A mistrial in the cases for and against travel

Arnie Weissmann

Earlier this summer, the New Yorker published an article titled “The Case Against Travel” by University of Chicago philosophy professor Agnes Callard. Last week, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat responded with “The Case for Tourism.”

Separately both cases are riddled with holes, but taken together they present a convincing argument that how, why and whether people travel is most determined by their personalities and predispositions.

Callard is a proud curmudgeon when it comes to travel and tourism, seeing and citing her own experiences and observations of travel dullards as evidence for her case. She supports her view with quotes from other curmudgeons such as G.K. Chesterton and makes a bit of a leap in assuming that Socrates and Immanuel Kant shared her dyspeptic views on travel because they rarely left their hometowns.

Some of her critiques strike at real problems in travel and tourism. Callard is right, if not original, in noting that the experience of seeing the “Mona Lisa” at the Louvre is unlikely to change your life, though that speaks more to the unpleasantness of overtourism than Leonardo’s talent. Mostly, however, she tells stories against herself, showcasing her inability when traveling to rise above the type of tourist she criticizes and then projects her limitations on tourists as a whole.

When she does raise interesting questions — e.g., travel can have a dehumanizing effect — her example seems somewhat shallow for a philosophy professor: A traveler is “thrust among people to whom he is forced to relate as a spectator,” she writes. I suspect that, in many instances, “is forced” in that sentence could be replaced by “chooses.” And when travelers are relegated to spectator status, it’s often, rightfully, to preserve cultural or traditional performances or rituals which would be diluted with more direct traveler involvement.

Douthat, in response to Callard, sees travel at its best as a pilgrimage. Literally. This, too, is self-reflective: He has written several books about religion, and his Catholicism is often central to his opinion pieces.

While he rebuts much in Callard’s essay, he accepts that, in part, “she was identifying a real problem — one especially associated with the forces of secularization and disenchantment,” a recurring theme of his columns. Indeed, Callard does ruminate on the theme of disenchantment, but it would take some imagination (or unintended bias) to extend her critiques to secularization.

My views on this are, of course, colored by my own experiences and worldview, and that, to me, is the greater point. Taken together, the essays reinforce my belief that travel (for those who enjoy it) is life amplified. A vacation can be two weeks of unimpeded pleasure and insight to deepen your appreciation for what you’re naturally drawn to.

If you’re headed to Greece and interested in antiquity, you could spend a week indulging in visits to ruins and museums that might bore or leave no impression on someone else. If you’re a foodie, you can eat your way through Mexico; a beach lover, however, will head to Cancun. Neither approach would be right for everyone, but neither seems a logical target for condemnation.

Personal preferences are the true compasses for travelers. Seeking spiritual communion, Douthat had planned to attend Mass at Sacre-Coeur, tour York Minster and venture to the ruined abbey on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne. Due to a “nasty fall,” “sudden squall” and a shift in tides, none of these happened. “Life amplified” often results in challenges amplified; an umbrella and better planning might have saved two of those experiences, though he notes he brought along the ultimate wildcard: a 3-year-old.

Diversity among travel enthusiasts powers the travel industry like never before, and in recognizing that, suppliers have greatly expanded offerings. But the industry faces a conundrum of sorts. If you’re a travel advisor sending a client to Paris or run an escorted tour there, you can certainly put together an off-the-beaten-path visit. There has been a significant rise over the past decade of niche tours and ones that get below the surface and connect people to places and their residents in meaningful ways. 

I am quite sure that there are tourists who prefer to stay on the surface or whose curiosity is subservient to their desire to tick boxes on a bucket list. And there is economic incentive for tour (and shore excursion) operators to cater to the superficial tourist whom Callard critiques.

Too many operators enable Callard’s criticisms by lazily assuming that travelers who sign up for, let’s say, a “highlights” tour of Rome will be satisfied with a checklist approach. It may be profitable but is no less a form of condescension than Callard’s polemic. In fact, it is Exhibit A in her case against travel. 

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