The big question: why do we travel? | Redbrick | University of Birmingham

The big question: why do we travel?

Natasha Turner explains the intriguing philosophy on why we travel If you could either: stay in the place you consider home but never travel, or travel the world but never return h...

Natasha Turner explains the intriguing philosophy on why we travel

If you could either: stay in the place you consider home but never travel, or travel the world but never return home, what would you choose? While this question divides opinion, many students and people of our generation, including myself, appear to choose the latter. So why is it that people, and students in particular, have such a burning desire to travel?

Fresh out of the clutches of secondary education, many people’s first move is well, to move. Anywhere and everywhere, away from the humdrum of daily life and the nagging voices of parents. Travelling brings a sense of freedom and a chance to take  control of one’s life. Freedom and control, however, have shady connotations. Mobility has always been a showcase for privilege and class so perhaps we ought to reassess the links between travel and freedom by looking for them elsewhere. Although class related ideas about travel are changing and nowadays travelling couldn’t be cheaper or easier, it seems to me that this has not eradicated the class divide but instead has changed standards. Now the difference is not who can travel and who can’t, but how much you get away, where you go and how much it costs. It’s the difference between a camping holiday on the English coast or a Greek island holiday and a visit to the art galleries of Venice before a road trip across America. Freedom of mobility seems of less importance in understanding the desire to travel.

People travel in the hope of gaining knowledge about the world and insight into themselves. We hope to become better, more open-minded people by experiencing the lives of others first hand. But by assuming that knowledge of the unknown will help us to understand ourselves we create a distinction between ‘us’ and the ‘Other’. A fear of this creates an urge to categorize, and to assert our place in the world in relation to the ‘Other’. This prevents us from ever gaining any real knowledge. Alain de Botton claims that when travelling, you bring yourself with you meaning, arguably, that you are going to have little hope in ‘finding yourself’.

The idea of gaining cultural knowledge from travel has also lead to a kind of cultural snobbery; particularly it seems, amongst students. There is always an awkward moment in freshers when the person who lived with locals in India asks the person who worked in Tesco for a year what they did on their gap year. When did culture become so elitist? People who pick the first answer to the question I posed at the start are, for some reason, looked down upon as being ‘uncultured.’ At least with Botton’s view, someone has just as much chance of gaining worldly knowledge from visiting an art gallery or reading a book as they do from experiencing the world first hand. In some cases (of course not all), this supposedly acquired knowledge comes to little avail. You may have watched the sun set on Ayres rock but you’re still drinking snakebites at Fab and Fresh with the rest of us. I’m not saying travelling should make everyone into some kind of activists, although it wouldn’t hurt!

Of course for some, none of this bears true at all. Travel is about relaxation and pleasure in a different environment that provides activities that you simply can’t do in a rainy British city. Jim Butcher creates a case for guilt-free travel claiming “tourism need only be a

bout enjoyment”. Tourism is a large and beneficial industry for many countries, so why not travel with the sole intention of drinking cheap beer on a beach and a chance to get away from it all?

A chance to get away from what? My final point relates back to my initial question. For some, travel is a form of escapism. We would choose to travel and never return home because travelling is as much about discovering a new home as it is about leaving an old one. In our fast paced, progressive society a chance to escape, to gain a sense of a forgotten past or an unknown future is incredibly appealing. Does this show dissatisfaction with our own lives? Maybe, but this is because our society appears to require us to keep looking further and further afield for satisfaction.

Asking ‘why’ in any situation is important, and travel is no exception to this question. There is no doubt that travelling is an fulfilling experience and taking the time to consider your personal motivations for going on the move will only enhance and allow you to get the most out of it.


8th March 2012 at 1:45 pm