just as well create new ones by constantly exposing yourself to the other extreme of the spectrum, constant change. Perpetual change is just as detrimental for one´s inner peace as constant routine. The traveler who expects to find the answers to his life questions somewhere out there in this world, far away from home, will most probably find herself sooner or later disillusioned and possibly more frustrated than before. All the experiences and adventures, the constantly changing faces and places, the adjustment to different cultures, all the external stimuli, it can be deliberating but also overburdening at times. Even the most adventurous traveler will at some point on his journey feel the urge to slow down, rest and settle somewhere and find some routine to give his body, mind and soul time to digest. The crucial question is: Are you receptive to that inner voice and follow it or do you ignore it, like you are used to? The one who ignores it, disregards the aspirations of his soul and might find himself in the paradox situation of feeling empty and depressed while lying in a hammock under a palm tree looking at the turquoise-blue ocean. The one who listens to the soft inner voice however, will be forced to deal with himself and will find out that exploring, learning and discovering is not just something that takes place in the outside, but even more so inside of oneself.
So why do WE travel? What motivated and drove us to quit our jobs, move out of our apartments, pack our bags and travel toward east, without any specific target or time limit? The answer to that is multi-faceted. To state the obvious, we both love to travel, meet random people with different upbringings and points of view, experience cultures distinct from ours and expand our horizons – all the classic clichés. I know that I would be an entirely different person if it wasn´t for traveling and living in various countries over the course of the past 17 years. But the reason why we decided to take this big step and turn our lives upside down is more complex. Primarily, it was about being truthful to ourselves. Admittedly, we had a good life going. However, the lives we led, the jobs we had, it just didn´t feel right anymore. Our gentle inner voices were becoming louder and louder. The more closely we listened, the more hints life gave us that change was in order. We had to admit to ourselves that we were both not living our soul missions. The fact that we were both in similar, yet different situations, made it increasingly impossible to ignore our inner voices. After all, lasting contentment and inner peace is a result of a harmonic interaction between one’s body, mind and soul. And those three were drifting apart quite significantly. Even though we knew that traveling would not be the sole solution to establish that harmony, we felt like leaving our familiar environment, getting out of our daily habits and routine and trading adventure for security would be just the right decision to open up new doors that we weren’t even able to see at the time. And now? How do we assess our decision after 7 months on the road? Long story short, it was the best decision we could have made. It has indeed been quite a bumpy road, too bumpy at times, in all respects. But no matter how difficult it is at times, no matter what kind of obstacle we are facing, it feels right. It is our journey. And our inner voices are affirming us that we are on the right path. However, after thousands of kilometers of overland travel, we also feel like it is time to slow down, settle at a place for a while and reassess the motives of our journey. Like with most – if not all – things in life, it is about finding the middle way. Your inner voice serves as a compass. You just need to listen.
Fair enough, now we theorized about the reasons why people travel and stated our personal motives, but one major question begs to be asked: What are the implications of the world wide travel boom we are experiencing all over our planet? What effects does it have on our environment? What are the consequences for the local people that have to deal with us tourists? Traveling in general has always had a very positive image. In the words of Hans Christian Andersen:
“To move, to breathe, to fly, to float, To gain all while you give, To roam the roads of lands remote, To travel is to live.”
In fact, traveling might be the one area of consumption for which you don´t have to justify yourself, as most people either support or envy you. But that´s changing, and rightfully so. The big overarching question of our highly developed western societies is: How do we lead a responsible, fulfilling and purposeful life that Mother Nature approves of? And because it all starts with the small everyday decisions, this question can mainly be broken down into three personal questions: What do I eat? What do I wear? How do I move? And while agonizing over those questions, one might also call into question our uncontested growth doctrine. To what end do we keep growing? What are we actually growing into? Should we maybe, just maybe, try to redefine growth? Entire books have been written on that matter and economists are heavily arguing about the controversial subject of growth. So lets focus on the question ‘How do I move’? For the automotive country Germany, the future of mobility is probably one of the, if not the most discussed economic topic. How will Germany defend and maintain its leading position in the automotive industry for the next decades to come and at the same time become carbon neutral by 2050? This is one of the most crucial economic questions from a German perspective. But if we zoom out and look at CO2-emissions from a global perspective, we find that mobility on the ground is only half the story. Roundabout 2% of total global CO2 emissions are produced by the aviation industry (experts estimate the actual contribution to be at 5%). What seems low at first glance, gains significance when considering that roughly only 3% of the world´s population flies every year. Further, in the next 15 years the number of flights will double globally. There is in fact no other human activity that, on an individual level, is so harmful for the environment. And to really make it graspable: Studies have shown that one long-distance round-trip from Germany to the Caribbean produces as many damaging emissions as 80 average residents in Tanzania do in an entire year. BAM! What a bummer! How frustrating! If you think this to the end, this also means that even the most ecological person who eats vegan, rides his bike to work and heats with solar energy totally messes up his green carbon footprint when getting on an airplane even just once. Does this mean we will never ever fly again? No, to be honest, we can´t say. We don´t know. And while all of these facts can make one feel quite powerless and give reason to just give up trying, I believe it is more important than ever to raise awareness on the consequences of our behaviors and actions. I believe we need to be more conscious of our habits and routines, while at the same time stop trying to be so damn perfect all the time and give ourselves a break once in while. It is tempting to point out the shortcoming of others, but it is the most detrimental and dividing thing we can do. Lets raise our self-consciousness and the consciousness of the people around us. Lets inspire others through our actions and not patronize them with our words. And most importantly lets not be so hard on ourselves. We constantly try to make conscious decisions on our consumption behavior, which is not an easy task when you´re in continually changing environments. However, we are far from being perfect. But maybe, just maybe, perfectionism is not exactly the trait we need in order to change this world for the better… just a thought.
But back to topic. In a world where more and more people can travel to almost anywhere in the world, where the number of flights increase massively each year, while prices keep dropping, where old towns like Dubrovnik in Croatia are being abandoned by the locals in peak season to make place for all the cruise ships that enter the port each day, whereas in poorer developing countries infrastructure and buildings made of cheap concrete are being often randomly constructed at a dizzy speed and by that often disfiguring the original beauty that attracted the tourists in the first place, all with the hope of getting a piece of the tourism pie – in this world that we collectively created, it begs the question where the tipping point of traveling is – meaning at which point does traveling create more damage than cure? What is responsible traveling? Do we travel responsibly? How can we make sure that traveling leads to a long-term benefit for all parties involved? There is me, the traveler, there is the country/the region I travel to and the people I engage with and there is the society as a whole. Shouldn´t it be a win-win-win for all three sides? I don´t have an answer for this rather complex question. But in order to reduce complexity, I can start with myself and check if my way of traveling is in line with my values. Of course, being conscious of one´s values is a critical advantage here. What means of transportation do I choose for my holiday/travels? Do I spend my money in a way that it benefits the locals instead of a global hotel chain? Am I persistent enough to refuse the plastic bag when buying a couple of bananas? It´s the small things that matter, which in sum will ignite positive change.
Many open questions have been laid out in this article without having a definite answer for them. But I believe we need to ask more uncomfortable questions, stop hiding in our cuddly bubbles and start facing the complexity of this world. While on a macro-perspective one person alone might seem powerless, on a micro-perspective each and every one of us has all the power in the world.
We are very curious about your thoughts. Why do people travel? Why do YOU travel when you travel? How do we travel responsibly? Feel free to share your thoughts!