Mong Palatino

blogging about the philippine left and southeast asian politics since 2004

About

@mongster is a manila-based activist, former philippine legislator, and blogger/analyst of asia-pacific affairs.

Written for Bulatlat

Philosopher Immanuel Kant, one of the greatest minds in history, taught geography yet his knowledge of the physical world was probably based only on intuition and printed materials since he didn’t travel outside his hometown. This piece of information may be trivial but useful for those who want to debunk the corporate-sponsored reminder that travel is a requisite to broaden the perspective of an individual. We can assert, via the story of Kant, that acquiring truth and knowledge is still possible even if we remain stuck in our homes.

However, this is hardly reassuring since it’s impossible to expect lesser mortals like us to think the same way as Kant. Also, we should not deny the obvious advantage of travel for those who need to be rescued from lethargic parochialism and sedentary lifestyle. Travel is an antidote to learned complacency; the search for the new amid the dullness of the selfsame.

Between permanent solitude and a life of adventure, the latter is more appealing. Indeed, the contemplative mind has a limitless range but knowledge gained through practical experience seems to be more enduring.

Travel, however, has been reduced into the ordinary. The traveler as truth-seeker is now the tourist in search of fun but safe destinations. In the past, travel meant an exploration of the unfamiliar, strange, and exotic. An encounter between the old and the new, an exchange of cultural narratives, a discovery about our shared humanity.

In the 21st century, it appears there’s no more new frontiers to conquer. Of course, this is wrong. But travel or tourism as we know it has been devalued already as a commodity form. Why risk an expedition to reach the unknown and undiscovered when we can simply organize a trip in a popular tourist resort? The motivation to travel is less about studying a place or interacting with its inhabitants but experiencing what has been advertised in the tri-media.

If an iconic image of a place inspires travel, the modern tourist will most likely aspire to repeat what other tourists have done in the past. There’s no compulsion to behave differently. The intent is to take photos that clone the travel albums or journals of other people. The tourist poses for posterity as if he has done something original yet he has merely replicated the experience of others. There’s no shame in doing this but it should not be flaunted as if he discovered Atlantis.

A travel promo is rated low if buyers suffer inconvenience or the trip didn’t deliver the promised thrill (whale shark viewing, deserted coves, surfing waters). But isn’t travel supposed to bring us out of our comfort zone and allow us to witness something new and unexpected? Our vacation suffers not merely because the over hyped place is a disappointment but also because we have an unrealistic expectation of wanting to enjoy the same experience of friends, relatives, and Internet reviewers.

Travel enhances learning but not all travel is an act of enlightenment. If we will merely quote an information about a place that can be easily verified on Google, then the purpose of traveling is defeated. Why spend time and money when the inspiration to travel is induced by a fake trend? A business strategy by the tourism industry cleverly presented to the public as a social phenomenon.

Travel is supposed to be a disruptive act. The big lesson of history is that when strangers meet, conflict arises. There’s no such thing as travelling for travelling sake. There’s no innocent wanderer. Our presence in a place, even if we are only there for a brief visit, reinforces or destabilizes the local political economy. Our behavior affects community relations, domestic livelihood, and political dynamics. In other words, tourism has intended and unintended consequences that fundamentally affect the future of a place. Good if tourism uplifts the well-being of everybody but what if it displaces residents, especially the indigenous peoples?

Travel, tourism and stay cation are therefore political acts. We should strive to develop better reasons for travelling other than echoing the seductive ads of the tourism sector that promise to reward us with a fun and memorable experience. Life is absolutely more than just about completing the bucket list.

Responding to the clamor for greater responsibility, some tourism activities now include grassroots integration, volunteerism, and environment protection. This initiative deserves support until it develops and becomes the mainstream practice.

However, there is danger in believing that this politically-correct brand of tourism is the opposite of the flawed idea of travelling we discussed earlier. Yes, it is sustainable and perhaps responsible tourism, but in the end, it is still tourism in the service of the profit motive. It is an exemplary business practice. But let’s not confuse it with the ideal concept of travel. The best traveler is someone who arrived in a remote place and decided to stay and live among the local population so that she can make a difference in that community. The traveler who becomes a resident, the wanderer who never left, the tourist-turned change advocate. The foreigner or stranger who learns to think, speak, and fight in behalf of the people of his new home. Let this be our travel guide: we go the distance so that we can make this world a better place.

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