There is still an assumption at large that travelling 'for pleasure' is a simple enough task. All one needs is a little spare time, money and one or two good addresses. Yet we're waking up to the idea that, like most human activities, travelling is in fact an art — which benefits from being systematically thought through and practised. We're not born knowing how to do it and without experience and reflection we will fall into some obvious traps. In most of the world's prosperous countries, people have only been travelling in large numbers for 50 years or so. It shouldn't be surprising if a few lessons are only now being learnt and if we're just starting to set out on journeys with wisdom and a focus that our parents lacked.
One of the first truths percolating through societies is that there's no necessary relationship between the amount of money one spends on so-called 'luxury' and the attainment of happiness. At the most practical level, we're learning to be less materialistic, which doesn't mean we're shunning all comforts of the body, simply that we're getting a better handle on what, for example, a room with butler service or a five-course meal with sorbet between each dish can really do to assuage the many ills of the mind that affect us. A previous generation's idea of upscale relaxation — involving ostentatious hotels and elaborate restaurants — now carries some notably naive and dated associations (think of the quaint exoticism of late 60s James Bond films). In a troubled and mysterious world, lizard-like indolence is as likely to generate nausea and boredom as it is calm and delight. We are the descendants of people who worried and achieved. 'Doing nothing' remains — and for good reasons — one of the most frightening and unfamiliar of all projects.
At the same time, we're starting to question the expectations of what a good activity is once we reach our destinations. The traditional answer used to be: go to the museum. Our attitudes to travel are interwoven with the cultural priorities that once informed the European Grand Tour, as though the ultimate purpose of travelling to a country was to stand respectfully before its artistic masterpieces in a silent gallery. Art may be a particularly good medium for distilling and reflecting the characteristics of a nation, but contemplation of it does not give us the vivid and visceral experience of them that we may crave.
We're learning that what we might really want to do is to talk to people. This is remarkably hard. Entire institutions exist to help us to know the culture of a nation through its canvases, yet there's almost nothing around if we want to try to strike up a conversation with one of its citizens over supper. We can easily pass through a country over a week and not interact with anyone outside the concierge and his colleagues. The growth travel industries of the future will be those that help us to mingle with and understand the living reality of host nations. They will take us out of the sterile routines of the art museum and throw us into the vibrant living reality of the kitchens, offices, kindergartens and wedding parties of our host countries. One would learn more about the culture and particularities of the Netherlands from a lunch with five Dutch chemists in Amsterdam than from any number of days at the Rijksmuseum.
The great struggle of travellers used to be to know the facts of the countries they travelled through. It was a proud achievement to know the date the cathedral was finished and the identity of the first post-independence president. Nowadays, our phones — and through them, the boundless mind of the web — have made factual knowledge ubiquitous and unhelpfully overwhelming. What we need isn't ever more facts, but experiences that are curated in accordance with our own inner needs. There may well be five 'must-see' sights in the city we're visiting, but none of them might be appropriate to our own psychological development. We're growing more confident in accepting that we might just be better off going to the supermarket or the ice rink.
We're remembering pilgrimages and the ways in which religions used to arrange travel. Going travelling once meant a journey in the outer world that was meant to cure some affliction in us. This might sound like a remote ambition but it hints at a purpose for our journeys that too often gets missed: travelling should be about healing. It should be about picking things up abroad — a philosophy or an attitude — which we lack in our own lands. In the future, travel agents won't ask us where we want to go, they'll find out what we want to change about ourselves.
We travel to locate things that are exotic and necessary to us. Exoticism used to mean grass skirts and folkloric knick-knacks. But exoticism means something that is both unfamiliar in our country and important to our own development. It might be a way of raising children or arranging the workplace, relating to nature or our bodies. We're getting better at learning how to structure journeys so that they can assuage what we're lacking within us. We're waking up to our own complexities and realising that the golf course and room with seaview is not enough. Pleasure is in the end as hard to reach as money is to earn. We owe it to ourselves to treat our travel ambitions with dignity — our journeys should be the midwives of new and better selves.
Alain de Botton (alaindebotton.com) is the author of The Art of Travel.
8 places that made an impression on Alain de Botton:
1. Jeju Island, South Korea
2. Byron Bay, Australia
3. Dungeness, UK
4. Thorpeness, UK
5. Sils Maria, Switzerland
6. Amsterdam, the Netherlands
7. La Gomera, Canary Islands
8. Mojave Desert, USA
Fast fact... Around 26.3m passengers a year travel through T5 on 184,616 flights.
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