I am a travel blogger, and most of you who are regular readers of this blog come to the site to find travel tips and read my stories from traveling all around the world.
I love you for that; I love that you look to me for travel suggestions and advice – and love even more when you tell me that you've used one of my tips or itineraries when planning your own trips!
But one sentiment that I've heard more and more this year that I don't love is one that creeps out whenever I share something on social media about social justice, climate change, or even wearing masks during a pandemic. People assume that just because my job description reads “travel blogger” that I shouldn't have (or at least shouldn't share) any opinions on things deemed “political.”
Some of you will tell me to “stick to travel,” or ask me why I have to “bring politics into it.”
Well, good people of the internet, I have a truth bomb to drop on some of you today: No matter how much you want to ignore it or argue otherwise, travel is VERY political.
The simple act of leaving your home to go somewhere else is a political act. It's most obvious when you go to another country, but even if you travel within your own country you're interacting with the results of political decisions.
When you travel in the US, for example, the highway you drive on is maintained by the government; the speed limits you follow are dictated by law. The air you're breathing is as clean as it is because of federal regulations; the same goes for the water you drink and even much of the food you eat. And we haven't even talked about gas prices, national parks, hotel taxes, and all the other things you come into contact with as a traveler.
Most people think of “politics” as being a very polarizing topic. But, in reality, we're interacting with and affected by politics each and every day. And this doesn't end when you're traveling.
I'm not writing this post in order to necessarily share my political opinions with you; instead, I'm writing it to show you just how connected politics and travel really are, in hopes that maybe you'll stop sending these “stick to travel” sorts of messages to the travel bloggers you follow.
Travel is political, and here's how
Here are just a few of the ways in which travel is political:
1. Passports and visas
If you are leaving your home country and crossing a border into another one, you are participating in a political act.
If you own a passport, that passport is a government document; in the US, it says right there on the ID page that it's granted to you by the United States Department of State – and on the next page it even says that your passport is “U.S. Government Property.”
The rules and laws by which we are allowed movement out of our own countries and into others are, by their very nature, political. Whether you need to apply for a visa in advance or simply get a stamp at a border is the result of complicated political relationships. Having a “strong” passport is directly related to your home country's reputation and relations with the rest of the world.
And how about certain nationalities being completely barred from visiting specific places (i.e. Americans not legally being allowed to travel to Cuba)? There's nothing but politics involved in those situations.
When you travel abroad, I firmly believe that you become an ambassador for your country. It doesn't really get much more political than that.
2. Living in a global society
This year has been a perfect example of how the world now operates (more or less) as one big global society. When a pandemic began spreading around the world, we all felt the effects. Borders closed, flights were canceled, and international travel became basically impossible for most people.
The decisions of world leaders affected every single person involved in the tourism industry (which, in case you didn't know, employs 10% of the global workforce).
And this goes far beyond the current pandemic situation. When I travel, I'm always interested in history. And every single historical tour I've taken on my travels has touched on things like government, politics, and how decisions made by those in power have shaped countries.
Other current issues in the tourism industry like sustainable travel, overtourism, and climate change all have political ties, too. Whether or not an airline is committed to carbon offsetting, whether specific destinations pass laws or raise tourist taxes to curb overcrowding, and which countries commit to tackling the climate crisis can all be traced back to government decisions.
A lot of environmentally-conscious bloggers and influencers talk to you about the importance of getting out and voting for people who will enact the types of policies you personally care about for this exact reason. We can tell you to ditch single-use plastics and take fewer flights all we want, but real meaningful change in environmental strategy has to come from the very top.
3. Travel and local economies
Speaking of things like sustainable travel, you can't ignore how your travels (and your tourism dollars) impact local economies, either.
In many places, tourism is a major industry; in some smaller countries, it might be the *main* industry. It's therefore naive to think that tourism (and the promotion of it) are not directly tied to politics.
No matter where you go in the world, there's a team of people employed solely to promote that city, state, region, or country to tourists. These people are often employed by a DMO (Destination Marketing Organization) or a CVB (Convention and Visitors Bureau). And in many cases, those DMOs and CVBs are government entities that receive funding through things like tourist taxes.
That hotel tax or resort fee or airport tax that gets tacked onto your reservation goes back to those DMOs and CVBs to further promote tourism. It's up to government employees higher up the food chain to decide how and where that money is spent.
They decide how and where to promote their destination, and in what mediums. They also decide how much those tourist taxes are (you've likely heard this talked about in recent years in places like Venice, where they've discussed adding on more taxes to try to control the amount of cruise tourists who flood into Venice each day in “normal times”).
If you've decided to visit a certain city or country based on a TV ad you saw or an Instagram campaign, then you've been influenced by a politically-driven decision.
None of these things are bad (I'm not sure if maybe this is all coming off as negative?); I just want you to be aware that it can all be traced back to politics.
4. Visiting national / state parks
So let's say you don't travel a lot internationally, and therefore don't think your travels are as political. Well, think again! Domestic tourism is political, too.
For example, if you've visited a national park, you've interacted with land that was set aside and is protected by the federal government. In the US, the National Park Service is a federal agency within the United States Department of the Interior. The government ultimately decides when new parks are added, or when certain protections might expire (like, remember how the Trump Administration has been selling off private land to mining/drilling companies?).
When you visit national parks, you're giving your money and support to a government organization. Sure, that government organization is protecting and preserving that land (which is good!), but it's still a part of the political landscape as well as the natural one.
This goes for state parks, too. The US has some incredible state parks, most of which are run and maintained by a state's Department of Natural Resources – which is (you've probably guessed it) a governmental department.
5. Politics and travel choices
Okay, okay, so far we've talked about all the technical ways that you engage with politics when you travel. But I can hear you saying, “Sure, but that doesn't FEEL like politics.” And you're right. Most of us hand over our passports and pay hotel taxes and accept national park fees without consciously making any political choices.
But what about when politics undeniably affects a person's travel choices?
For example, there are absolutely places that I will not travel based on politics. In general, I don't believe in “boycotting” destinations solely because I don't agree with the leader of a specific country (if I did, I wouldn't have been able to write about the US for the last four years!). But there are some parts of the world where I don't believe I can travel freely without my tourism dollars going straight into the coffers of a repressive government.
North Korea is an example of a place you won't see me visiting anytime soon. Though I'm sure the people of North Korea are lovely, there's no way for me to visit as a tourist without my entire trip being choreographed by the North Korean propaganda machine.
As a frequent solo female traveler, I often make decisions based on safety, too. There are some places where I know I'll have to dress differently, or follow different rules/laws as a women.
If I were lesbian or transgender? Then my travel decisions might be even more influenced by politics. For example, there are still many countries around the world where it's illegal to be gay. We are talking go-to-jail, punishable-by-death illegal to be gay. Can you imagine needing to research whether visiting a country with your spouse or significant other could get you arrested?
Politics and the laws that flow from it can also influence where disabled travelers choose to go. Again, this might not seem like “politics” on the surface, but all the accessibility laws out there exist because politicians decided they should.
6. Politics and business choices
This one is more specific to me as a travel blogger, but it's still worth mentioning. There are some places that I straight up won't visit. And then there are other countries that I would refuse work/money from if it was coming straight from the government, but would feel okay visiting on my own dime.
And yes, I have absolutely turned down projects in the past simply because I didn't want to enter into a contract with a tourism board attached to a government I don't agree with.
An example is that, while I would never take money from the government led by President Erdogan in Turkey, I would travel there on my own in order to write about it (and I have!).
Where I spend my money as a business owner in the travel industry is almost always a decision influenced by politics.
7. A more critical look at the place you call home
Mark Twain famously wrote that “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness,” and anyone who has traveled extensively is likely to agree with this.
The more you travel, the more you learn – about the world, about other human beings, and about yourself and all the things you still have to learn (or unlearn). I like to think that travel has the power to make (most) people more curious, open-minded, and tolerant.
One major way this happens is through chatting to locals in other countries. And what do people in other countries want to talk to an American about when they meet one? Politics, of course!
I've had discussions with people in other countries about US elections and the Electoral College; about our education system; about paid vacation time; and of course about healthcare. People love to try to understand the American for-profit healthcare system, and I've had some excellent conversations all around the world about everything from the cost of riding in an ambulance to how much it costs to have a baby (yes, we have to pay for that, and no, it's not cheap).
This all boils down to us being curious about what life is like in other parts of the world. On one hand, learning how other people live can make us extremely grateful for freedoms and privileges we might take for granted at home (hello, freedom of speech, and of the press!). On the other hand, it can also help us remove the rose-colored glasses we often view our home nations through.
It's good to be critical of the people and systems that run things in the places we call home. Nothing would ever change or improve otherwise.
Now, am I going to start writing a bunch of overtly political pieces here on my site? Unlikely; that's never been something I've focused on here.
But I WILL continue to state the following things: Climate change is real. Black lives matter. Women's rights are human rights. Love is love. The pandemic is not a hoax. And travel is undeniably political.
Thanks for coming to my TED Talk, and I hope you leave looking at how travel intersects with politics in a new way!
If you want to continue reading about this topic, here are some other posts from travel bloggers and travel writers you might be interested in. I find it really fascinating how we all say essentially the same things, just in slightly different ways:
- In Troubled Times, Travel Can Be a Political Act at Rick Steves – The man has literally written the book on how travel is political!
- Should Travel Bloggers and Influencers Voice Their Political Opinions? at The Shooting Star – Shivya is a beautiful writer, and talks about the duty influencers have to talk about the tough topics.
- No, I will not stop talking about politics on my travel blog at Adventurous Kate – Kate is well-known for frequently sharing her opinions on various issues, and I appreciate her for it.
- Why Travel Boycotts Are a Bad Idea at Nomadic Matt – This is not entirely about politics, but ties into some of the things I talked about in this post.
Thanks for reading. And if you still feel compelled to tell me to “stick to travel,” well, you can keep that comment to yourself!