Tourism – “travel for pleasure” – has become a human right for anyone who lives in the western world. We go away as often as we can, because we can. We go where we want in the way that we want and we expect our needs to be catered for. An estimated 1 billion of us travel internationally on vacation each year and the cash we spend accounts for 9% of global GDP.
Do we know what we are doing? Is this good for the planet? You could argue it either way. In general, it’s not great for the environment but it creates jobs and, to some extent, it transfers funds from rich countries to poor countries.
Most tourists are swept up in an industry that treats them as statistics - so many hotel nights or entrance tickets etc. In turn, they are willing to be treated as commodities, herded from sight to sight in groups and given a potted presentation of each place they visit: Machu Picchu or Chartres Cathedral summed up in 10 essential facts.
Is it just me that thinks there is a missed opportunity here? Travel is a potentially enlightening activity but mostly we do it for the most frivolous reasons, and in the wrong way. We devote huge resources of time and money for the reward of saying we have been wherever it is and being able to show the pictures we have taken on our phones.
It is almost as if we do not want to take ourselves with us on vacation or to be present when we arrive at our destination. We speak of “getting away” rather than “being there”. We pay to be informed; we do not want to have to find our own information.
I shouldn’t complain about this since this attitude keeps me in a living. I am a professional writer of travel guides. But doing my work I have become increasingly aware that if we merely “consume” travel rather than invest ourselves in it, we miss almost everything that there is to see, hear and feel in the strange place we have made such an effort to get to.
When you travel you always take yourself with you and you become a temporary but vital component in the place you end up in, particularly if it is a sacred site. You are a mobile sense-making apparatus and as such you are a key to interpreting your surroundings. If you let the tour guide do all the talking, you will be functioning on one very valid level but if you let your thoughts guide you, much more interesting information will emerge from within you.
This is mystical travel and it works best when you are very selective in your choice of destination and you allow ample time to be there. Most tourists try to cram in as many sights as the day will allow but you will have a deeper experience if you choose just one or two. Even better, give yourself time to make more than one visit so that you get a chance to integrate your earlier thoughts. Another good way to really contact a place is to sit still and write or draw your observations. It’s surprising what comes up when you concentrate on a single detail, a particular stone, say, of a megalithic monument.
You may well forget to take a photograph but you will come back with something far more valuable than a shop-bought souvenir. You will have been there, really been there, and you will have been changed by your sojourn.