To inaugurate the #wewilltravelagain campaign, we interviewed Cristian Palazzi… who else? Besides having visited 30 different countries, his work as a professor of social philosophy, tourism and globalization at HTSI, ESADE and UAB have led him to reflect on the nature of travel.
Our conversation with Palazzi—who is also the director of social impact at Playground magazine and an expert consultant in bioethics—was a long, enriching discussion on the meaning of travel and human nature. We hope you enjoy it!
Why do we travel? Is there any purpose?
Curiosity is an intrinsic part of humans. It’s not just about what we want to know, but also what we want to touch and see. The instinct to travel is a part of human nature: it gives us a chance to discover things we can’t experience in our everyday lives.
When we’re culturally curious, we like talking to others and discussing other cultures. This drives us to put ourselves in scenarios that aren’t habitual—experiences that take us out of our routines and enrich us. Then, we can apply what we’ve learned to our daily lives.
Have humans always been travellers?
Yes. Migrations have existed since the birth of humanity. What has changed is why we travel. We first migrated to survive, not for cultural reasons; we needed to find food and safety.
Once modern society fulfilled those needs, we found new reasons to travel that had to do with personal or cultural restlessness—or, simply, entertainment. Since we’ve fulfilled our basic needs, entertainment is now part of the culture of travel and travel itself.
That’s when the term “tourism” was born.
Yes, the second phase of travel gave birth to the word “tourism”. Once the enlightened wealthy had their basic needs covered, they sent their children to see the world. In particular, Greece and Rome: the birthplace of western civilization. These were very elitist travels, a sort of aristocratic “grand tour”.
These elitist travels made “travel-as-entertainment” common. They went from an enlightened, cultural journey to a journey tied to personal preferences: the democratization of travel was accompanied by a growth in quality of life in developed countries.
…And that’s where mass tourism was born. Is it in crisis?
We should rethink this so-called “mass tourism”. How did the pandemic spread across the world? Tourism was one of the biggest catalysts—we’re so used to travelling! We’ll have to see what new form tourism takes on: can we continue to permit globalization and massification, or do we need to look for something else?
I think now is the time to rethink the travel experience and give it a new meaning.
What role do feelings play in travel? Is travelling about feelings?
It is. When does the journey start? It doesn’t start when you board the plane; it starts when you get some sort of input. That’s when you start to imagine what your destination must be like: you feel eager to get to know it, you feel curious.
Do all journeys involve movement?
They do, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be physical, exterior movement; it can also be interior. Wanting to go somewhere transforms us. Tourism has a lot to do with rites of passage; new experiences transform us.
Tourism goes far beyond what’s practical. It involves things that are practically spiritual: learning, personal change…
“We should stop seeing travel as mere entertainment”
You’ve been to the North Pole, South Sudan, Chad, Jordan and Bangladesh for activism and humanitarian work. What did those trips teach you?
I learned a lot. What surprised me the most is that it doesn’t matter how extreme the situation you find yourself in is. You can experience war or see the biggest refugee camp in the world; still, you always find someone who wants to talk to you. That helps us to understand ourselves as humans: we all share something. No matter how extreme the situation was, I’ve always found a smiling face. That impacts you. It’s one of the most important things you learn from travelling. You’ll always be able to interact with other people, even if you don’t speak their language.
Were those interior journeys, too?
Definitely. Going to five of the most complicated places in the world because of climate change, terrorism, war, or ethnic strife changes you on the inside. You learn that empathy exists no matter where you go, but you also realize that terror has no limits. We live in a reality that has domesticated terror. Seeing things for yourself gets you more involved in the fight against injustice; somehow, you can end up understanding any problem. It makes your own problems seem less important, and it makes you question your privilege.
In a world flooded with information and images, is there anything left to discover?
We can feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of images, yes. But seeing a picture of the beach at Tulum isn’t the same as being on the beach at Tulum. Receiving that input doesn’t take away from your experience as a tourist.
As soon as you’re there, you forget those pictures. You start to live the journey, and that’s where the true strength lies. That can never be captured by images on a social network.
How does tourism affect local communities? What should we keep in mind? How should we change our behaviour as tourists?
We’ve made the mistake of seeing the world as a theme park to be consumed; that’s typical of the capitalist system. We consume places and people. We should stop seeing travel as mere entertainment.
Educational tourism pushes us to consider the value of the journey or the destination from a human perspective. What most represents a destination is the local community: that’s what we should respect the most, because that’s where the true richness and authenticity of the destination lie.
Yes. Education on values. All schools should teach us how to respect our surroundings. Schools of tourism play a big role in how we as a species reconsider our way of consuming the world. They’re the ones that talk about travel, the opportunity to help change the capitalist model and how it devours other ways of life.
What about public administrations? What kind of responsibility do they have?
Most public administrations around the world just focus on promoting their destination, not on planning for the impact tourism will have on it. It’s essential to plan the consequences and impact guests will have on the local community, their hosts.
Just thinking about how much money we can get from tourism is a mistake. Money in itself doesn’t offer us quality of life. In reality, what we should seek is how to live better.
Destinations lose authenticity and turn into mere showcases. The quality of both the tourism experience and the journey is reduced to a minimum. Tourism is a source of great change. It can change things for the better, or it can totally destroy a destination.
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