This is an issue I have wrestled with for some time. In a recent conversation I did not feel I had articulated my point as well as I should have. So here we go….
Travel is often called the best education – both structured and unintended. The visitor, one would hope, should be the most affected by the experience in a learning context But of course the visitee will also be altered through the meeting. From economics to social interaction, travel has made the world smaller and more interwoven.
In preparation for travel abroad, people often go through an introspective process of examining how ‘we’ may be received. With this we can dress differently from home, talk differently and become intentional and even aggressive ambassadors for our country or region of origin.
Many travellers sew their national or regional flag onto their packs, with Canadians becoming the most recognizable travellers proudly displaying their Maple Leaf. As a proud Canadian and author of a few books about Canada, I would like to argue it is time to stop this tradition.
This is why:
- We are visitors, not official ambassadors. While I entirely advocate for ethical travel in all forms, I am not sure the villager in Bolivia or Kazakhstan should be required to navigate the divergent points between Canadian and American foreign policy. I also do not think they are particularly burdened with this. Nor am I necessarily adept at articulating these positions either.
- The Vietnam War has long ended. This was the seed of the flag-bearing Canadian travellers. Absolutely Canada did not support that war nor did it support the disastrous second Gulf war. Many other countries also opposed those actions and I hope that in conversations around the world we can explore such issues without leaping to tribal, nationalistic positions.
- Should someone from a land far-far away mistake me for an American, I really do not think I should be offended. Nor should I assume they will like me any better or worse because of my country of origin. This of course is the flag-bearing logic, but it is tired and old.
- I have been guilty of mistaking Colombians for Venezuelans and New Zealanders for Australians. It happens and it really is not a big deal. My son has been called a girl because of his long, blond hair. He gets over it.
- Generally one simply asks; “where are you from?” which can lead to an interesting conversations, ideally focused more upon our shared destination rather than the merits of our far away home.
- Exporting patriotism is ugly. Many other nationalities are guilty of over-promoting their own home far too much when travelling. There is a time and place: sporting events, international festivals, Olympics.
- Having worked internationally as a guide and tour manager, we can be guilty of generalizing about different ethnicities, but very quickly one moves beyond the general to the individual. Perceived animosity toward specific groups either represents a serious security concern, or is virtually irrelevant.
Moving away from mere flag-bearing to something deeper, is the desire and ability to reach across cultural differences to explore our global mosaic.
I try to remain extremely cognisant of the reality of who gets to travel and who does not. Visit any backpackers accommodation the world over and you will meet the usual band of merry travellers (in no particular order): Australians, New Zealanders, Germans, French, British, Irish, Israelis, Canadians, other Europeans, Japanese and a few Americans. From time to time you are lucky enough to meet people from other parts of our globe, but for a variety of very obvious reasons – from economics to passports – certain nationalities overwhelmingly dominate the independent traveller market.
These travellers are important to tourism development. Backpackers tend to explore new routes and encourage budget to mid-level infrastructure that may be enjoyed locally and regionally.
Yet there is nothing particularly unique to being a backpacker. It is a lifestyle I have embraced deeply since my teenage years and, for me, I have learned a few important things about the world and about myself:
- I love to travel and I like longer trips where I can immerse myself in the local culture (as much as possible)
- 99.9999% of people are good and want to be helpful;
- Rich people have big houses
- In heavily touristed areas, foreign travellers can be viewed in terms of money. There will be generalizations about: Gringos, Europeans, North Americans, Latinos… etc. – Perhaps it is better not to vitiate such generalizations
- I like mountains
- Visitors should be a net bonus to the local economy and not a drain upon people’s wonderful and natural generosity.
Everything about Twomey Travel encourages ethical travel and international cooperation.
When living abroad, I do not try to ‘go native’ but I certainly learn the basic pleasantries of the local culture. I try as hard as possible not to speak poorly about other nationalities. I certainly do not take ownership of every action my home country has done or not done.
Finally, returning to my friends who feel the need to sew flags onto their luggage – or talk loudly about how great everything is where you come from. Please remember most people will remember you for you and not for some nefarious geopolitical assumption regarding foreign policy.
Also, please take note of how many of you are travelling. If you try to take ownership of such national identities, you should also be required to take ownership of the ugly tourist from your country. I assure you he or she is out there!