When I got together with a group of travel friends for dinner last week, one was complaining of a bad back. He’d forgotten to go online and pick his airline seat, so come check-in, all that was left was the aisle seat at the back, next to the loo.
Another had just flown on a packed flight from Hong Kong: “In the past you could always rely on finding empty seats to stretch out on,” she observed ruefully. “When did planes get so full?”
We nodded sympathetically. It was true: when was the last time you flew on a plane that wasn’t booked solid? And not with hard-bitten travellers, but gangs of lads off to festivals in Budapest; middle-aged men on male bonding breaks to Marrakesh; hen parties to Dubai. In other words – tourists.
I’ve never believed that the world is divided into tourists and travellers – it’s such an elitist, judgemental attitude. But it’s since occurred to me that independent travellers are judgemental.
We pride ourselves on using our judgement to research destinations; make informed choices; support local communities by using local guides. In short, we work at being ethical, responsible, savvy travellers.
But budget airlines and the internet have democratised travel, making adventurous, confident, well-informed travellers out of anyone with a computer and a credit card. We ‘travellers’ have always felt rather superior to mere tourists, but do tourists even exist anymore – isn’t everyone a traveller these days?
Maybe not. Independent travellers have generally been the trailblazers – when we leave only footprints, these create a path that everyone else follows. So in future what footprint – carbon or otherwise – can independent travellers leave that will set a good example (and lead us back to the moral high-ground)?
Lonely Planet founder Tony Wheeler – the man who launched a million forays into the unknown – now advocates fewer but longer trips, thus minimising carbon emissions and maximising our spending in the host country. Not easy if you’ve got kids or a job, but food for thought.
Richard Branson clearly believes in further and longer trips as he drives onwards and upwards with his plans for public space travel (and whatever you think about him personally, he raised the bar on UK train travel and is investing heavily in bio-fuel development).
But maybe – as has traditionally been the way – it’s not in destination but in attitude where independent travellers can blaze a trail?
The travel boom has been fuelled by cheap flights, at a time when – paradoxically – ‘ethical’ and ‘sustainable’ have become shorthand for ‘the right people getting the money’. If we save money on a flight, should we make a point of then paying a premium for the ethical, sustainable projects we’ve travelled to experience, thus allowing them to benefit from our bargain?
Travelling more and paying more – maybe that’s what separates the travellers from the tourists?
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