In pursuit of the iconic, sometimes we lose the people. Then we need to come back. Here are a few thoughts on the often overlooked importance of people to travel and the connection between travelers’ experiences, their spending decisions and the impact on the communities they visit.
So much ink is spilled, understandably so, on the budget aspect of travel — how much we spend vs. the value we receive – almost to the point of commoditizing every dimension of one’s travel experience.
One bit is often missing in this discussion, however: people. Where do they fit in? How do we value our interactions with them? And ultimately, how can we align our approach and travel spending decisions with a positive impact on the communities we visit?
Before we tackle these questions, a story from Burma.
A few years ago, while visiting Myanmar (a.k.a., Burma) just after the Saffron Uprising, we stopped off at Bagan, a tourist site known for its Buddhist temple-filled plain. We took a nighttime stroll down the town’s main restaurant street in search of dinner. At the time, Bagan was a ghost town — scant traffic, save only for a few waiters milling about, passing time. Lights flickered on and off with rolling blackouts to underscore the moment.
We chose a restaurant, sat down and struck up a conversation with the owner, to whom we remarked of the empty street. He told us that tourist numbers that year had declined nearly 80-90% from the year before due to concerns about recent demonstrations. Then he reflected on his own situation, noting how the economy forced him to close another of his restaurants and let employees go.
In the midst of the silence and strings of holiday lights that hearkened a more festive time, he continued: “From the family running the guesthouse to the man renting bikes down the street, to the restaurant owner to the artist selling sand paintings — you know, tourism is the people’s business.”
Yes, tourism is the people’s business. Think about it.
At the time, we understood the restaurant owner’s point on an economic level. When tourism suffers, so do all the ordinary people – and disproportionately so — who own and staff the businesses that serve tourists.
But there’s something more to the statement. It lies in the answer to this question: Where would tourism and travel be without the people?
They are the ones who get us there. They guide us, feed us, house us, interact with us and teach us something along the way.
In this way, too, tourism is the people’s business.
Note: In September we spoke at two sustainable and ecotourism conferences (ESTC and GSTC). Earlier this year we spoke at G Adventures’ The Future of Tourism on interconnection between travel, technology, humanity and sustainable tourism. Our own words and the reaction of conference-goers underscored the grounding force in our approach to travel and the focus of our work within the tourism industry: people.
This is the first part in a series, The Importance of People in Travel, the second part of which will focus on the connection between how travelers can align their purchasing decisions with their values and have an impact on local communities.
But wait. Isn’t travel about beautiful landscapes?
Often yes, but that’s not the whole story. Most of us can admit to daydreaming about travel in the form of stunning landscapes, temples and churches, all delivered with servings of delicious food and perhaps even a touch of pampering. Picture the perfect vacation photo strip.
But step back for a moment and think about the experiences that are most precious, the stories we’re likely to recall when the trip is long over. It's those experiences that involve the people we met along the way – perhaps the pregnant Uzbek woman who gave us her lunch, the Czechs who showed us a local pub that the guidebooks never knew about, the Tajik market vendor who gave us a taste of her watermelon, or the Argentine taxi driver who dragged us into a bar to dance all night – that we tell over and over again, that exert an emotional tug on us.
It’s easy, isn’t it, to focus on the destination? But even as we appreciate the journey there, we risk missing the big takeaway – the human takeaway — just as we cross another item off the ‘ol bucket list.
Seeking the Human Dimension of Travel
When we’re asked how we meet and connect with local people everywhere we travel, we admit to having no magic answer. The orientation is pretty simple, though: understand that there are people — engaging people — all around you, many of whom are just as curious about you as you are about them.
One thing will always remain true to every reader of this article: you are human.
“Master of the obvious,” you scoff. Maybe, but this fundamental understanding places you one step closer to recognizing the human characteristics we share with people who may appear very different from us on the surface. Go deeper, even in simple conversation, and you just may find that they have stories, too, and life experiences strikingly similar to yours.
Connecting with people while traveling is not about crossing an item off your list that reads “talk with a local today.” It’s about learning from others and sharing of yourself. This can be uncomfortable at first; going outside your comfort zone and questioning hard-packed assumptions often is. But this is the intersection of travel at the crossroads of personal growth.
Here's the rub, though. Many of these connections emerge unplanned and unscripted. They happen spontaneously. It’s not about scheduling time into your travel schedule to “meet people”, but about availing yourself of the opportunities only at the hint that they might exist.
Say what? So how to do that?
Sometimes it’s as straightforward as saying “hello” or asking a simple question — “What is this?” “How do you eat this?” “What is the local word for this?” — to break down that initial barrier. Genuine curiosity and respect will likely help take it from there.
Perhaps it may lead to an impromptu feast in a market in Georgia, English language lessons with Japanese school kids in Kyoto, sharing a Hookah pipe with a group of women in Iran, or being invited to a Cambodian Buddhist wedding blessing ceremony.
We open ourselves to people, to our own humanity, and the possibilities are beyond our own imaginations.
Life is a human exercise. So, too, is travel.
What are your thoughts? How do people factor into your travel experiences?