I’m a migrant and a traveler, happy to live in a globalized world. Perhaps I’m too biased to be writing this piece. But it comes from empirical experience, as well as from my degrees in International Relations and International Human Rights Law. Most importantly, it comes from all the amazingly kind people that have crossed my path during my travels, that don’t have a platform to speak their truth, and defend tourism and migration. This is for all of them, so privileged people around the world can see that “them” are no different from “us”.
Is change destroying traditions?
We often hear that things are spoiled now, that nothing is how it used to be. Hell, there was even a president in the United States that won the election idealizing what the country used to be. The romanticized past is always seen as better, with globalization being the one to blame. And, in consequence, migration and tourism.
Access to information and technology is seen as a threat to traditional customs, and hordes of visitors are thought as the cause why those customs are now more of a show than a reality. Think about the indigenous tribes in the Amazons (especially in Iquitos) or in touristy Africa (like the Masai people), that built villages only to get the tourists to see their ‘exotic’ lives.
But change is not new. It’s much older than all those customs and traditions. Every civilization’s development has been influenced by peoples from other parts of the world. And travelers are not a new thing either. Sure, the numbers have increased immensely, but they have existed for centuries. Think of Ibn Battuta, Marco Polo, Guru Nanak or Jeanne Baré, and then tell me it’s a 20th century activity.
Tradition is a dynamic phenomenon, and not necessarily all traditions are good. But when you complain about the changes, are you doing so because a place is failing at fulfilling your ideals of how exotic it should be, or because you’re really concerned about the people? Is it really bad for them to have access to internet, smartphones, or branded clothes?
Development comes ingrained in human nature. That’s why we were happy to discover fire and the invent the wheel, to learn to use minerals, and to grow vegetables. I often find myself longing for a simpler life, in the mountains far away from capitalism. But then I get annoyed at the slow wifi and remember that there’s a lot to be grateful about modern times.
What some see as destruction can also be seen as construction. The arrival of China’s silk to Europe changed the course of history, with the development of a road that allowed economies to strengthen, cities to flourish, religions to expand their followers, and travelers to start exploring mysterious faraway lands.
Does your place of birth determine who you are?
In a world where we decided to put unnatural borders that created 193 countries (or more, depends on how you count), that’s inhabited by more than 7 billion people, being born in one place or another is completely random. Chances are that you’ll be Chinese or Indian. But some get lucky and are born in the ‘Western world’. By no means I’m saying the west is better, only more privileged. There you’ll have free health and education, most likely you won’t be poor, and you’ll get access to a strong passport that will allow you to travel the world as you please.
That privilege that the lucky ones that have it take for granted is only in the wildest of dreams of those who randomly were born in places like Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, the countries with the weakest passports.
Why must our place of birth determine who we are? Someone born in the western world has little chances to be poor, while someone born in the developing world has little chances to be rich. How can someone born into privilege judge another for trying to look for better opportunities?
The politics of borders
Most travelers think of borders to count countries and to add another stamp to their passport (hopefully without going through the often painful process of getting a visa). When researching borders, the main point of analysis is whether crossing from point A to point B is allowed, but few notice how harmful that imaginary line is to the people on either side.
I’ve been through this issue in my post about the Geopolitics of Travel, but it’s worth to dig deeper. If you see a European map up close, you’ll realize that most borders sort of make sense. Usually, they follow a river or a mountain range. Typically, people from the same ethnicity stayed together inside the frontier lines. Commonly, language and religion are homogeneous inside a country. If you’ve been to Bosnia and Herzegovina or to Kosovo, you’ll understand why I’m saying “generally”, because there are big exceptions. Still, the contrast with the map of Africa and the Middle East is huge.
The strange extension of the Jordanian border towards Iraq was designed so Saudi Arabia and Syria wouldn’t meet. The Egyptian borders were established by the British (with Sudan) and the Italians (with Libya), while the ones between Algeria, Mauritania, Mali and Niger were determined by the French. The history of the modern world has been one of struggle for power, war, expansionism, and colonialism. The west created a mess, and now it’s trying to disassociate itself from it.
They are so worried about creating a new image of themselves that the humanity of it all is being forgotten. The Western world wants to be seen as developed, safe, and generous. In that task the rest must be put down, to create a contrast. The discrepancy between “us” and “them” reemerges.
But even a quick visit to the non-western world will let you witness how kind these “others” are. I’ve never experienced so many acts of kindness as in the less developed world. From Mexico to Egypt, from Colombia to Iran, the hospitality I was met with is a massive contrast to the coldness of Central Europe.
If a poor family in the Middle East or in Latin America see you struggling, they’re going to welcome you in their homes and share what little they have. If a rich family in Central Europe see you struggling, they’re going to say you should go back to your country, since obviously you’re there only to steal their jobs –if they say anything at all instead of passing by ignoring you.
“People travel to faraway places to watch, in fascination, the kind of people they ignore at home” –Dagobert D. Runes
What they don’t realize is that the privilege they have comes from their ancestors abusing and destroying the developing world. Slavery, imperialism, and colonialism are the reason why the west achieved development, while the rest were robbed of that opportunity.
Tourists and migrants: private sources of soft power
Joseph Nye, a renowned political scientist, coined the term soft power in contrast of the classical term hard power, commonly used in International Relations (and Politics in general). While hard power means to influence behavior through coercion (threat or use of force, or economic sanctions), soft power looks to shape preferences through attraction and persuasion (building networks, communicating compelling narratives, and using diplomacy, culture, and education).
Learning about others’ way of life, and understanding that our differences shouldn’t prevent us from getting to know each other, can bring us together more than any peace treaty. For example, after the Abraham Accords, the United Arab Emirates started offering kosher meals in hotels in preparation for Israeli tourists, while Israel started offering halal food for the Muslims visitors.
Travelers are a private source of soft power. When they go abroad, they become ambassadors of their nation. This means that the image of a country can be changed through their citizens visiting other lands.
What comes to mind when you think of American, Chinese, or German travelers? Probably you’re going to say Americans abroad tend to be entitled, assuming everyone should speak English and looking down at locals; Chinese behave a bit sheep-like, in their big tour groups, taking photos in unison every time their guide points at something; and Germans are usually more knowledgeable and interested in learning about the culture. This translates in people seeing the US as the place to earn money and climb the “social ladder”, China as being an uninteresting place to move, and Germany as dream to live in.
The best way to promote a country is to encourage traveling among their citizens. The world will experience the country through their people. That’s why the Canadian International Development Agency invested a substantial sum of money in Canadian volunteer abroad programmes, while in the United States English language voluntarism has become a federally endorsed development strategy.
On the other hand, what is shown to visitors will shape the international perception of the country. Foreign-perceived identity will make or break any nation, especially when it comes to safety. Disassociate the concepts of war-torn, terrorism or kidnapping, from places like Kurdistan, Pakistan and Colombia, is a difficult task, even though these are perfectly safe to visit nowadays. More Kurds, Pakistanis and Colombians spreading the word abroad will do much better than any efforts from the governments to clean their image. And the picture will be confirmed by the foreigners that venture there, because anyone going to any of these wonderful destinations is in for a treat!
Why should we all support tourism, migration, and globalization?
Have you heard about the thriving expat community in Sydney, or how amazing it is for digital nomads in Bali? Most importantly, have you ever questioned why we called privileged white people expats and not migrants? The term migrant has a negative connotation to it, as if migration was a wrong thing, but being an expat apparently sound cool.
What’s worse, undocumented migrants and refugees are often referred to as “illegal people”, which creates an even harsher imaginary around them. ‘We’ should be afraid of ‘them’. Privilege blinds some, making them unmindful about the fact that people that flee their home did it because their lives and integrity were at risk. Should be obvious, but it’s important to remember that seeking asylum is a human right! And, for the record, actions can be illegal, people are just people.
As of 2020, an estimate of over 280 million people, almost 4% of the world’s population, live outside their country of origin. Many are forced to run away, but some move in search of a different life. Whether that’s because of work, love or weather, people being able to move between countries is a true expression of development, an advancement towards cosmopolitanism.
Cosmopolitanism is the idea that all human beings are members of a single community, regardless of their citizenship, religion, political affiliation, moral standards, economic practices, or cultural norms, and deserve equal respect and consideration.
There’s only one human race, so why do we make differences?
Travel is a mean of activism. It can de-legitimate violence. It can free us of labels, allowing us to be our true selves. It can end the fearful concept some have about the rest of the world. As Pico Iyes said, “we travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next, to find ourselves”. What I learnt is that we found ourselves in others. No matter where you grew up, which religion you believe in, or what political party represents you, we are all the same. We want to protect our family and friends from harm. We want to have food on our plates and a roof above our heads. We want to be happy. And the world should be everyone’s oyster, not only that of a few lucky ones.
When you’re positive and open minded, the world will have those qualities as well. Now, if you think everyone is hostile and dangerous, then you’ll encounter hostility and danger. If you look judgmental and suspicious, then locals will judge you and suspect of you. If you’re full of fears from what the media has told you about a certain place and its people, then you’ll be met with the characteristics you’re looking for. Be kind and you’ll find kindness, whether that is when you venture into the world or when you meet foreigners in your home country. Don’t forget: there’s only one human race, we’re all the same!
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