The Ego of Travel

A post appeared on my wall this morning. It blared out “Why all travellers are selfish”. I did a double take. “You talkin’ to me?” I asked it a little tersely. I love travel. I also reckon I’m a pretty conscious traveller. I give time and money, lots of it, to charities. What do you mean, by calling me a selfish traveller?

In truth though, I’ve wrestled with this niggling nasty pesky thought for some time now. But, in order to learn more about myself, about my world, I argue in a mumbled voice, I travel. I talk to people. I’m a writer. I share their stories. I photograph their smiling faces and help spread their joy around the globe. I inspire others to follow where I have trodden. Heck, I am using the gifts God gave me, and in order to do this, I travel. Travel frees my soul, lifts my spirit, and here you are, Mr Journalist, tramping on my parade.

(Picture dummy flying across the room, followed by some grumpy spit.)

How on earth can that be selfish?

But my heart sinks as I read his article. Reluctantly, I find myself nodding at his opening paragraphs. Ah yes. Carbon emissions, cheap beers and $10 massages. Images of smug tourists brandishing the tee-shirt they bargained down to just two dollars, cooing about how Balinese manage to stay so happy with so little, dance across my screen. You got me. Guilty as charged.

Are we all as gleefully greedy and heritage-stomping-happy as he describes?

And, more to the point of my well of guilt he has unleashed this morning, are we all – expats, conscious travellers, tourists – failing? Is the alternative to simply stay at home? Or can we, as the author suggests, appease our guilty hearts by volunteering at a local charity? Are we truly taking more than we are giving? I decide to ponder the feeling I was struck with, in light of the many other articles I have written on the subject of conscious travel – the ideal that we use our experiences to enhance relationships and understanding, rather than take photos and rack up Facebook likes.

The writer makes some salient points: crawling over world heritage sites and deserted beaches, our traveller’s footprint. I understand that, and I truly do try to be a good guest, even though we flood into countries where the cost of our air ticket could support a family for a month, some even a year. We visit orphanages, come home with a sponsored child, and call at least one local our ‘family’. Yes, Mr Journalist. You are right. The travel is all about us. And in that sense, it is selfish. Incredibly selfish.

He offers up a suggestion to help alleviate the guilt that his readers likely now have pulsing through them like an uncomfortable silence on speed: donate or volunteer at home. That’s not a bad idea. But I’m still wrestling with the notion of there being Ego in Travel.  Is this true for me, and for the many travellers who read my blogs, buy my books and try to be gracious guests?

Will volunteering at home make the ego disappear? Or is it something that is an ideal he’s rabbiting on about, to get published? Isn’t it the whole point of travel to improve ourselves? And what would happen if the entire planet, tomorrow, decided to stay home? Have we created a master or a servant in tourism? There is no doubt that tourism has had a negative impact on the planet in the past 100 years. But so did settlement and exploration. Humans have been notorious for trudging wherever the hell they like and taking what they please. Is his article ahead of its time, or does it skirt around the issues of ‘waking up’ and ‘global awareness’?

Around 10 million tourists flock to the tiny island of Bali every year. Add this to a naturally growing population, and transient workers from other parts of Indonesia to service the 10 million-odd tourists, and you have a problem Houston. Let’s replicate this in every developing country on the planet, and then consider the billions of bucks the developed world also tips into attracting travellers to them too.

Tourism across the planet is big business and has no signs of slowing down. 1.8 billion are forecast to be travelling annually by 2030. The industry is worth, well, squillions. It provides actual and virtual jobs. This is the argument most of us fall into, when we justify our trips around the globe. Sure, the trip is to satisfy our sense of adventure, it appeals to our ego, (particularly now that we can post envy-photos on Facebook to alert everybody to where we are) and it makes us feel good.

travel chartSo what would happen if we pulled the plug?

In Indonesia, tourism and travel contributed around 10% to GDP in 2014, a figure that has barely shifted over the past few years. In Fiji, it is over 40%, in Macau, a whopping 87.8%. In fact, there are 33 countries listed in a report by World Travel and Tourism Council Data, 2013, that have tourism and travel contribute over 19% to their GDP. Whip that rug out, and there are going to be a lot of crashes.

Can we balance our guilty pleasures with this sobering thought? I think we can. When we learn about another culture, we have the gift of personal growth. For many of us, we feel filled with gratitude for what we do have. We try to make our presence count. It’s likely if you give as a guest in another country, you also help out at the school fete or local church or sport club. By travelling, you gain insight into the world outside your box, and that in itself can make the world a better place.

The conscious travel movement, a term penned by Anna Pollock who also wrote the foreword for my book Bali Soul Journals, is at a tipping point. As we become more aware of global issues, as humans, we want to reach out more. At times, the speed of information and global disasters can be overwhelming. How can we possibly do enough? And as travellers grow in numbers as the world middle class grows, our footprint is getting muddier. But it doesn’t need to be.

If every person travelling gave just 5-10% of the value of their trip into a cause either at home, or where they were travelling to, it could make a huge, sustainable difference. Now, I haven’t done the maths, but if you look at this chart of annual expenditures by country, on travel, that’s one whopping big sum!

We also can’t lose sight of the employment the industry creates. It’s around 10% in Australia, almost 20% in New Zealand. That’s another rug you don’t want to whip out too quickly.

What is needed, is sustainable travel, if that is possible. More and more countries are waking up to the fact that they need to protect the very things that people pay to go to see. Bali are slowly awakening to this fact, and locals are beginning to dig their heels in to preserve their culture and their resources. As a planet, tourism is part of the cycle of life we have created. You could almost argue it is now as essential as agriculture. It aids with education, and improves the lives of many. Sure, their dollar per day might be significantly less than your own net earning capacity, but that is geared by the overall economic health of the country.

What I would love to see, is more discussion about how as travellers, we can contribute to the health of tourism, rather than being drowned in guilt. Otherwise, we will need to take this same guilt across every single aspect of our lives. “I cannot buy anything imported from a developing country, because I am contributing to global warming.” There will be an argument for almost everything we use, if we apply the same guilt-formula.

Keep loving your travel, I say. But look for ways to enrich the experience. It is about you. Life is about you. That’s the whole point of it! However, if you look for ways to connect with others, share experiences, and grow, the planet might be somewhat better off.

As I write in Bali Soul Journals: “…travellers are searching for their inner self, and a connection with the planet, and others. This is a long way from tourism, described as ‘a race to check-in on social networks’. Tourists collect digital photographs and screech to get to the next temple or view or whatever will inspire perceived envy on their social network page. They look for what is familiar, rather than the differences. (They seek) a holiday, rather than what binds us as humans. Travellers collect memories, leave positive footprints, and enhance relationships and understanding.”

There is ego in travel. Of course there is. And that $10 massage may well just keep someone’s pot full of rice for another week, or help their youngest child finish high school. Enjoy it. You are not hurting anybody by receiving it.

If that’s being selfish, and all else is considered, utter a prayer of gratitude. Smile. Shake your masseuse’s hand. Refuse the plastic bag for your purchase. Ask about her village and family. And then go grab that beer as you take in the sunset on another day in Paradise. It’s okay. Your ego will still be there. But a little piece of your heart will be left in every country you have the honour of being a guest of.

And to the author of that article, I remind him of the wise words of Margaret Mead.

“As the traveler who has once been from home is wiser than he who has never left his own doorstep, so a knowledge of one other culture should sharpen our ability to scrutinize more steadily, to appreciate more lovingly, our own.”

It’s not about whether we travel or not. It is who we become, when we do. Mr Journalist, thanks for the guilt-trip. But I’m quite okay with my footprint and contribution to the world, and to my own selfish pursuit in trying to learn and be a better person because of it. And for the record, the cheap beer isn’t really that cheap in Bali. But the massages are simply fabulous.

To learn more about Bali and the impact of tourism on it today, buy Bali Soul Journals. Available on-line or at all good book stores in Bali. It has been recommended by National Geographic Traveler, endorsed by Jack Canfield, and is a Periplus Bookstore best seller.

buy now image


Clare McAlaney is author of The Bootongs of Bali, a new young reader’s book that explores the fate of Bali’s environment through the tale of a family of ducks who herald from the Kingdom of Ducktopia. It is available for order now at the Creatavision Publishing bookshop.

The Bootongs of Bali

The travel article referred in this blog may be found here:

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