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 hoarded 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.
- 1 Understanding travel privilege
- 2 How many people travel for leisure?
- 3 Why travel is inaccessible to a large portion of society
- 4 How can we keep our travel privilege in check?
- 5 What can we do about our travel privilege?
- 6 How might COVID-19 change the face of travel privilege?
Understanding travel privilege
Let’s begin by focusing on the word ‘privilege.’
In simple words, ‘privilege’ is a special advantage that you have over the rest of a population. Being privileged usually does not require any work because it is, often, rooted in privileged systems like classism, racism, or colorism.
By applying this concept to travel we gain an understanding of travel privilege. Basically, 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.
How many people travel for leisure?
The last decade has seen exponential growth in the travel industry with cheaper airfares, a diversifying range of accommodations, and the advent of the sharing economy with companies like Airbnb, Couchsurfing, and BlaBlaCar democratizing travel.
According to the 2018 Tourism Report of the United Nations World Tourism Organization, there were 1.32 billion tourist arrivals around the world.
So, what’s stopping all people from traveling?
The problem with the rhetoric ‘quit your job and travel the world’
We’ve all heard the idealist phrase ‘Quit your job and travel!’, at some point. 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.
To stop working completely and travel requires a backup of monetary resources or an elitist background that is inconceivable for the majority of the world.
One must ask: is leisure travel completely classist?
Why travel is inaccessible to a large portion of society
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 or meant for minority communities
If we’re honest, travel is a very white-washed industry in itself. It’s evident with a simple scroll through any social media platform that it is usually white people who enjoy leisure travel. Under-served communities from Asia, Africa, and Latin America rarely indulge in travel.
While these destinations are visited by Western travelers for whom their Dollars and Euros stretched a long way, the people from the under-served communities themselves may not even have the chance of stepping foot outside their country or even their town.
Though the number of POC (person-of-colour) travellers has been steadily increasing, it is still amongst the upper and upper-middle classes, and the as a whole industry remains very much white-centric.
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, 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.
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 family, 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 and this 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 travellers, 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 OK.
A vast majority of us are privileged in some way if we travel. I may have a weak passport and am not upper-class, but I have working parents who finance my trips, have visited multiple countries that don’t require a pre-approved visa for me, and I could do all of this without having to worry about making ends meet.
That being said, I have one ask: the 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 might COVID-19 change the face of travel privilege?
With the novel coronavirus being declared pandemic, leisure travel has come to a remarkable standstill.
When countries started closing borders and airlines ceased flight operations, travellers 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, 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 help in making travel more, or less accessible than it has been until now. 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 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).
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