New Internationalist

Why Do You Travel?

December 1984

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TOURISM [image, unknown] Testing your motives

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Why do you travel?



This kind of tourism is for people whose lives are firmly rooted in a particular place - with their family perhaps or the company they work for.


Though they willingly accept the constraints of family or corporate life these cause day to day tensions - often they will be pulling in contradictory directions. This is very wearing. Holidays serve to ‘re-create’ people so they can return afresh with renewed commitment and loyalty.


This tourist needs a special setting which is not part of real life’. Since the travel is promoted by a push from home, rather than a pull from elsewhere, the destination is not that important - and may well be almost randomly selected.


Lying on the beach might be all that is needed. Sex, away from the stricter mores of homelife, is also a popular recreational option. Day trips and ‘folk’ events will probably be enjoyed even if they are obviously staged: as in a theatre the audience plays along in order to enjoy the action. The chief objective is entertainment.



This is for the person who has no real centre to their life - they are ‘alienated’. Work, for example. may be boring and repetitive done purely to earn money, so they will have no particular attachment to the job or the organization.


Tourism is a brief escape from the tedium and routine. It is not a form of renewal since there is nothing to re-create. The period away may soothe the nerves but really only serves to make alienation endurable.


Almost anywhere will do to get away from the source of the alienation. A holiday may even be spent at home if this provides much more satisfaction than work.


Almost anything will serve as an activity - any pleasure that will be enjoyable for the moment. The aim is merely to displace daily life for as long as possible.



This is for people who realize there is something missing - and may even feel their lives are shallow or pointless. But they are prepared to do something about it. One solution might be to take political action to change their surroundings. An alternative is to set their own world aside for a short time.


This kind of tourism is searching for authenticity in the lives of others. Somewhere, they believe, in some other lifestyle, social class or country there is a more genuine way to live.


The more strange or different the culture that can be observed and enjoyed the better. The locations should offer visibly attractive and ‘genuine’ sights.


This tourist will look for ‘ethnic’ art and visit quaint communities. And he or she will acquire handicrafts so as to carry on the appreciation back home. Such appreciation although temporarily uplifting for the traveller does not fundamentally change their life.



This is for someone who feels no particular loyalty to any one way of life and tends to equivocate between a number of them.


The experimental tourist may already be trying out drugs or mysticism or some cult religion: searching for something that will strike a chord. The motive in travelling is to experiment with other cultures.


Places like India with novel religions or traditions are popular. The search might also be a political one that takes the traveller to the new socialist countries of the Third World.


Complete immersion in the new place or culture - going to an ashram or joining a work camp. But though the traveller will be fully immersed he or she will not be permanently committed.



This is for the ‘exile’, who feels a very strong and permanent allegiance to a centre outside their own daily life - a religious shrine for example.


Travel will be renewing because it is towards the centre of life. The traveller is going home for a short time. a journey from meaningless to authentic existence.


The place itself might be impossible or unpleasant to live in permanently. All Muslims cannot live in Mecca. And there are many US Jews emotionally tied to Israel who would not like to live there.


Just being there may be enough. But the traveller will also visit significant sites. Those emotionally tied to a particular ideology might get satisfaction from visiting the Lincoln Memorial, for example, or Lenin’s tomb.

Starting from the centre

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Photo: Camera Press

TOURISM may seem like a simple enough activity - disappearing on holiday for a couple of weeks. But why should we want to travel? On this page we give you the chance to look behind some of your own motives.

The starting point is the idea of the centre’. This assumes that wherever we come from, whatever we do, there are ideologies and institutions around which our lives are centred: our community perhaps, our work, or our religion. They serve as a focus - they give ‘meaning’ to our lives.

Such centres will generally be physically near to us - in our own neighbourhood if they relate to family or work. If our everyday relationship with these centres were totally satisfying we should probably feel very little urge to travel for pleasure - travel would be left to businessmen and anthropologists. And there are indeed people who never feel the urge to move far from home. There have always been settled communities for whom the whole of life could satisfyingly be lived within a small area.

But many of us would feel frustrated without the chance of a break. We might be travelling to get away from our usual centre or even setting out to search for better ones.

On this page we have divided tourism up into five types to help you examine your own motivations. You will probably find that you travel for a mixture of reasons - some of which you might not have recognised.

This classification is loosely based on a proposal by US sociologist Erik Cohen.

Aiming for the authentic

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Photo: Camera Press

THOSE who travel positively in search of something wall certainly wish to feel that what they come across is authentic. But unless they are going to immerse themselves completely in the new culture they are unlikely to see anything more than a ‘front’ - when what they really want to do is peek round the back.

The front is the face we show to the rest of the world: the sophisticated restaurant rather than the grimy kitchen: the smooth shop rather than the noisy factory. But it is not always easy to distinguish between front and back and the intrepid tourist will need to be on the alert. Watch out for the following situations.

The full front The thing to avoid: the airport souvenir shop, the guided bus tour.

The decorated front The luxury hotel, say, where the waiters dress in peasant costume. The decor may well have local handicrafts tastefully incorporated.

The front organised like the back A more ambiguous situation. This might be the business selling ethnic pottery where the goods are being made in front of the customers eyes.

The back cleaned up to serve as a front. This could be an authentic African village which regularly receives tourist buses. Any more unpleasant sights have probably been tucked out of the way.

The genuine back: an ordinary village, a real folk musician.

But even if you do eventually find the real thing it could be that this does not create as strong an impression as a fake. You could show up at a real African village to find everyone away working in the fields. It might have been better to have had a friendly guide waiting to bring on the dancers and sell you a few beads - this could have taught you more about what African village life is like.

The central problem for the casual tourist is that he or she has no role to play in the place they visit, other than that of a tourist. The chances are that they will not penetrate the surface.

You might take comfort from the fact that in many places the tourists themselves are a significant part of the local landscape. So if you are really in search of the authentic maybe the best thing to do is to enjoy the authentic experience of being a genuine tourist.

The division into this series of fronts and back was introduced by US sociologist Dean MacCannell.

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This feature was published in the December 1984 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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