David Cogswell | June 02, 2015 3:00 PM ET
Is Travel the Last Best Hope of the World?
At the Abercrombie & Kent 100 Club meeting in Chicago last year I saw Andrew McCarthy, the actor and lately bestselling travel writer, speak to a group of travel agents, whom he told they were “the last best hope of the world.”
He could have been just ingratiating himself with his audience. Who wouldn’t applaud enthusiastically for someone who told them they were the last best hope of the world? But in fact I think he was speaking the truth as he believes it. And though it may not be possible to call it a “fact,” it was an assertion that has some substance. I, and many others I know, have come to similar conclusions.
I am not just spouting a pretty generalization. There are many situations in which tourism really is the best hope. For some people in some situations it seems to be the only hope.
There are almost too many ways this is true to tabulate them in a short article. But I can tell you about some of the specific ways that the proposition has proven to be true. There are many situations in which it is undeniable that tourism is the best hope for the best outcomes we envision for ourselves and our fellow human beings around the world.
Nearly everyone who has traveled abroad has gotten a sense of how much better you can understand and appreciate a foreign culture if you go there and visit than you ever did by any previous experience, such as hearing about it, reading about it, etc.
The worst way of learning about other countries and cultures, oddly enough, is watching the news. But once you have been to a country, you can see the news with more understanding than before.
If you travel to Russia today you may find yourself enjoying the people and being really glad they were not destroyed in a nuclear holocaust along with most of the people of the U.S., back in 1962 during the near catastrophe that is now known as the Cuban Missile Crisis.
“Hey, these people are pretty cool! Glad we didn’t wipe the country off the face of the earth.”
Americans in 1962, other than a tiny percentage, did not have the benefit of knowing that the Russians were not really the vicious animals our Cold War propaganda was painting a picture of, but were really nice people that we can get along with fine. We can get along with them quite easily when we visit their country even if there are political tensions between our governments, as there are again now.
More and more human beings in the world are gaining the benefit of cultural interaction through travel. That applies to the people who receive travelers at the destination as well as those who are traveling to a foreign country.
Cultural exchanges take place every day as a result of travel. And we know that the process does increase understanding and friendship between people of different countries. That has to help move countries away from hostilities and make people less vulnerable to being swept away in tidal waves of rage after some international incident.
So in terms of the biggest threat to human survival – war – travel works against it. Travel promotes understanding and empathy between different countries.
In terms of environmental destruction, one of the other most dire threats to civilization, travel also promotes understanding of the problems and concerns involved. Tourism has been a vital force in promoting good philanthropic work to do things that must be done but are not of themselves profitable.
Travel is spreading awareness daily throughout the population of the civilized world about the dangers of the ways we produce energy and dispose of waste today. When people begin to understand the urgency of these problems, then tackling the problems begins to become a possibility.
None of these larger problems will be solved without the collective will of large numbers of people. That requires awareness. And awareness is growing. Travel is one of the forces for spreading awareness.
Travel really spreads awareness of all the problems that concern us as human beings. Now that the world is globally connected, all of our worst problems are shared. There is no longer any way for us to get away from each other. So we have to learn to live together. And travel is one of the forces that is giving some hope to that possibility.
In terms of economics and social justice, travel is one of the only ways today that people can get a leg up, so to speak. This is another very large story, too large for this column, but we are in a period in which capital is being hoarded, not being spread around as it needs to be to fuel a healthy economic system.
Recent events in South Africa, which were mislabeled as “xenophobic incidents,” were really explosions of rage based on economic frustration.
Not long before Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress came to power in South Africa, their platform included some fundamental economic restructuring, such as nationalizing the banks, which would provide the foundation for investing in the population’s economic progress.
After decades of being strapped down by apartheid laws that assured no upward mobility for blacks, the population needed a lot of support to be able become participants in the economy of the wider world.
But during the process of reconciliation, during which Mandela accomplished a near miracle in warding off what looked like it would be a bloodbath, compromises were made. Before the election, the ANC took a loan from the World Bank and made commitments not to make any moves toward a radical restructuring of capital.
Today there are still many South Africans who are stuck in the lower rungs of the social and economic order with nothing to grab onto to pull themselves into a more economically prosperous life. And there is not enough money in the public coffers to meet the needs of educating and employing that population.
For the most part it must all be done in the private sector. And where in the private sector can people be employed who were kept from having education or economic power by the laws of the apartheid government?
Tourism is one of the only areas where people with few resources, no capital and little education, can find a niche in the economic order and build themselves up.
It is well established that tourism is one of the best industries to help lift developing countries up those lower rungs of the economic ladder. It’s one of the industries that spreads the profits farthest into the lower levels of the economy. It’s one of the quickest ways to build an economy in an undeveloped country.
So in these specific ways: helping to avert war, helping to prevent environmental disaster and in helping to build strong, healthy economies, tourism is one of the best hopes.
So on that I will rest my case.
Maybe tourism isn’t literally “the last best hope of the world.” Maybe pot is. Maybe the new Apple watch is. But it is certainly one of the best hopes of many people in many places.
That I consider a fact that needs no more proof.
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