Looking for transformative travel? Keep these six stages in mind

Jaco J. Hamman, Vanderbilt University

After a cooped-up year, many are hungry to travel. But why do we travel in the first place? What is the allure of the open road?

As a professor of religion, psychology and culture, I study experiences that lie at the intersection of all three. And in my research on travel, I’m struck by its unsolvable paradoxes: many of us seek to get away, in order to be present; we speed to destinations, in order to slow down; we may care about the environment, but still leave carbon footprints.

Ultimately, many people hope to return transformed. Travel is often viewed as what anthropologists call a “rite of passage“: structured rituals in which individuals separate themselves from their familiar surroundings, undergo change and return rejuvenated or ‘reborn’.

But travellers are not just concerned with themselves. The desire to explore may be a defining human trait, as I argue in my latest book, but the ability to do it is a privilege that can come at a cost to host communities. Increasingly, the tourism industry and scholars alike are interested in ethical travel, which minimises visitors’ harm on the places and people they encounter.

The media inundate tourists with advice and enticements about where to travel and what to do there. But in order to meet the deeper goals of transformative, ethical travel, the ‘why’ and ‘how’ demand deeper discernment.

In writing Just Traveling: God, Leaving Home, and a Spirituality for the Road, I studied travel stories in sacred scriptures and researched findings from psychologists, sociologists, ethicists, economists and tourism scholars. I argue that meaningful travel is best understood not as a three-stage rite but as a six-phase practice, based on core human experiences. These phases can repeat and overlap within the same journey, just as adventures twist and turn.

1. Anticipating

Travelling begins long before departure, as we research and plan. But anticipation is more than logistics. The Dutch aptly call it “voorpret”: literally, the pleasure before.

How and what people anticipate in any given situation has the power to shape their experience, for better or worse – even when it comes to prejudice. Psychology experiments, for example, have shown that when children anticipate greater cooperation between groups, it can reduce their bias in favour of their own group.

But phenomenology, a branch of philosophy that studies human experience and consciousness, emphasises that anticipation is also ’empty’: our conscious intentions and expectations of what’s to come could be fulfilled or dashed by a future moment.

With that in mind, travellers should try to remain open to uncertainty and even disappointment.

2. Leaving

Leaving can awaken deep emotions that are tied to our earliest experiences of separation. The attachment styles psychologists study in infants, which shape how secure people feel in their relationships, continue to shape us as adults. These experiences can also affect how comfortable people feel exploring new experiences and leaving home, which can affect how they travel.

Some travellers leave with excitement, while others experience hesitation or guilt before the relief and excitement of departure. Mindfulness about the stages of travel can help people manage anxiety.

Mask-clad passengers pass through an airport arrival hall in Lisbon, Portugal in September 2021 amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Travel has picked up since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. For many people, taking a trip prompts anxiety as well as excitement.
Horacio Villalobos/Corbis News via Getty Images

3. Surrendering

Travellers cannot control their journey: A flight is cancelled, or a vehicle breaks down; the weather report predicts sunshine, but it rains for days on end. To some extent, they have to surrender to the unknown.

Modern Western cultures tend to see ‘surrendering’ as something negative – as hoisting a white flag. But as a therapeutic concept, surrendering helps people let go of inhibiting habits, discover a sense of wholeness and experience togetherness with others. The perfectionist learns that a changed itinerary doesn’t mean a diminished travel experience and lets go of their fear of failure. The person with a strong sense of independence grows in vulnerability as they receive care from strangers.

In fact, some psychological theories hold that the self longs for surrender, in the sense of liberation: letting down its defensive barriers and finding freedom from attempts to control one’s surroundings. Embracing that view can help travellers cope with the reality that things may not go according to plan.

4. Meeting

Meeting, travelling’s fourth phase, is the invitation to discover oneself and others anew.

All cultures have unconscious ‘rules of recognition‘, their own ingrained customs and ways of thinking, making it more difficult to forge cross-cultural connections. Carrying conscious and unconscious stereotypes, travellers may see some people and places as uneducated, dangerous, poor or sexual, while hosts may see travellers as rich, ignorant and exploitable.

Going beyond such stereotypes requires that travellers be mindful of behaviours that can add tension to their interactions – knowing conversational topics to avoid, for example, or following local dress codes.

In many parts of the world, those challenges are intensified by the legacy of colonisation, which makes it harder for people to meet in authentic ways. Colonial views still influence Western perceptions of non-white groups as exotic, dangerous and inferior.

Starting to overcome these barriers demands an attitude known as cultural humility, which is deeper than ‘cultural competence’ – simply knowing about a different culture. Cultural humility helps travellers ask questions like, “I don’t know”, “Please help me understand” or “How should I …”

5. Caring

Caring involves overcoming ‘privileged irresponsibility‘: when a traveller does not recognise their own privilege and take responsibility for it, or does not recognise other people’s lack of privilege.

Travel becomes irresponsible when tourists ignore injustices and inequities they witness or the way their travels contribute to the unfolding climate crisis. Ethically, ’empathy’ is not enough; travellers must pursue solidarity, as an act of ‘caring with‘. That might mean hiring local guides, eating in family owned restaurants and being mindful of the resources like food and water that they use.

6. Returning

Travels do end, and returning home can be a disorienting experience.

Coming back can cause reverse culture shock if travellers struggle to readjust. But that shock can diminish as travellers share their experiences with others, stay connected to the places they visited, deepen their knowledge about the place and culture, anticipate a possible return trip or get involved in causes that they discovered on their trip.

I believe that reflecting on these six phases can invite the kind of mindfulness needed for transformative, ethical travel. And amid a pandemic, the need for thoughtful travel that prioritises host communities’ wellbeing is clear.

Jaco J. Hamman, Professor of Religion, Psychology, and Culture, Vanderbilt University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

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Written by The Conversation