Can purposeful travel help us change the way we see the world in 2022?
As a number of countries begin to reopen their borders to foreign tourists and pre-departure COVID-19 requirements become more uncommon, 2022 looks like it may be the year travel bounces back. But should we fire it up the way it was? Or can it change for the better? Travel community Trippin is hopeful for the latter.
To celebrate his 24th birthday, Nate Agbetu flew to Tokyo. The creative strategist from East London hadn’t picked Japan for its Sensō-ji temple or to see its pink cherry blossoms, instead, he’d chosen it so he could be fully immersed.
“I wanted to go on my first solo trip and I wanted to go somewhere where I'd like to be entirely culturally shocked,” Agbetu says.
Through his creative studio Play Nice, Agbetu’s work typically focuses on creating intersections between communities, such as the film he made for the Electronic exhibition at London’s Design Museum: not only does the movie recognize the contribution of the Black community to the musical genre, but Agbetu also launched an initiative that gives away free tickets to individuals underrepresented in the arts. Now his vocation was influencing his travels too.
“I was working on a spatial design brief and the way the Japanese think about space and design is just beautiful,” he says. During a week-long trip, Agbetu took in exhibitions, ate “some of the most hearty rāmen” he’d ever had at Afuri in Ebisu, and met a number of local people – but it was an introduction to the ‘zine scene that enthralled him the most.
“They have a big culture of just making different ‘zines, using paper as a kind of architectural piece,” he says. “It's not just about what's in it, but it's also about how it's folded up and how it comes together. I found out a lot about that from some of the art kids that I met over there.”
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By actively pursuing a trip with the intention of learning through local interaction in a mutually beneficial way, Agbetu was engaging in purposeful travel, a polysemy that has differing definitions for each traveler but is described by Trippin as a “mindset”.
This was true for Agbetu. His vacation in Japan and a second trip to the Palestinian Territories were about widening his understanding of the world rather than ticking something off a bucket list. “Both trips were more for me to understand how people socialize in different places, and understand a bit more about the way we interact and learn from what it means to live inside of another culture and to adapt to it without being voyeuristic or exploitative.”
What is purposeful travel?
So could purposeful travel be the future? A report commissioned by London’s public research university UCL for the travel community Trippin suggests it could. But it will require an overhaul by brands and introspection by travelers.
“We always say [purposeful travel is] a change in mindset,” says the co-founder of Trippin, Kesang Ball. “Traveling the world is amazing: It’s there to be explored, cultures are there to be connected to, and I think that it brings us together. By understanding people's differences, we can understand more of our own.”
Trippin started as a Facebook group in 2016 before it expanded into a website that blended articles, films, and podcasts with city guides curated by local cultural icons – such as the top spots in Beijing as picked by the DJ Yu Su, or exploring Medellín with the producer Verraco.
“Our destination insights and guides are written by local journalists and cultural figures who can offer different lenses on how to experience their city and culture,” says Ball, “ensuring stories from both sides of the lens are always present.”
By partnering with local creators, Trippin publishes inclusive, intentional, and hyper-local work, designed to empower travelers to have rich, sustainable travel experiences. Ball argues that travel writing by Western media publications can distort authentic narratives in a destination, creating unrealistic expectations for travelers.
“Trips and experiences are different for each traveler which is something I've always been conscious of as someone from a mixed heritage background,” she says. When Trippin relaunches in 2022, purposeful travel will be at its heart. Should other travel publications follow suit?
Travel needs to be more diverse and inclusive
A Reuters report from 2021 found that there are no non-white editors in top roles across the top ten news outlets, both online and offline. The report concluded that white people are “significantly over-represented among top editors,” and “and non-white people are significantly under-represented.”
The Diversity in Journalism Report in 2021 found much of the same. It revealed that 92% of journalists are white – a drop of 2% compared with the same survey in 2017 – and a figure higher than the proportion for the UK workforce as a whole (88%).
Meera Dattani, the Senior Editor of Adventure.com – now publishing again following a nine-month hiatus due to COVID-19 – is one of only a handful of non-white travel editors in the UK. She believes that the lack of representation in the travel media is bad for travelers.
“It’s so important for travel media to have more diverse voices – it’s this variety of personal experiences, background, and perspectives that bring a much-needed different, refreshing angle to the table,” says Dattani. “There’s less chance of othering and exoticizing when you have this inclusivity as the approach to travel isn’t from the same type of person,” she adds.
Dattani believes the industry needs diversity from the top down, including editorial teams who make decisions about what gets published and how copy is presented. The Unpacking Media Bias newsletter, which Dattani co-founded with fellow travel journalist Shivani Ashoka in 2020, shines a light on this very issue. Since its inception, she believes there has been a small shift in editorial sensitivity.
"There are more open, honest conversations around language and why we might not use certain words or why we need to provide more context if we do," says Dattani "[This] doesn’t mean everyone is having this debate, but certainly it feels like more editors, publications and travel companies are."
Sophie Lam, Travel Editor of the i newspaper, is one of them. She has often spoken out about using a variety of voices and publishing inclusive work. Lottie Gross and Steph Dyson who run the Talking Travel Writing newsletter have argued that the genre needs to be decolonized and that LGBTQ+ inclusion needs to improve.
A number of tour operators have started to implement change too. In 2021, Intrepid Travel published an Ethical Marketing Policy to show openly how they are trying to sell destinations in more diverse, equal, and transparent ways.
“Modern travel writing is generally based on the writing genre that emerged during colonization, so this European-centric colonial gaze means we end up promoting that observation-led style of travel, rather than genuinely engaging with people,” says Dattani. “If we don’t challenge the narratives that are fed to us, we will just keep telling the same old stories even through travel writing.”
Dattani says a number of "really bold journalists" are already beginning to change the stories being told and "tell it as it is". She points to Lebawit Lily Girma writing about vaccine equity for Skift and Zoey Goto on the discovery of the last known slave ship, the Clotilda, for BBC Travel as just two examples.
Time to think about both people and the planet
The Trippin report says that for purposeful travel to work, it has to be both sustainable and available to all. “To us, purposeful travel considers the pillars of sustainable tourism but also the intersectionality of a traveler’s identity,” it reads.
The report suggests that travelers should not only think about the environmental implications of how they travel, and the social and economic impact of their visits – choosing where they stay, how they interact with locals, where they spend their money – but it also calls on the travel industry to create sustainable solutions for the future that are far more inclusive and to consider the intersectionality of the person traveling too.
Developed by lawyer and philosopher Kimberlé Crenshaw, intersectionality refers to race, class, and gender as interlocking systems of oppression. “This conceptual model, when applied to the travel industry, shines a light on how uneven its landscape is and helps us think about how power, oppression, resistance, privilege, benefits, and disadvantages are systematically distributed,” reads the report.
Joycelyn Longdon is the founder of Climate in Colour, an education platform that aims to make climate conversations more accessible and diverse, agrees that the way we travel needs to change.
“It is also important for marginalized people to not be deterred from traveling but to unapologetically show up,” she says. “I think that by more people of color, people with disabilities, and queer people showing up and taking space in travel sectors, the more intersectional the space will become.
The way we choose to travel is important as well. “We cannot continue into the future with our current travel habits,” says Longdon. “Our planet and environment are under so much pressure as it is and it's only going to get worse. We need to reimagine what travel is, before the destinations we want to jet-set to disappear underwater or are ravaged by ever more powerful and destructive hurricanes.”
According to the University of Sydney, tourism accounts for 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions, but thanks to the internet, it’s never been easier to make informed choices about traveling sustainably. The UN's Environment Programme (UNEP) has been advocating that travelers engage in slow, low-carbon travel for decades, and whilst consumers can make some small changes themselves, the industry as a whole needs to seriously think about its environmental impact.
“We need to stop buying last-minute flights,” says Longdon. “Our travel should be planned more intentionally and we should advocate for change in the workplace in terms of how we take holiday,” she adds. “It also means advertising less frivolous, impulsive experiences and really showing the destination through a local's eyes rather than tourists.”
Travel with intention
So how can travelers engage positively and with purpose? “I think travelers should meditate over the reasons for their travel before pressing the book button,” says Longdon. “We book flights like we order Deliveroo, and while I love spontaneity, I don’t think we meditate enough over why we are traveling, what we want to get out of it, how we can travel authentically, and even take some time to learn about the destinations culture, history, and people before flying.”
Longdon believes that purpose comes from intention, something that Gabby Beckford, founder of the Young Travelers Network says she sees in the choices of Millennials and Generation Z travelers.
“Gen Z travels specifically for social reasons, for self-awareness reasons, for self-improvement, for discovery and identity,” says Beckford, who is also part of the Black Travel Alliance, a group of Black travel content creators that looks to increase the representation of Black people in the travel industry. “The way that we travel is more intentional.”
Beckford believes that travelers born after 1980 are more likely to base their decisions on the harm a trip could do to the planet. “Generation Z is like the FBI when it comes to research,” she says. “[They’ll ask]: ‘What's my carbon emissions in flying versus taking a train for 48 hours?’”
Think local and watch where your money is going
Many young travelers crave authenticity as well. “Authenticity is very important, without authenticity, the culture, character, and life of a place are erased and replaced with a, usually, Western-centric ideal,” argues Longdon. “It's about fostering opportunities to see the destination through a local eye.”
This means interacting with locals, eating in the same restaurants as they do, drinking in the same bars. “I think each traveler defines what is authentic to themselves [...] but in general it is engaging with the reality that never leaves the destination,” she adds.
It could mean rethinking our accommodation options as well. “I think purposefully traveling, which is like truly interacting with people in their environment, is a much greater way of learning anything or experiencing anything than going to a resort,” says Nate Agbetu, who argues that fly-and-flops to foreign-owned hotels fuels an outdated system of capitalism and shows an idea of travel that has been sold to travelers via the media.
A 1990 study into tourism ‘leakage’ by the Thai Institute for Development and Administration estimated that 70% of all money spent by tourists ended up leaving Thailand and went to foreign-owned businesses. A report from Bali in 2017 showed that the highest percentage of tourism ‘leakage’ came from 4- and 5-star chain hotels (55.31%), while local, non-star hotels only leaked 2%.
"With COVID-19, resorts, hotels, restaurants became pretty desperate to get locals into their properties,” says Ashlee Constance, a social media marketing specialist from Barbados. “At first it was exciting to think, finally I’ll be able to afford such experiences or be a tourist in my own country but at some point you begin to question: Is this possible because they see us as valued customers or it is because they have no other choice?”
Travel with purpose when exploring close to home too
Kesang Ball thinks that we all need to travel with purpose locally too. "My recent trips have all been local,” she says, “so I've focused on choosing a more sustainable method of transport getting there.”
In 2021, one of Trippin’s co-founders, Sam Blenkinsopp, visited Pembrokeshire in Wales. “Long hikes along the coastline geared up in as much Goretex as humanly possible to protect from the sideways rain, followed by takeaway fish and chips in the car,” he says. “For some that could sound like a nightmare but for me it's a nostalgic one, reminding me of trips with my family growing up.”
Blenkinsopp decided to go to Wales because it was close to home. He also suggests traveling off-season and buying from locally-owned businesses as purposeful ways to travel.
The Trippin team echoes this in how they commission and create their own content too. “We went out to Lagos to document the local creative scene and the people out there who are moving culture forward,” says Ball. “With every piece of content we create, it’s important for us to ensure we are authentically representing the culture of that destination. So in Lagos, we made sure that our crew, even down to the producers on the ground, scouts and the director of photography were all from Nigeria. You always create the best content that way.”
Ball believes that depicting each destination in a way that locals would want it to be seen gives younger people a genuine glimpse into a culture. “Traditional media platforms that publish travel stories have frequently perpetuated and distorted cultural narratives,” she says. “They influence tourists on what to expect of cultures when they arrive. Putting cultures and communities across into ‘digestible buckets’ [that are] palpable for the Western lens. This has so many negative impacts on cultural exchange and honestly, young people are over it.”
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