The world has always been a complicated place, but shifting geopolitical tensions and the echo chamber of social media have contributed to a culture of anxiety affecting travelers around the world.
Skift launched the latest edition of our magazine, Travel in an Age of Permanxiety, at Skift Global Forum in New York City in September. This article is part of our look into the current state of the traveler mindset through the lens of the pervasive state of anxiety felt worldwide.
Download the full version of Skift’s Travel in an Age of Permanxiety magazine here.
Travel has always been an unpredictable activity. Somewhere around the world, thousands of miles from the safety of home, the unknown becomes known and anything can happen. This can be thrilling or uncomfortable, enriching or life-threatening. Part of the fun is not knowing what will happen, yet this sort of uncertainty can mar your travel experience even if nothing goes wrong.
There is an often irrational feeling you get when traveling that the world is a dangerous place, and the violent events you hear about on the television or see online will happen to you. Your mind tells you to worry, even if you are completely safe. You’re more likely to win a lottery jackpot than be the victim of a terrorist attack in most places, for instance, but you wouldn’t know it by the anxiety you feel walking the streets of another country.
The world has embraced travel like never before in recent years. In the first four months of 2017, destinations received 369 million international tourists according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization, a six percent increase over the previous year. International tourist arrivals totaled 1.235 billion in 2016, and the growth in global tourism shows no sign of slowing down. It’s no coincidence that isolationism is on the rise globally at the same time.
Beyond physical safety, cultural and political tension have created a hostile environment for those looking to spend time immersed in a culture different from their own.
With a rise of nativism around the world, deterring foreigners from visiting is often a tactic used to curry favor with citizens opposed to change. In the U.S., “America First” rhetoric from the highest levels of government has led many from Europe and the Middle East to reconsider visiting. The stirrings of a renewed Cold War between the NATO countries and Russia also has travelers on edge, along with the constant threat of attacks by terrorist extremists on major cities.
The Dark Side of Living Like a Local
The travel industry plays with the juxtaposition between comfort and adventure every day in its marketing. A vacation simultaneously represents an escape from the banality of life, a way to experience new cultures, and a chance to enjoy luxuries you normally wouldn’t. The desires of the tourist, however, don’t always align with what is socially acceptable in a foreign country.
As many tourists now aspire to “live like a local” while on vacation, it’s become abundantly clear that locals don’t want to live like a tourist.
A tourist can be loud, rude, messy, wave a selfie stick around, or treat locals like they either don’t exist or exist solely for their entertainment. They can also be respectful, curious, and considerate, but you don’t hear much about this second type of tourist.
The travel experience has become more complex for vacationers than ever before in recent years. At the same time that low-cost airlines have made it easier for travelers to reach destinations on the cheap, air travel has largely become a commodity product with a set of intractable problems: abysmal customer service, tiny seats, and frustrating flight disruptions.
As hotel brands have proliferated, it can be unclear to travelers what type of property they’re even staying at. Roomshare companies like Airbnb have added an additional layer of complexity to choosing accommodations; it can be hard for the occasional traveler to tell if an Airbnb rental fits their needs, or if they’ll have any support if anything goes wrong.
There is also the civic tension experienced in cities that have seen explosive tourism growth. This phenomenon, which we have dubbed overtourism, often leads to frustrations from local residents who come to resent the effect that visitors have on their lives.
And maybe these residents have a point; economic development focused on tourism can have its limitations, especially if tourism decreases or affects the quality of life for city dwellers.
Backlash to Globalization
Different cities have adopted different methods to deal with the deluge of tourists. Barcelona has stopped allowing residents to rent out their homes online, and stopped licensing new tourism-based businesses. Venice has renewed its efforts to educate visitors on the fines they face for disruptive activities like littering or swimming. Amsterdam, now jammed with tourists, is encouraging visitors to seek out less popular neighborhoods instead of the usual tourist attractions.
Today, globalization is seen as problematic by many.
“We’re now derided by many as globalists,” said Arne Sorenson, CEO of Marriott International, at the WTTC Forum in Bangkok this year. “Somehow voices that are not sufficiently patriotic today as they’ve been in the last number of decades… We don’t respond adequately, in my opinion, by ignoring those voices. We have to listen to those voices and what they’re telling us.”
As global travel has boomed to record levels, so too have the fears and anxieties of global travelers evolved to taint the notion of what it means to travel the world.
As the travel experience has become stressful instead of liberating, what can the travel industry do to assuage the fears of its customers? Can an industry that profits from moving people across the world and providing them services possibly incorporate voices calling for the limitation of travel and tourism?
It can be hard to market the appealing aspects of travel while also portraying the experience in a realistic light. With the overall travel industry in the midst of a massive growth period, stakeholders must do more to work with local communities and mitigate the negative effects of tourism on destinations.
Social Media Mess
Bad news can also travel across the world instantly. Social media, in particular, has emerged in the last decade as the most popular way for people around the world to receive breaking news. It’s rare a day goes by without some incident around the world, ranging from a terror attack to a drunk passenger on an aircraft, capturing the attention of the public.
It can be easy to point to these reports, both from travelers and the news media, as a major influence on the state of travel anxiety. The truth is that the world has always been a complicated and uncertain place; it’s only become more apparent recently due to the pervasive influence of smartphones and digital media. Unplugging from the internet also isn’t always a luxury travelers have when visiting a destination.
Technology now makes it simple to research and book a trip to a foreign destination. What technology can’t teach you to do is to keep an open mind or respect a local culture.
What’s a traveler to do in these complex and uncertain times? Unplugging from the echo chamber of social media can help, but isn’t a surefire solution. Travelers need to educate themselves about the destinations they visit and act like thoughtful global citizens instead of consumers. This kind of personal responsibility can go a long way toward creating a more positive outcome for tourism in emerging or overcrowded destinations.
At the same time, travel companies need to innovate new types of trips and tours that take pressure off of stressed local communities and showcase the diversity of destinations they explore.
There’s no single cure or quick fix for solving the anxiety that travelers feel, but without a serious effort from stakeholders and travelers themselves, the state of permanxiety felt by travelers will only become more deeply entrenched.
Photo credit: Anxiety has increased as the world has become more connected. The travel industry must do more to ease the tension it has created. Bing Qing Ye / Skift