Tuesday, May 13, 2014

High-speed travel may cause less cultural connection, not more



I often feel like I have to raise the cranky flag in the face of benign-seeming technologies designed to make life easier.

See the evidence: the straightforwardness of Facebook communication battles in me with the self-involvement and privacy issues of constant digital connection, and every few months I reliably deactivate and then reactivate my account. I also held out on buying a smartphone until the very end of 2012, vainly trying to convince myself that I wasn’t actually missing anything, and it totally wasn’t annoying when my savvier friends would send long messages that made my phone scare the life out of me three times in a row with its ping as my old flip phone tried to figure out what the hell was going on. Ahem.

So it should surprise approximately no one (no one who has followed this site, anyway, or ever gone on vacation with me) that I am deeply skeptical of the advantages of quick’n’easy travel. But the technological advancements in the industry - maglev, the hyperloop, sub-orbital civilian space travel, and more - are making this a frontier that we all have to confront.

My concerns are twofold: I worry about cheapening the experiences of the traveler, and I worry about saturating, homogenizing, or otherwise forcibly altering the destinations themselves.


Let’s start with the travelers


Whenever we talk about the impacts of tourism on far-flung destinations, we need to acknowledge privilege. Travelers, by and large, have privilege. They have disposable income, time, and access to leisure industries in a way that those they are visiting may not, even in a developed location. But the allure of high-speed travel (as convenient as it may also be for the jet-setting businessperson) is in many ways its ability to bring “us” closer to “them”—to help people with more interact with people with less.

And the less complicated and more efficient this lopsided interaction becomes for the traveler, the less they are incentivized to treat trips as special, unique moments that may never be repeated. Just like you can always catch a rerun on Netflix, you can always hop another flight to Mauritius (amirite?). But the cheapening of travel turns experiences into commodities, and has the potential to turn local people into props or accessories for those commodities. They can become “extras” that we purchase, without the arduous work of planning, paying for, and taking the time to go to a formerly extra-special (because it was necessarily difficult to reach) place.

Travel inspires people every day, and allows people to consider, even if briefly, the lives and experiences of others in a visceral way. We actually smell the food in a market and learn the rules of banking in another place. We hear the news reported from a completely different orientation, and recognize political and social nuances that don’t make it to our own front page back home. Travel is potentially life-altering, and yet the industry is pushing easier and faster when sometimes the very value of a moment is in its rareness, in the friction caused by inefficiency. I cherish memories of a childhood trip to South Africa in many ways more than a recent trip to Miami, precisely because I acknowledge it may never happen again. Because it was difficult to make it happen.


As for the destinations themselves


Travelers can bring wonderful insights with them. When I was 19, I had an eye-opening experience during a volunteer stint in Tanzania, when a local woman said she wished we foreigners were not encouraged by our volunteer coordinators wear local conservative fashions. How are the women of Tanzania ever going to gain the freedom to wear trousers if no one ever sees a woman in trousers as possible? She made my undergraduate cultural-relativist leanings sound hopelessly naïve.

But when you combine many isolated or poor destinations’ need for income with the attitude of travel-as-consumption that permeates the high-speed travel sector, there is real potential that local voices aren’t heard before being drowned out by the din of constant hawking that is part of the tourism industry. (If you’ve ever stepped out of the airport in Kathmandu and seen the pure chaos that is the taxi stand—drivers screaming and reaching for your luggage before you’ve even looked their way—you’ll have an inkling of what I am talking about. Nepal is a destination of great natural beauty and cultural heritage that has been nearly flattened by tourism.)

Sure, high-speed transportation can be marketed as a way to democratize travel—not everyone has a month to take off of their job, why should the most out-there destinations be for the privileged few (myself, I acknowledge, among them)? My answer is that we’ve already increased the speed of travel so much, that the gains aren’t going to be significant enough to bring more potential travelers out of the margins; rather, those that already can afford to travel will just do it more, and with less awareness of tourism’s true costs. The gains here are in hours—one can already fly to the farthest point of the globe in less than a day (if you’ve got the right routing). We’re not going to have a significant equalizing movement by speeding up our already-fast air travel capabilities.

There has always been a strain of thinking that values “slow travel.” Take more time to visit fewer places, make personal discoveries and priorities, and focus on developing a working understanding of the local culture. It’s not realistic for every trip, but nor is it realistic to expect unfettered access across our planet. I hate to be the cranky killjoy who says that obstacles build character… but maybe they actually do.

Oh, and turn down that rock music. It’ll make you go deaf.

(image via, under Creative Commons)

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