A couple of weeks ago I posted the controversial statement that travel is not worth it. This elicited many comments and so it is obviously something people feel strongly about. I think, therefore, I should clarify things a bit.

First some definitions:

Travel: The process of getting from point A to point B.

Tourism: Using the WTO’s definition, tourism is traveling to some place and being away from home for more than 24 hours and less than 1 year and NOT being remunerated from the destination. (Being away for longer than one year while not being paid would not be tourism.)

Living abroad: Moving your permanent address to another country and staying there long enough to learn the language, read the newspapers, get local friends, work, go to local doctors, file taxes, and so on. (By law of the excluded middle, it should be longer than a year.) In a stretch, the case can probably be made that if you are only “home” for a few days a year or not at all, you are really living abroad even if you have not set up a permanent address.

It is clear to me that unremunerated tourism is a leisure activity whether it is to see the attractions, study museums, hang out in bars, climb mountains, or scuba dive. I also suspect that what Johnny H said in a comment is somewhat true, namely that tourism has turned into a way to pursue status and social currency in terms of the destinations people have been to, much like the younger crowd gains currency by attending concerts, and the older crowd gains currency by adding rooms to their houses and granite to their countertops.

I do not dispute that engaging in these activities are inherently valuable to some, but I think that claiming that there is a process of personal growth involved or that you are gaining memories that can never be taken away are overrated in the sense that it is NOT some kind of universal truth. Forsooth, the fact that someone completed Halo 2(*) is also something that cannot be taken away.

(*) I completed Tie Fighter and Quake on the hardest level. My legend will live forever.

To be honest, I think very many engage in these activities because all their friends do; because the travel magazines and blogs tell them it’s awesome; and because air travel allowed people to get everywhere without cutting many if any lines. In short, travel became a safe noncommitting consumer product. Having been to the other side of the world no longer means braving mountain ranges, running out of food, or being chased by bandits.
It just means a plane ticket and a bus ticket and eating an authentic dish of drunken shrimp. Indeed, travel no longer requires the same level of resourcefulness it used to. Many have gone before you, and many are probably going along with you. I suspect for many it is just another consumer choice that has to do with the novelty of the surroundings rather than the novelty of buying a new gadget or the novelty or buying a new status symbol. (From this alone I can tell you that travel mainly attract the extroverted SP types.) Verily, we have agreed that hoarding stuff is nothing to be proud of, yet hoarding wordly experiences, that is somehow an improvement, hmm.

Travel in itself is the process of getting from point A to point B. It is a skill to be learned, but it is not remarkably difficult to buy a ticket, get into a vehicle of transportation of some kind, and then find a place to stay at the destination. Indeed, the first time can be a little scary but after a while, one realizes that there is little to it, like public speaking. Most travel happens this way involving tickets and room and board. I therefore claim that anyone who can buy a bus ticket can travel to other countries as the principles are pretty much the same. This is not true for everyone but it is true for most people. Don’t put your tourism on your resume just as you would not put your hobbies on your resume. All this shows me is that you have a bankroll that you are willing to spend on tickets instead of computer gadgets or hub caps.

I think it is more educational to, for instance, travel by foot, bicycle, motorcycle, car, or sailboat, than it is to travel by bus, ferry, or jet plane since you will also be responsible for the mode of transportation. If nothing else you will learn that a) The planet is really really big. b) How to keep a, say, motorcycle running. This is the main thing that attracts me to cruising; sailing the boat and keeping it going. It is also a way to gain a better sense of distance, particularly with the slower modes.

I highly recommend living abroad though out of which traveling is a very very small part, that is, a couple of days of getting there vs a few years or more of being there. I have lived in 3 different countries (Denmark for 24 years, Switzerland for 4 years, and United States for 6 years) and it certainly widens one’s perspective in ways that can not be done by visiting some place for a couple of months while hanging out in bars. Specifically, it gives you a different point of view on the country you are visiting, and a new point of view of the country you come from. More importantly, it will reveal that people are more similar than different (accountants in different countries will have more in common with each other than they will with school teachers from their own country) but that countries do have their souls and quirks. In particular, most people around the world would much prefer it if they could just get on with their daily lives.

The best way to live abroad is through your career whether that is part of a company’s plans or your own plans (travel writer? traveling carpenter?). You can start early (after high school) and go to school in another country. I would not do this if I had to pay excessively to do so. If this was the case, I would get my training in my “own” country and apply with transnational companies that like to ship their people around the world. Academically, particularly the sciences will gladly hire foreign researchers. (I still have a letter from the Swiss National Science foundation that will pay me to work at another university anywhere in the world for a year. I know that Japan used to take in foreign postdocs (after PhD), that is, there would be extra money in the grants specifically if you were a foreigner.) For medical doctors, there are “doctors without borders” and similar for volunteers, teachers, etc. The peace corps. Ships hire able seamen, etc. The point being that if you have skills, someone will pay you while you are out in the world and THAT is the way to go about it, not tourism. (Until I quit my career I had never paid for a plane ticket with my own money! Even relocation was paid.).

To see the world, get the skills first, then travel. Not the other way around. The world has enough bartenders, maids, dish washers, ski guides, and other unskilled labor but it can always use another techie, teacher, doctor, mechanic, etc. So once you got that diploma or whatever it is you need to get hired, do look into opportunities in other countries as well. And yes, if you can, you could move—excuse me, travel—there before you find it, but moving without the skills is a hassle.

Originally posted 2009-12-26 00:07:16.