Annette and I have done a lot of traveling this summer– a get away to Glen Arbor, individual travel to conferences on the west coast (mine was Computers and Writing in Davis), and then a vacation/tour to Croatia, Slavonia, and Venice. Judging from my social media feeds, just about everyone I know was doing something similar. It was great! Though I will admit I could have done without the Covid we picked up at the tail end of our trip to Europe, but that’s a slightly different topic.
Shortly before we left on this latest trip, I read in The New Yorker Agnes Collard’s essay “The Case Agains Travel.” At first, I thought I might have been reading it wrong because travel is so popular– or at least people very commonly describe travel (along with activities like reading and walking on the beach) as something they “love” to do But no, Collard is quite earnest, though in an intentionally contrarian tone. This passage made me feel seen:
If you are inclined to dismiss this as contrarian posturing, try shifting the object of your thought from your own travel to that of others. At home or abroad, one tends to avoid “touristy” activities. “Tourism” is what we call traveling when other people are doing it. And, although people like to talk about their travels, few of us like to listen to them. Such talk resembles academic writing and reports of dreams: forms of communication driven more by the needs of the producer than the consumer.
(My apologies to my tens of social media devotees who have had to endure weeks of Instgram posts from me chronicling my journeys, though as far as I can tell, y’all have been basically posting similar pictures and stories from wherever it is you went too).
Then I heard Collard interviewed just the other day on the NPR show “Today, Explained,” and an episode available here called “Vacation… all I ever wanted?” which features a short (and more accessible) interview with Collard on her thoughts on Travel. Her part of that 30 minute show is in the second half.
She does make one point in both her essay and interview which I do agree with thoroughly: travel does not in and of itself make one “virtuous,” much in the same way that an education does not in and of itself make one “smarter.” I mean, both travel and education can help each of us become better and more virtuous people, but I’ve seen enough “ugly American” style travelers (both domestically and abroad) and also enough half-assed students to know that the benefits of travel and education depend entirely on how each of us individually process and apply those experiences.
Further, travel (and education too) is undeniably a mark of privilege in that both require time and money. Obviously, different kinds of travel require different amounts of time and money, and the tourism I’m able to do now is at least more elaborate (if not better) than what I was able to do when I was in my twenties. There’s a reason why so many people wait to go on those big European vacations until they are closer to retirement.
But mainly, I think Collard is wrong in two crucial ways.
First, she makes no distinction between the different types of travel, which for me is very problematic. In both the essay and the interview, Collard uses her own experiences of a trip to Abu Dhabi and a visit to an animal hospital caring for falcons as evidence to the empty miserableness of travel. But as she makes clear in the interview, Collard travelled to Abu Dhabi not “for fun” but for a conference– that is, for work (she’s a Philosophy professor) and not exclusively for pleasure– and she went to the falcon hospital despite the fact that she describes herself as someone who “does not like animals.” So you sign up to go to a falcon hospital? This just doesn’t make sense.
The reasons for travel define the traveler’s role. When Annette and I visit our extended families, we are not tourists, even though these trips require many hours of car or air travel and usually hotel stays and a lot of eating out. I very much enjoy spending time with parents and sisters and in-laws and the like, and I’m looking forward to upcoming trips at Thanksgiving and Christmas this year, too. But these trips are not vacations for fun; these trips are obligations.
My work travel is probably similar to Collard’s in that it doesn’t happen that often and I can usually get some more personal pleasures out of the experience– as I did recently when I went to California. But these carved out personal times are also not the same as a vacation, and for people who have to travel a lot for work, I have to think that the distinction between different types of travel are even more stark.
In contrast, the vacation Annette and I just went on was entirely for our own pleasure and amusement. It’s different from going someplace you don’t really want to go for work (even if you do find free time to look at falcons), and it’s different from seeing your siblings and parents and the like. You’re making the trip not as a part of any responsibility or obligation; you’re making the trip because you thought it’d be fun.
Second, Collard is setting the bar way too high. Collard borrows the definition of tourist from an academic book which describes a tourist as someone “away from home for the purpose of experiencing a change.” That strikes me more how I hear a lot of people who prefer describe themselves as “travelers.” For example, while tourists wait in line and pay a lot to ride in a gondola for 15 minutes; travelers watch and scoff. Tourists take pictures of all the major sites as proof they were there; travelers take pictures that are less identifying and more suitable for framing.
Personally, I’m a tourist. While overseas, I don’t think I have a choice since no one in any other country is going to mistake me for anything other than a dopey white American dude. I can’t pretend that I’m just hanging out in Dubrovnik at a cafe table under a giant umbrella like the locals, especially since all the locals from surrounding areas are the ones actually working in this cafe (and working in the gift shops and the Game of Thrones tours and hauling in all of the cases of wine and soft drinks and hauling away all of the empty bottles and cans).
But again, Collard wants too much from tourism. As a tourist, I do want to see and experience different things, real, (re)constructed, or even sometimes completely contrived (in the form of things like roadside tourist trap attractions), but I don’t necessarily want to change. For me, a lot of the experiences of tourism (restaurants, tours, museums, architecture, vistas, sounds, etc.) are similar to the experiences of media. I certainly have been changed as a person in small and large ways by specific books or movies or songs, but that’s not something I demand or expect every time. “That was pretty good” or “That was fun” is usually enough; even “That was weird” or “Let’s not do that again” can usually be enough. And really, it’s the broader experience with tourism (or media) and not a specific trip (or book) that changes my perspectives and experiences in the world.
Ultimately, as Collard points out in the interview, travel is fun, and (she says) she doesn’t want to talk people out of doing it. I think she just wants people to be, I don’t know, a little less smug about it. That’s cool.