“There are no foreign lands. It is the traveller only who is foreign.” – Robert Louis Stevenson
“Travel broadens the mind”, as the saying goes. I’m not sure it does. And in fact I have long been suspicious of the benefits of travel for the purposes of instant mind-expansion and gratification.
I don’t know when the phrase was coined, or by who, but I’m guessing it could have been in the eighteenth century, at the time of the Grand Tour. In those days, of course, the only ones who could afford to travel were the well-off and travel was something you did because you could afford to. So, by extension, travel for leisure or education was only available to those who had money.
Until that time, travel was mostly an act borne out of necessity: undertaken by merchants and journeymen in the course of trade or in the search for work. Or by those escaping persecution or famine. Or perhaps pilgrims undertaking religious observance. Even the great explorers were often sponsored by a ruler spurred by the need for new discoveries. Only generals and their armies maybe travelled for their own gratification and gain.
By and large though, until the eighteenth century, at least in Europe, travel was not something undertaken for pleasure. The discomforts were large and the dangers were larger still. Shipwrecks, bandits, plague, were all perils that faced travellers in those days and anyone seeking a comfortable existence would have stayed at home. A large proportion of the population would probably have moved no more than a dozen miles from the place they were born in the course of a lifetime.
It was during the Enlightenment though, that things began to change. Philosophers such as John Locke (most particularly in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding) argued that knowledge can only come from our external perception or experience of the world:
“’tis the Knowledge of Things that is only to be priz’d; ’tis this alone gives a Value to our Reasonings.”
It carried the suggestion that in order to increase our knowledge, we must also broaden our experience, our world. This was the impetus and the justification to down books and set foot beyond the threshold of our doorsteps. It was the rallying cry to venture beyond the boundaries of your own parish and to set eyes on lands beyond the horizon.
To begin with, most travel was to Europe – in particular travelling through France and Germany to Italy, on what came to be known as the “Grand Tour”.
In those days, the principal value of this “Grand Tour” was to expose northern Europeans to the cultural legacy of classical antiquity – in particular to Italy and the Romans, but also to the Ancient Greece. It was a journey that began in Paris and headed south as far as Rome or Naples. A brave few went on to Paestum, whilst the most adventurous might travel to Sicily or across to Greece. Very often, it was done in the company of a guide or “Cicerone” – a term taken from Marcus Tulles Cicero, who was famed for his great learning and eloquence. To begin with, it was mainly men who undertook this journey, but in time it was also common for young ladies, in the company of an elder chaperone or relative who would undertake it. Indeed, it was seen as a way of completing their education.
Then in 1845, Thomas Cooke began offering the opportunity of travel to working people from the Midlands. His first tours were to Liverpool and Scotland, but he soon expanded to take people to the Great Exhibition and then eventually to the Continent – to Belgium, Germany and France. And thus began the first “package tours”.
This then is widely cited as the birth of modern travel and in the years since, of course, the industry has blossomed such that today it is said to contribute to almost a tenth of the world’s total GDP.
Travel has now become almost as indispensable to our lives as clothes and food. Where we travel to, how (and how often) we travel have become expressions of our own personal identity. Where we take our holidays has become a status symbol. Do we spend Christmas on board a yacht in the Caribbean, or can we only afford a weekend in a hotel in Blackpool in November? This says as much about you as the clothes you wear, or where you shop.
Why do we travel?
I would conjecture that very few of us have John Locke’s words on our mind as we board our £20 Ryanair flight. So why then do we do it?
Of course, we all undertake our journeys for different reasons. For some of us it is to escape the grey clouds of England. For some perhaps, it is to visit family members who have relocated abroad. For others to assuage a restlessness or ennui. For others still, it is merely “keeping up with the Joneses” – because everyone else does it, so why not us?
But surely one other reason is simply because it’s so cheap. At least relatively so. I read recently that some people nowadays chose to retire to a cabin on a cruise ship because it is cheaper than staying at home.
It is also safe. Unless we chose to travel to war zones or dangerous parts of the world, and as long as we take care of ourselves, the dangers of travel have almost disappeared. Statistically, you are probably more likely to die on the streets of London than on a beach in Sicily.
And furthermore, the difficulties of travel have all but been removed. We can pay for everything with our credit card, Google Translate will do the talking for us and we can book all our accommodation and transport online. Only a fool would not take advantage of such an opportunity.
Travel in the time of Instagram
So where do the inspirations from our travel come from?
Maybe we are inspired by a chocolate-box perfect photo – in a magazine, on Instagram, or on television. The photo inspires feelings of wonder. It bestows us with energy, it fills us with longing. We believe that if we can travel to the place and look at the same scene with our own eyes, it will increase that feeling still more. This thought persists inside our minds, growing daily like an unrequited love, until such time as we have unconsciously fooled ourselves into thinking that without visiting that place, our life will have been incomplete. And at that time we book our travel.
But of course, when we arrive there, half of the rest of the world has also had the same idea. That idyllically deserted beach in the photo we saw on Instagram is as crowded as Piccadilly Circus.
So we are a little bit deluded. But of course we are still glad to have travelled there and to have “seen it with our own eyes”. It would all have been so perfect if it had not been for the “tourists” we think. But we forget that we ourselves are tourists. It is a slightly uncomfortable realisation. But somehow we find a way to justify it.
The above scenario is of course something of a parody and is a vast over-simplification of the reality. But, nevertheless, I think all of us can recognise a small amount of truth in it.
“Bucket-list” tourism and its impact on the places you visit
So we have arrived at a situation today where tourists – travellers, if you like – are accused of spoiling the sites and cities they have come to visit. Or, if they haven’t completely ruined it they have left a heavy footprint. The complaints we hear from locals are numerous:
- The changing faces of the local shops
- Overcrowding at certain times of year and on certain days
- Cities which have bowed to tourism so much they are no longer recognisable
- Drunken or loutish behaviour by some sectors of tourists
- The increase cost of rented accommodation
- Foreigners buying up holiday homes and pushing up property prices
- Day visitors arriving in a city or port in the morning and leaving in the evening but not spending money
- Cities where at certain times of year it is no longer possible to hear the vernacular language
And all of a sudden, “travel” and “tourism” is no longer a source for good, but has become part of the ill it was supposed to cure.
So why has this become topical and what are tour companies doing about it?
Tour companies have realised that the above scenario is not sustainable. If it continues, then the places they visit will have been eroded to a shell and no one will want to visit them any longer.
In the process of reassessing their responsibilities, tour companies are searching for solutions. One result of this is that many have have re-labelled their packages and products accordingly. So we now have:
- Slow travel
- Responsible travel
- Sustainable travel
- Experiential travel
- Eco-friendly travel
- Green travel
These are all laudable epithets, but what do they actually mean?
Some of them, I suspect, have been created by travel companies as marketing tags. But at their best, they are something positive. They mean the tour company is at least thinking through its responsibilities. Maybe they are also revising their itineraries, changing their suppliers accordingly. They are making an effort to give something back to the communities they visit, perhaps in the form of a material gift, or money, or the maintenance for a particular site or monument.
Travel and climate change
Not least because it has been identified as one of the worst offenders, the travel industry is waking up to the emergency of the undeniable effects of climate change.
The greatest contributor to climate change and global warming is the creation and release of CO₂ into the atmosphere. And flying, in particular, is viewed as a major offender. But land travel can also be a guilty accomplice.
The other great culprit, it turns out, is hotel food. In many hotels around the world, much of this is not locally sourced. A major factor is apparently that tourists like to eat what they are accustomed to their home countries. (One pictures millions of tins of baked beans being exported around the world). But the other contributory factor is that so much hotel food is subsequently thrown away. As if the carbon footprint to fatten the beef and transport it to the hotel was not enough, it is then discarded before it is eaten.
Furthermore, hotels change laundry every one or two days. This is far more often than we would do at home. And doing laundry consumes energy and produces CO₂.
These examples are just to illustrate the point, but one could go on.
Travel and your carbon footprint
There are now online tools to allow you to calculate your carbon footprint such as the one on the WWF website:
Even if usually flying between England and Italy for family reasons, I myself am guilty of having flown too much in the last ten years. I tried this simple online tool recently and was so shocked at my results that I would be far too ashamed to publish them here.
And it was this which ushered in the realisation that we have some difficult thinking to do…
One thing is sure about this current crisis – Travel companies are going to have to think long and hard about why they exist.
Implications for Esplora Travel
I started Esplora Travel with a single aim – I simply wanted to share some of the beautiful places of Sicily with like-minded people. Nothing of that has changed and it remains as true today as it did ten years ago. All that has evolved in the intervening years is that the list of places I would like to share has grown longer…
One thing in our defence perhaps, is that we have always sought to visit “out of the way” and “off the beaten track” locations. And we are justly proud of taking our visitors to sites where few other tourists stop by.
But it is undeniable that in the coming months, we must urgently reassess our responsibilities. Fortunately however, the current hiatus in world travel gives us an excellent opportunity to do so. It is high on our “to do” list in the coming weeks.
In the meantime however, there are other related issues to address. The rush to promote “eco-friendly” holidays has become something of a trend in journalism over the past months. Several British papers are only publishing articles on travel to places that can be reached by train. Whilst this is completely laudable in its intent, it creates problems for destinations such as Sicily.
With the best will in the world, it is very difficult to arrive in Sicily by train from the UK. Part of the problem is that the timetables across Europe are not “joined up” in a way that helps with purchasing tickets. Invariably, one is forced to buy part of the ticket before one knows the timetable of the second – with the consequent risk that the earlier purchase may turn out to have been over-hasty.
It is also extremely expensive. A return ticket from the UK to Sicily, travelling by train will cost just shy of £1000. Out of season, it is possible to find air tickets for less than £200 return. This is quite apart from the time and the discomfort of having to spend so long in the train.
What is more, after many years in the doldrums, Sicily has now started to thrive as a tourist destination. Ten years ago, the only hope for young Sicilians was to pack their bags and head for the cities of Northern Europe to find work. But in the past decade, this has changed: young Sicilians are now confident of staying in Sicily and creating a future for themselves in tourism – either as guides, or working in restaurants or hotels, or as drivers. It would be a desperate shame if this trend were reversed.
It is essential we continue to support it. So, what do we do?
Make your journey count
Firstly, don’t stop travelling because you are consumed by guilt – but rather, make your journey count! Don’t travel to Sicily just for the weekend just because it is a cheap alternative to staying in London. But come for a week or ten days and make your journey worthwhile.
One extra source of comfort is that you can be absolutely sure that all the food you eat in Sicily is locally sourced. Almost nothing served in restaurants in Sicily will have been brought in from outside the island.
One other mitigating factor is that the planes flown by low-cost carriers such as Easyjet (as one invariably flies with them to Sicily), are some of the most efficient in service. And whilst the discomfort of sitting elbow to armpit for three hours with a stranger is not the most enjoyable, you can at least take solace from the thought that the fuel burnt to convey you to Sicily is being shared by a hundred and eighty other passengers.
Also, consider your suitcase. A large portion of the fuel burnt during a flight is purely for transporting luggage. If you cut down your luggage, even by 10Kg, you will reduce the amount of fuel the aircraft will have to burn to transport it.
And once you arrive, travelling in a small group on a minibus, rather than hiring a jeep, can also make a difference.
But also, come to Sicily expecting to discover something new – either about the island or about yourself. Travel is essentially about meeting strangers and Sicilians will be delighted to welcome you.
But most importantly of all, if you arrive with open eyes and an open heart, you will go home from your travels a changed person. Your journey will have been worthwhile. And you will be part of the cure and not part of the disease.