The Young Traveler’s Network series showcases candid guest interviews of young people worldwide and the inspiring stories of how they navigate their lives and travels. They share their stories to educate, inspire, and empower others to see the world!
This week a Young Traveler named Himanshu Dutta, 17, shares his thoughts on travel privilege.
Imagine. You settle into your window seat with a boarding pass tightly squeezed between the pages of your passport, heading off on an international trip.
You have plenty of funds to sustain your time abroad. As you arrive at your destination, you get a free visa on arrival and are whisked away to your accommodation without being bombarded with questions at immigration or random security checks at customs.
The things you're experiencing, as well as the hindrances you're avoiding, is travel privilege.
What is travel privilege?
‘Privilege’ is a unique advantage that you have over the majority of a population. Being privileged usually does not require any work because it is, often, rooted in privileged systems like classism, racism, or colorism.
And so, travel privilege is an advantage that you have when it comes to traveling and accessing places around the world. There are various reasons why all humans don’t have equal access to this planet. I'll discuss this later.
Traveling for leisure is a privilege and luxury that many cannot afford. When we vacation, our intentions usually include entertainment, education, and even escapism. Having the option of switching off from your reality is, in itself, a privilege. Many of us travel to escape our daily lives—others do so in a much darker context.
We have to consider refugees, migrants, and immigrants. Many of them are uncertain whether they’ll even be welcome in a new land, or if they can find a job. Their family's quality of life is dependent on moving.
For a fantastic comprehensive list of travel privileges, read this article: Travel Privilege to Know About and Why.
How many people travel for leisure?
The last decade has seen exponential growth in the travel industry. Cheaper airfares, a diversifying range of accommodations, and the advent of the sharing economy with companies like Airbnb, Couchsurfing, and BlaBlaCar have democratized travel.
According to the 2018 Tourism Report of the United Nations World Tourism Organization, there were 1.32 billion tourist arrivals around the world.eAbout 16.9% of the world actually travels for leisure. An impressive number but considering all the developments to make travel accessible, the figures are still low. Click To Tweet
So, what's stopping all people from traveling?
The problem with ‘just quit your job! travel the world!’
This ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ mentality has become popularized in recent years, however, it is glamorized and sold to us specifically by the privileged. There are plenty of digital nomads and remote workers—but these people still have jobs and have to work for survival.
To stop working completely and travel would require financial security inconceivable for the vast majority of the world.
Why is travel inaccessible to a large portion of society?
Leisure travel is not as largely accessible as those from certain communities might think. There are many people who travel only out of necessity, for safety, or for work.
Lack of funds
Do you think you are too poor to travel? Well, you might actually be right.
While travel doesn't have to be expensive, it would be foolish to travel if you’re struggling with making ends meet and are expecting travel and ‘finding yourself’ to pay the bills.
Across the planet students are drowning in debt, families juggle hefty mortgages, and workers in the unorganized sector depend on daily wages. Amidst all of this, leisure travel rarely finds itself on the list of priorities.
Leisure travel is not marketed to or meant for minority communities
The travel industry is an extremely white-washed industry. With a simple scroll through social media, you'll see it's usually white people who enjoy leisure travel. Under-served communities from Asia, Africa, and Latin America rarely indulge in travel, or if they do, they are not featured in marketing o advertising because they are not the target demographic.
While these destinations are visited by Western travelers for whom their dollars and euros stretch a long way, the people from these under-served communities likely don't have the opportunity to step foot outside their country or even their town.
Though the number of POC (people of color) travelers has been steadily increasing, it is still amongst the upper and upper-middle classes, and so as a whole, the industry remains very much white-centric.
Physical or mental disability
A disability, whether physical or mental, is a huge deterrent when it comes to travel.
People who are physically compromised note finding it extremely difficult to travel even though they might have the funds. Mental illness is equally restrictive—those suffering from depression or anxiety may find daily tasks difficult, let alone the stress and stimulation of traveling to new destinations.
Disability is a significant yet understated factor that prevents many people from enjoying leisure travel.
Family and community responsibilities
Many people, especially those from more family/community-centric cultures than Western culture, have felt an obligation to fulfill responsibilities at home, like taking care of sick or elderly families, rearing children, etc.
Being perceived as ‘running away from these responsibilities or even putting them off temporarily isn’t an option for many.
Passport privilege is based on how easy it is for you to travel to other countries. This privilege is calculated from the number of countries you can travel to visa-free or acquire a visa-on-arrival.
For example: As of 2020, citizens of the United Arab Emirates have the strongest passport in the world, with a mobility score of 178—which means they only need to procure a pre-approved visa for 20 countries out of the 199 nations around the world.
On the other hand, my Indian passport—with a mobility score of 70—needs a pre-approved visa for 128 countries.Having a weaker passport makes international travel tedious. Extremely high application fees and service charges, sponsorship letters, booking confirmation, and multiple visits to the embassy go into getting your visa approved—and… Click To Tweet
How can we keep our travel privilege in check?
Ask for permission before taking pictures of people, especially of disadvantaged communities and tribes.
Some photographers say that they discreetly take pictures of locals because asking for permission or alerting them in any way would ‘steal the authenticity of the moment…
That reasoning is understandable, but consider this: people aren’t museum exhibits or animals. They are human beings with private lives and autonomy of identity. It is extremely unethical to take pictures of someone who isn’t aware of it, especially if you will be publishing or posting that photo on a public forum.
Do not culturally appropriate. When in doubt, ask a local or don't risk it.
When visiting countries that have a very distinct culture from yours, it is natural to buy souvenirs, jewelry, or garments to bring back home.
But when you do wear something from another culture, it is extremely important to acknowledge as well as give full credit to the origin of that product. Also, do not wear anything that has a sacred or religious connotation to it.
Do not take pictures of impoverished and naked children.
It's a common narrative to see pictures on the internet of people who travel to Africa on the pretext of voluntourism and take pictures of/with the poor, naked kids without any consent. It's exceedingly unethical and steeped in years of racial oppression and superiority.
Do not support exploitative animal tourism practices.
Animal tourism is very popular, especially in Asia and Africa. Elephant sanctuaries, drugged tigers forced to pose for pictures, posing with “pet” monkeys, dolphin shows, and over-crowded wildlife safaris are vastly exploitative in nature.
As travelers, it is our responsibility to make sure that our money isn’t funding immoral activities.
What can we do about our travel privilege?
To be honest, there’s nothing much we can do about it. And that's not okay.
A vast majority of us are privileged in some way if we travel at all for leisure.
You may even have a weaker passport and not be upper-class, but you might have:
- working parents who partially or fully finance your trips
- can visit multiple countries that don't require a pre-approved visa
- have enough financial security to not worry about working to survive at all times
That being said, I have one ask: the next time you see a visitor, an ex-pat, or a migrant in your home country, please treat them with the same sense of hospitality and respect you would expect if you were holidaying in their country.
Make them feel welcomed. After all, that’s why we travel, don't we? We travel to create a smaller, tight-knit global community, in spite of our differences and distances.
How has the pandemic changed travel privilege?
With the COVID-19 pandemic being declared a pandemic, leisure travel has come to a remarkable standstill.
When countries started closing borders and airlines ceased flight operations, travelers found themselves in a very challenging situation. Some had expiring visas, some lacked funds to book a ticket home, and many were completely stranded as lockdowns were quickly imposed and borders were sealed.
Some couldn’t return home because the airlines available were flying through countries that required certain passport holders to have a transit visa which was impossible to procure at the last minute.
At present, irrespective of which country we hail from, travel privilege has been snatched away from every single one of us. But when Miss Rona does eventually clear up, travel will inevitably be very different.
With the most powerful countries being among the worst affected, COVID-19 could either make travel more, or less accessible than it has been previously.COVID-19 has forced people to acknowledge their travel privilege as they complain and cope with their summer holidays being canceled, or postponed with that dreaded word… indefinitely. Click To Tweet
As destinations consider tourism recovery plans, those in positions of power may open their country's borders and make visas easier to obtain, tourist sites, and public transport more disability-friendly, and welcome people from all nations to boost their respective economies.
On the other end of the spectrum, countries might be a lot more restrictive with tourists, raise prices to compensate for their losses, and make travel more inaccessible than ever before.
While we all want to see a positive change, the fact is that the coming months are absolutely unpredictable.
I hope things change for the better, and travel privilege becomes a word of the world B.C. (Before COVID).
How do you check your travel privilege at the gate?
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great article! I think to supplement, we have to remember that travel also causes social, economic, and environmental harm to local communities of “destination locations.” You can look at famous case examples like Venice or Bali where the local population and culture have been heavily driven out to make way for the tourist industry. It’s a privilege to enjoy someone else’s homeland for the sake of your own leisure at the expense of their well-being. Next time you travel anywhere, ask yourself the following: what am I taking from this community, and what am I doing to give back? Giving back can take the form of volunteering at local NGOs, shopping at small local businesses, taking the time to learn more thoroughly about local culture, etc. I think travel really needs to stop being a one-way relationship. Rather than wondering what sort of pictures, souvenirs, and experiences we can GET out of a place, focus on what we can GIVE.
Amazing point Sonia! I think now more than ever your comment resonates. We’re all being forced to be a bit more mindful of the REALITY of the impact that travel actually has on others and places. And ethics and sustainability hopefully will be at the forefront as tourism recovers!
A great read, there is that tendency to forget that travel in itself is a privilege, and it’s always necessary to check your privilege — especially during times like these.
Great read. While on the face of it, after reading this article, all of the points made in it seem obvious— they are anything but so. Most of us privileged don’t (or perhaps don’t want to) recognise how a vast majority of this world is unable to participate in activities which have been normalised for us by our own disconnect from the real sufferings of others. Recognising these issues is only the first step but it’s a good start. Perhaps our consciousness in regards to such unfair existence of others will help us take larger steps towards working to reducing the same, both in our personal and public lives. I hope such content, especially in the tourism and travel sector, will become the new normal and will replace the falsely ideal portrayals of the societal relaties of ‘exotic destinations’ such as Asia.