Why Travel Can Change the World

Friends from around the world in ThailandThere always seems to be something bad in the news. If it bleeds, it leads right? Even if it doesn’t bleed, it is still there. And all that bad news seems to dampen the world’s spirit. The economy, climate change, terrorism, nationalism, poverty, disease – the list of challenges and things to worry about seems endless. The future, while always uncertain, appears even more so lately. Will the planet be inhabitable in a few decades? Will some Jihadi get his hands on a nuke and blow up Paris? Will Israel go to war with Iran? Will there be enough water and resources to go around? Is the sky falling?

Polls frequently show that people, while optimistic in general, are a  little worried about the short and medium term. Globalization, a force that forces us together, has accelerated change in the world. People don’t really like change. It scares them. I’m still angry over the new Facebook.

But I’m optimistic for two reasons: technology and the youth. Technology brings everyone closer together and makes archaic notions of race and difference obsolete. Firefox was invented by two people halfway around the world from one another who never met. I get graphic designers off websites. We buy products from companies on another continents. We debate on blogs with people from across the globe.  The Internet makes the global village smaller, and in doing so makes people less hung up on notions of race, gender, religion, and nationality.

Friends in BarcelonaThat’s great. Because, one of the sad realities is that most Americans don’t travel overseas. But with the youth not as scared of the outside world, I think they will travel more and that travel will change the world. Sure, it is not a panacea, but I think increased travel will help cure many of the social ills we face.

Why? Because travel exposes you to new ideas, new cultures, and new people. By interacting with people from around the world, you put a face to the names. They aren’t some people who live “over there” with some problem you don’t really care about. Instead, they are real people with real problems. We either live together or die alone.

And as much as travel highlights our differences, it also highlights our similarities. Traveling around the world, I’ve found that the differences between cultures are minor and that, across the globe, people all have the same hopes and dreams. We all want to be safe, happy, work, do what we love, be loved, and make sure our kids lead a better life than we did. Those ideals are not limited to one place or ideology. While we go about it differently, we are all after the same things in life. I think recognizing that will do wonders to help heal the world.

Travel changes everybody. No one ever looks at life the same way again after traveling. We all come back with a greater appreciation for life, and for people. That’s how travel can change the world.

Friends from around the worldIt won’t solve the economic crisis or reduce energy costs. It won’t solve climate change. It won’t send a man to the moon. And it for sure won’t make you breakfast in bed, though sometimes I wish it did. But what it can change is social misunderstanding and perceptions. It can expose people to problems they would not have seen at home. It can show them that not all Muslims are terrorists, or that the French don’t really hate America.

Travel takes people out of their comfort zones and forces them to confront something new and different. And while the boomers had their time, and Gen X got a little too jaded, the youth of today are more excited to travel. Call them “Gen Z,” but studies and polls confirm what I see on the road – the youth of today are turning out in larger numbers to try and make a difference in the world. They want to see what lies outside their borders and make a positive impact on it. It’s this generation that helped get Obama elected. It’s this generation that volunteers more than the others.

So that is why I am hopeful. Young people today seem more interested in travel than people my age! That’s a promising trend, and, as this next generation gets more involved in the world, they will go out and see it more. Traveling won’t make us all sing kumbaya and hold each other’s hands, but it will help tear down some of the walls that divide us. It will show us that we’re all in this together, and that we aren’t as different as we like to pretend we are.

  1. i think your right on man!! I play basketball overseas and have gotten the opportunity to travel all around europe, and would like to expand and see other countries! it has really changed my view and it is nice to learn these new cultures!

  2. A young Californian goes to Cambodia because she thinks it will be a good cheap holiday, she’s back there 1 year later running a cycle company and not for profit funding the development of schools (Pepyride.com). Another turns up for the same reason, he’s back a year later running a water filtration project providing clean water to thousands of families (http://tinyurl.com/5fmw23).

    We saw the devastation from the Tsunami and got our travellers supporting community development projects every time they travelled ( Footprintsnetwork.org) so now we have 34+ projects funded from over 180,000 individual donations.

    Travel not only opens your eyes to new cultures, enriches your sense of place, but provides you with the opportunities to leave more than just a footprint. Now more than ever, travel has become less of a spectator activity, you just have to get involved !

  3. I am reminded of one of my favourite quotations. Mark Twain once so beautifully said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.”

    My experience is that travel changes your views, opens your eyes to opportunity, makes you lifelong friends from distant lands and greatly expands your education and understanding.

    Thoughtful article.

  4. I, too, love “the youth” as you call them. (Dammit, I can’t say “us” with any kind of cred.) The swell younger set of travelers I meet these days seem to have really open hearts and a sincere curiosity about their fellow humans – when I was a springy young backpacker, seems like we were way more into destinations and not so much into who lived there.

    I would love it if we could see more of “the youth” from less travely places out roaming the planet too. I wish the 20something of Iran or Nigeria or Cambodia had a good shot at getting out in the world to learn more about the planet because it goes both ways, doesn’t it. The more we can exchange ideas, the better shot we have at global understanding.


  5. I loved this post, Matt- especially after having just come back from my trip to Central America. In college, I spent much time at my Jesuit University learning about the civil war in El Salvador and the Jesuit’s work there. I even lobbied against CAFTA- but nothing compares to walking the streets of San Salvador through a political rally or standing in the chapel in which Archbishop Romero was assassinated.

    Seeing places first hand compels one to act. I love how you said that when interacting with people of others cultures, it makes us realize that “We either live together or die alone.”

  6. Hi Matt,

    Most people are raised in a conformist society and traveling to other cultures opens their thinking a lot. If done at a younger age, I am sure it will make them tolerant adults. I feel that foreign policy diplomats must must travel (other than state visits) because sitting in one part of the world and making decisions for other is not how the way things work (resonating from your earlier post that Americans don’t travel).

    You have concluded it nicely. We might not be as different but its the differences among us that makes us (collectively) rich. Nicely expressed Matt!


  7. Thanks so much for exploring these ideas. But remember, we old people can contribute to the process as well.

    Having parents and grandparents who travel (and maybe drag the children along) normalizes the activity for the younger generation.

    My father completed 30+ European missions as a member of the Army Air Corps 8th Air Force stationed in Britain and never flew again after that last flight back to the States. In her late 50s, older than I am now, my mother took her first–and only–flight from Chicago to Florida.

    I had no role models, yet I knew I had to travel to see the world and broaden my perspective. Now I can say confidently that my children know the value of travel firsthand and by example.

  8. I agree – travel certainly broadens the mind but most Americans don’t travel. With the internet though you can be chatting with someone and not know or care about their religion, colour, race or sexual orientation – I think its the ultimately empowering media

  9. “Young people today seem more interested in travel than people my age!”

    So, if you are no longer in the category of “young people” imagine how that makes someone feel who is breathing down on 60!

    Do they make a walker with an iPhone bracket and charging plug?

    But I can’t argue with your supposition – I know too many adults who have never had a passport. (Obviously, I am getting plenty of use of mine.)

  10. NomadicMatt

    @Chris Noble: Wonderful stories. Cambodia is certainly an eye opening experience.

    I’d love to respond to all the comments but I’m in a big transition period right now but I would love to say that it is good we all feel the same way about travel. Let’s keep spreading the good word!!!!

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