The Traveler in a Shrinking WorldPrint
Four questions on the future of world travel
By Jeffrey Tayler
June 4, 2018
In this issue of the Scholar, Jeffrey Tayler, now a resident of Moscow, reflects on his career as a freelance writer traveling throughout Europe, Africa, Asia, and Latin America (see page 56). During that time, the world has undergone profound changes in geopolitics, technology, and climate. To supplement his essay, we asked Tayler, who is the author of seven books, to pose four questions on the future of world travel.
1. As Francis Bacon writes, “Travel, in the younger sort, is a part of education; in the elder, a part of experience.” Technology has made the world a smaller place, true. But Bacon’s ideas remain valid. For instance, he counsels that a traveler “must have some entrance into the language before he goeth” abroad. True education means interacting with others—for which you need a common language—so as to understand and get along with them. Personal development stems from actual interaction and experience, which bring risks, pitfalls, and pleasures. Travel, in short, is a physical undertaking that stimulates the senses. We may be beholden to our online devices, but no screen can offer you, say, the tactile onslaught of a crowd in Varanasi, or the olfactory potpourri of Istanbul’s Spice Bazaar. With the possibilities of virtual travel sure to tantalize all the more in the future, will we engage in less physical travel? Or will we realize that we need travel as much as we ever did, for the reasons for which we’ve always needed it?
2. Around the world, the death toll from terrorist attacks has prompted the U.S. State Department last May to take the unprecedented step of issuing a travel alert “throughout Europe” in regard to dangers lurking in “tourist locations, transportation hubs, markets/shopping malls, and local government facilities … hotels, clubs, restaurants, places of worship, parks, high-profile events, educational institutions, [and] airports”—the “priority locations for possible attacks.” Yet, given that the odds of any one of us perishing in a terrorist attack anywhere are vanishingly minimal, will people simply be sensible about their travel to Paris and London, exercising caution, or will other parts of the world begin to take hold of the imagination and replace those august cities in popularity?
3. The end of the Cold War has allowed peripatetics in search of “unexplored” lands to sate their wanderlust in parts of the former Soviet Union that relatively few tourists had visited or even heard of before. At least a couple of the “Stans” have encouraged, if not always successfully, sojourns by foreigners eager for a novel travel experience. Kazakhstan, unfairly stigmatized as a satrapy of misogyny, anti-Semitism, and corruption by the 2006 comedy Borat, has been busy implementing its “Tourism Industry Development Plan 2020” and now earns $3 billion a year from tourism, though it still draws relatively few visitors. Uzbekistan’s Samarkand and Bukhara get their share of tourists. Tajikistan, meanwhile, lags far behind Kazakhstan as a globetrotter’s destination, given poor roads and lack of infrastructure, though it is no longer a “forbidden” land. But what about Russia itself? Yes, the country welcomes tens of millions of tourists a year. They tend to stick to Moscow and Saint Petersburg. But beyond those cities lies a vast, relatively unknown land, visited by few. Could outback Russia prove to be one of the last frontiers on earth?
4. In the years after 9/11, great swaths of the planet have been convulsed by strife, drought, and famine—and sometimes all three. The upshot is that for the casual traveler, our planet is shrinking. Immense expanses of the earth’s surface have become a terrestrial Hades teeming with beleaguered locals and visited by few foreigners other than journalists, aid workers, and missionaries. Population growth, climate change, and desertification will worsen the turmoil, especially in the Middle East and North Africa. The roster of countries one can visit safely—or, more to the point, would want to visit—has shortened considerably and will continue to do so. Travelers may cease to go to such places. Yet in a world largely dominated by one country, the United States, shouldn’t a personal, direct experience of life abroad grant American travelers an emotional stake in the fates of people whom they might otherwise know little about—people whose lives are increasingly affected by American foreign and military policy?
Jeffrey Tayler is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and the author of seven books, including Facing the Congo, Angry Wind and River of No Reprieve: Descending Siberia’s Waterway of Exile, Death, and Destiny.