Building Connections and Understanding

When people speak of travel as a “force for good,” what can it look like from the standpoint of the effect that travel has to breaks down fears and stereotypes? What sort of benefits — in terms of greater understanding, empathy and connection — can the act of travel bring to the world?

In the first installment we examined the impact the tourism industry has on the lives of individual people working in it. The second installment looked at the potential for tourism to give back to local communities. This is the third and final installment of ‘Travel as a Force For Good”, a series written for WTTC by Audrey Scott and Daniel Noll, the storytellers behind

Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all people cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.” — Maya Angelou

A few years ago we were on a flight from New York City to Munich, Germany. Seated next to us was a retired career U.S. Army officer who throughout his career had seen military action in places Somalia, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan. When we spoke of our recent travels — including a three-week trip we’d taken to Iran — his eyes began to widen. We shared stories, as we often do, of our experiences traveling as Americans through Iran, including the warm welcomes we were given and the genuine hospitality we felt from ordinary people just about everywhere we went.

He shook his head, visibly attempting to process what we’d just told him: “Really? I guess sometimes the world is not as we are told.”

This possibility, nay this reality, has been repeatedly revealed to us throughout our experience traveling the world for over eight years and to more than 90 countries. The more one travels and experiences a place firsthand by walking its streets, talking with its people and eating its food, the faster the prevailing narrative — often constructed by media and governments — falls away, and a new narrative emerges.

This develops through the sorts of interactions that immersive travel enables. Fears and stereotypes can be placed into perspective, fall away and eventually be replaced by greater understanding and empathy. This displaces what some rightly call “one story” with the actual story of many — our shared story, the story of humanity.

This is the ultimate promise of travel: to contribute to greater understanding, connection and ultimately, greater peace in the world.

Fear is natural, it’s human. However, the great ironic danger with fear is we often consume someone else’s perspective, we don’t challenge it, and we take it as our own.

Contrast that with awareness. Awareness requires effort — to step through the data barrage from multiple sources, synthesize it with a critical eye, and turn it into emotional information. Travel, and immersing yourself in a place, is one of the best ways to do this.

Before we began this journey, I worked in a news agency covering Central Asia. At the time, and still it seems, a great majority of the news from the region painted a grim picture of corruption, political strife, and insecurities. I was hesitant to travel to destinations like Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan for the fear that we might be harassed, or worse yet, clawing our way out of a prison by the end.

Colleagues from the region and living locally there assured us that the situation on the ground was different. A few months later we found ourselves on a cross-Caspian Sea ferry from Baku, Azerbaijan to Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan. Despite my initial concerns I began chatting with other passengers in my basic Russian. The next thing we knew, we had arrived, and were being plied with glasses of vodka and watermelon by Turkmen vacationers on the beach.

From the beaches of Turkmenistan to the mountains of Tajikistan, we’d often hear: “Governments are governments, people are people. And people are good.”

The lesson: we all have the opportunity to rise above the temptation to treat countries and peoples with a broad brush. Travel not only turns fear into awareness, but it also creates more curiosity about and openness to the world.

Sharing Stories, Creating Connections

Travel has the ability to bring people together from diverse backgrounds in all manner of ways and depths. Sometimes this takes place informally through interactions on the street or transactions in the market. More formally, it can be achieved through organized events or cultural exchanges. Regardless of the approach, there’s an opportunity at every point to show curiosity, to engage, to share of yourself, to tell a story.

In his TED Talk about the power of bringing people together via his social enterprise Mejdi Tours, Aziz Abu Sarah says “I remember having a Muslim group from the U.K. going to the house of an Orthodox Jewish family, and having their first Friday night dinners, that Sabbath dinner, and eating together hamin, which is a Jewish food, a stew, just having the connection of realizing, after a while, that a hundred years ago, their families came out of the same place in Northern Africa.”

Stories connect people like no other mechanism. When you share of yourself and the story of where you come from, others will do the same. The process is two-way, so that travelers understand better the local story while locals learn more about the story of the traveler’s home.

The story cycle does not end there, however. As those travelers return home and tell their friends and family the stories of what they experienced and the people they met, they too contribute to creating a new narrative made up of many perspectives.

That place you visited is no longer a dot on a map. That place, once faraway and perhaps not well understood, is now filled with personal experiences, memories, stories — all with a personal face and emotional connection.

Connection to Empathy

Travel provides a natural platform to create openings in ourselves and to others. It’s up to us as travelers to seize the opportunity to understand others and meet them where they are at, respectfully. The reward: to find the reflection of genuine empathy, or “the experience of understanding another person’s condition from his or her perspective.”

When we do, understanding begets understanding and the cycle builds on itself.

In this way, the age old question of “Why do we travel?” might now be answered: connection. Connection to a place, connection to its people, and connection ultimately to ourselves.

The magic knot of travel and connection is completed by a growing sense of stewardship and care. The idea that there’s something bigger than each of us for which we each bear some responsibility: the well-being of each other and our world. But rather than interpreting that responsibility as a burden, travel allows us to see it as an opportunity, an opportunity to contribute to a better world — a world that is theirs, yours, ours together.

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