Does Travel Really Change People?

Nomadic Matt looking out over gorge in Africa
Posted: 11/29/21 | November 29th, 2021

If you’re like me, you believe that travel can change people. Exposure to the world and those who live in it is often a positive force for change.

But, lately, I’ve been thinking about how we oversell just how much travel can change people’s minds. (I was opining about this on Twitter and decided to make a longer post about it.)

We often believe travel is some sort of panacea for one’s thoughts about the world and the people in it. Go abroad, get exposed to different cultures, and then, bam, suddenly you’ll have more empathy for people around the globe and stop seeing them as some “foreign, scary other.”

Books upon books about travel (mine included) expound on the belief “I went traveling and became a better person with a deeper appreciation and tolerance for others.”

Travel writing cheerleads this mantra.

And it is often true. But only for some kinds of travel.

I believe any kind of slow, long-term, or service-based travel can change people. These kinds of trips take you out of your comfort zone for extended periods — you can’t just escape back to the resort when you want to. After all, we only grow when we push our boundaries, try new things, and unhook ourselves from the comfortable and familiar.

Nomadic Matt hiking in Africa

This kind of travel helps us grow because it constantly tests us as we interact with new cultures and unfamiliar situations. It gives us plenty of learning moments and exposes us to people we might not have met otherwise.

Few travelers come back from months — or years — of travel or more service-oriented trips without a deeper appreciation and empathy for our world and the people in it.

But cruises (especially those giant ones that are just theme parks on the sea)? Big group tours? Large-scale resorts? Or weekend jet-setting? I don’t believe any of that really has an impact on people’s thinking.

Think about it. When you’re in a resort, how much time do you spend interacting with locals (aside from the ones waiting on you hand and foot)?

If you’re on a cruise, how much do you get to really experience the local culture in port?

If you’re just three days someplace, how much are you learning? And how much do you push yourself out of your comfort zone?

That’s not to say that these types of travel can’t be the impetus for something deeper, however.

In fact, it was a group tour that turned me onto traveling in the first place.

But that tour didn’t change who I was. Instead, it was the 18 months I spent backpacking around the world that changed me (or started to). It was during that time that I pushed my limits, traveled slowly enough to meet locals, and learned how to navigate the world. (Though it’s important to remember that life-changing travel isn’t just about a length of time. Two or three weeks somewhere can be enough if you stay put and dive deep. But if you’re trying to see six cities in that time, it’s all going to be a blur.)

Nomadic Matt looking out over valley in Africa

I don’t mean that those other kinds of travel aren’t worth doing. Everyone needs a good vacation sometimes where they just sit around and do nothing. Not all travel has to be life changing.

But we often falsely assume all travel to be life changing.

While I do believe that a cruise, resort trips, a group tour, etc., can be a catalyst for future transformation, for the most part, this kind of travel doesn’t change your thinking on its own. It’s like that SNL skit with Adam Sandler. A typical, whirlwind two-week tour of Italy isn’t going to change who you are. You’re not going to walk away with a hugely deep understanding of the country either. The faster you go, the shallower the experience.

I mean, if all travel were some sort of panacea of deep human understanding, there would be fewer political conflicts in the world. But that isn’t the case.

I think about my own compatriots. Over 71% of Americans have traveled abroad, though most Americans go to Mexico when they travel. But they often focus on places like Tulum, Playa, Cancún, or Cabo. They go to big resorts. Has all that kind of travel to Mexico made people more sympathetic to Mexican immigrants or the plight of the Mexican people? Nope. Large swaths of Americans are still all for putting up a wall or kicking out immigrants, who they think of as rapists and murders. Media pundits rails against “caravans” from south of the border coming to turn this nation into….God forbid…one that isn’t mostly white!

Have all those vacations to Europe made most Americans change their mind about trains and infrastructure? Nope. While surveys show that 86% of Americans support a European-like train system, when push came to shove, we couldn’t even get one off the ground in California, the most liberal of all states! People like trains as long they are built somewhere else.

Has all that travel made Americans want to be more open and engaging with the world? Half the country wants tariffs, walls, and more “border security.”

Nomadic Matt walking in castle gardens in France

In short, I think travel media (and I include myself here) oversells this idea of change. Look at commercials about how, after a trip to Thailand, you’ll be some new magical you. Travel media sells us a dream. And we fall for it. Because we dream that trip will transform us. We want it to. Because that’s what we’ve been internalized to believe travel will do to us.

But the deep, fundamental change travel can bring only comes when you push yourself outside your comfort zone, which comes from long and deep exposure to other people and their cultures, or from service-oriented volunteer trips. It doesn’t come from a cruise or a whirlwind trip to Australia.

Yeah, you’ll have fun, learn some stuff, and come away with cool pictures — but then you’ll drop right back into your old life and your old set of beliefs. “Oh yeah, Australia was fun,” you’ll think, as you continue on with your life the same way it was before.

And, if that’s the only kind of travel you do, then the places you visit are going to be no more than a backdrop to you “living your best life,” not a chance for you to learn, change, and grow as a person.

I’m all for people going somewhere….even if it’s to a resort. Because, while that trip might not change their way of thinking, it might get them to try something new or different the next time around. It could be the gateway trip to something deeper.

Not all travel leads to profound change. It doesn’t need to. Sometimes you just need a vacation.

But we should stop thinking that if more people just traveled — in any form — the world would be a better place. It should be: “If more people got out of their comfort zones and made an attempt to learn about the places they visited, the world would be a better place.”

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Book Your Flight
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Source: mattstravelsite

Does Travel Really Change People?