Thursday, 16 October 2008

An Essential Luxury

According to eTurboNews this week, Indonesia’s tourism minister Jero Wacik has an unconventional opinion on the ongoing global economic crisis.

He thinks it will benefit his country’s tourism industry rather than harm it, saying “The crisis is stressing so many people out. They need to relax to relieve the stress.”

Is this a supreme example of spin doctoring, or the most optimistic statement since the commander of the Light Brigade said “We can take ’em”?

I say this not to impugn the forecasting skills of Mr Wacik – he may well be proven to be correct. But it’d be against the conventional wisdom, which suggests that in times of economic downturn, people give up travelling.

On the surface, this makes sense. If companies are feeling cautious with their money, they may well cancel all non-essential travel and use email and video conferencing more. Individuals might also see travel as a luxury they can do without, and hoard their pennies in the old oak chest.

And that’s what this theory revolves about, doesn’t it – the assumption that travel is a luxury, rather than an essential. Especially for individual travellers.

But is it? Obviously it comes down to the opinion of the individual. I’d argue that, at least in my life, travel is an essential item I’d give up a long way down the list from many material comforts.

On my Facebook page I say that I love the way travelling through somewhere totally unfamiliar, preferably using a foreign language, engages all your senses and makes you feel extraordinarily alive. I’m sure many others who’ve experienced the stimulating joy of travel agree.

On top of this, think how much good travel has done in dispelling racist stereotypes of foreigners among everyday people. Sure, narrow-minded people still travel overseas and return with unaltered prejudices, and even broad-minded travellers might meet only the sort of pushy touts that give their countries a bad name.

But never again will governments be able to get away with the propaganda posters used in the two world wars, depicting the enemy of the day as a race of slavering inhuman monsters with hideously distorted features who bayonet babies. The fear of the unmet “other” is always worse than the fear of a people you’ve actually encountered, however imperfectly.

Intolerance will, sadly, always be with us. But travel does its bit to dispel its evil, and long may it do so.