In 2006 and 2007 I lived abroad in Coimbra, Portugal.
Those days were filled with morning espressos by the riverside, afternoons studying Portuguese Manueline-style architecture and late nights listening to the beautiful lyrics of traditional Coimbra fado.
As a Portuguese-American, visually, I fit right in. I got a “Euro-style” haircut (in this case a super angled and layered piece that verged on a mullet but looked muito giro), shopped exclusively at Zara and Bershka and acquired some cheap sunglasses at the local market. No one knew the better that I wasn’t actually from there.
That is, until I opened my mouth.
I cursed my American accent for giving me away whenever someone asked for directions, or what I would like to eat, or if they could assist me with anything. Not only did I feel “outed” as a foreigner, but my status as an American immediately opened me up to other conversations and questions.
“Ah, you’re American,” they’d say. And without hesitation: “So, what do you think about Bush?”
Travelers are Ambassadors
If you remember, George W. Bush was our president at the time and much of the world was displeased with some of his choices. As an American living abroad, I immediately became a representative of my country. I would be asked questions about American current affairs and, many times, felt completely unprepared to answer them.
Those moments come back to me strongly these days, when our world seems to be on fire and yet as travelers, travel creators and travel companies, we’re frequently discouraged from commenting on the issues. We’re told to remain “apolitical”, and to not mix travel with politics.
The sheer number of emails I received after sending out statements about Black Lives Matter or the insurrection in the U.S. Capitol — telling me to “stay in my lane” or asking what events like this had to do with travel — certainly speak to that sentiment.
But let me say something that should be said more frequently. It may be an unpopular opinion, but that makes it no less true:
These events have everything to do with travel. This is because travel itself is a political act.
I know we like to pretend it’s not. We like to pretend travel is about delicious food and sweeping landscapes and our gorgeous beach bods. And sometimes it’s true that that’s the only thing we’re thinking about in those moments.
But when we go to those sweeping landscapes and eat that delicious food and take selfies, it doesn’t take away any of the reality that we’re engaging in a society, or a community, that is not our own.
Wherever we travel — whether at home or abroad — we engage with a place and its centuries (sometimes millennia) of embedded history and culture, political movements, injustices and innovations that still affect our experience today.
Travel, in fact, is rooted in politics.
Lest we forget, politics were a large part of the reason that widespread travel began in the first place, especially right here in North America.
During the 1500s and into the Age of Exploration, travel was hugely politicized. While many believe the famed Pilgrims of Plymouth fled religious persecution in England and opted for the colonies, they were actually fueled by economic incentives. This was a common trend: the people who traveled to colonize lands did not do so out of a limitless desire to see and explore the world.
Their travel was encouraged by governments and facilitated by economic policies that offered an attractive alternative. That travel was part of national economic growth plans and desires of political expansion beyond current-day borders.
This was the story of most empires during this era, and many times that “discovery” was violent, rooted in power, displacement, and even genocide. It’s not lost on me that my own ancestors, the Portuguese, played a supreme part in this.
Who can travel today?
While we like to think that travel is much less violent today than it was when it first began (and realistically, it is), the reality is that travel is still an act of privilege and rooted in the voyeurism of other people and places.
It is still afforded to those with disposable income, and travel narratives largely still feature a white (if not male, young, straight, able-bodied) person as the one who is going out and seeing the world. Those who are not white are rarely invoked as the traveler in these stories, instead often representing the local community that is being traveled to.
Passport privilege — the decision of where you can travel based on what country you come from and what is allowed to you as a citizen of that nation — rests solely in the hands of political agreements, disagreements, and agendas.
It may be easy to forget, when we’re boarding a flight to our next destination, the many political agendas that have contributed to us being able to get on this plane at all — from getting a visa, to passing airport security, to even being able to afford a flight in the first place.
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Travel is about identity and culture — both of the people we’re visiting as well as our own.
As you saw in my story of living abroad in Portugal, travel isn’t just about exploring someone else’s culture and seeing it in a vacuum. Travel is not one-sided. We, as travelers, become part of the local narrative, and our own individual identity contributes to our interpretation of our travels.
I like to say that when we travel, we learn as much about the world as we do about ourselves.
We can’t quite leave who we are (or where we come from) at home. Instead, we bring our perspectives, our histories, our ideologies and our experiences with us, and those form a lens with which we experience our travels.
They also form a lens of how others see us. We may be treated differently in other countries based on how we look, and those treatments may be influenced by local biases, culture or political regulations.
As much as I like to think I’m a “fly on the wall” when I travel, my existence as a white woman and my various intersecting identities influence the way people treat me in the different places I visit, thus shaping my travel experience for better or worse.
When we “travel like a local”, we engage in others’ realities.
“Be a traveler, not a tourist” is one of the favorite phrases of travelers worldwide. It suggests that one type of travel is inauthentic and curated, while the other is real.
But if we choose reality, we must choose all of it. Traveling with a focus on “local” means not just that you’re looking for the local places to eat and shop, but that you’re engaging with locals’ realities and histories. You cannot filter the experiences you allow into your travels and call that travel authentic at the same time.
Travel is diving into other people’s worldviews. Many times, that worldview may not mirror your own; it will have been formed by different historical, political and social contexts. To suggest that travel is “apolitical” simply denies those histories altogether.
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The ways we choose to travel affect others’ economies and even government policy.
The thing that I both love about travel and that makes travel complicated is that every traveler is a significant investor in the industry.
In few other industries do we consistently spend thousands of dollars in one week, one day, or even in one transaction. Yet, as travelers, we do.
This means we have more responsibility than in other industries. We must think of our expenditures as investments in the travel industry we want to see.
This is not only because it affects how businesses evolve to fit market demand; it’s also because our choices can also affect governmental decision-making and policy-creation. Don’t forget that travel is arguably our world’s biggest industry, and the demands of our travel investors (us) have the ability to change entire systems.
A country facing a downturn in travel may question what it is doing wrong to repel travelers from its borders. A city seeing a huge uptick in eco-friendly and sustainable purchases may choose to focus more of its efforts in that arena for the sake of its economy and local business. These decisions may come in the form of policy and decisions made by our leaders.
Where and how we choose to spend that invaluable klout reflects our own values as travelers and as participants in these inequitable global systems.
Travel is an opportunity for us to be uncomfortable, to try new things, and to learn.
To open ourselves up to discomfort and personal introspection is one of the greatest gifts that travel gives us. Suggesting that travel is meant to be perfect, or that it is not political, erases the reality of what travel is: an opportunity to engage with our world, including all its imperfections.
And, if you’re really gutsy, travel is an opportunity to venture into making any of it just a little bit better.
It is easy to get caught up in the word “politics” and want to run from it as swiftly as possible. But the reality is that politics and political behaviors surround us every day, but most especially when we travel. Politics form the skeleton of the entire travel industry, deciding who can travel, how, and why, before we even start to think about our own bucket lists.
And perhaps, not unlike politics, each of us as travelers has a vote in where the travel industry goes — who it supports, who it benefits, who and what it defends. In this case, however, we vote not by casting a ballot but with our social influence and our money.
We cannot and should not try to run from the intersection of politics and travel, but rather run toward it. Because if we do not choose to shape our travel industry, who will?
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Perhaps not myself (Australian) but my American husband can relate to your Bush experiences as we go home nearly every year (sadly not 2020) and for several years after Obama was elected people would STILL ask him about Bush and in some cases even just assume that because he was American he voted for him. It was very frustrating for him, and thankfully he has the approach of not getting to caught up in it and answering questions in a manner that was factually based but also not condescending or aggressive. I really loved this article as staying engaged with the world and world affairs was something passed down to me from my dad and I think it has so much value as part of travel.
Thanks so much for sharing your (and your husband’s) experience, Liz! I do think it’s important to stay engaged, and also recognize that while we may not suited to be ambassadors we are still seen as one, and it’s important for us to manage these questions as best we can. Glad you gave it a read! -Beth
Great post, I had never really thought of travel as being political until recent times although I did recognise my privilege as a white British traveller. Thank you for highlighting these important issues.
Thanks for reading, Steph!
Being white Australian-Canadian with both passports I’ve been aware of my incredible privilege for a long time. It is easy for me to go just about anywhere and that is entirely political. And yet I’d never actually thought of it in those terms. SMH because it’s so obvious once you spell it out. And the settling of Australia was entirely political – England needed somewhere to put all those pesky prisoners; too many natives so we’ll just wipe them out or put them in chains makes me weep to think about it; and the Australian govt wanting to grow the population so offered very very cheap fares from England, and from specifically white countries in Europe. Yah, not a good record at all for all this travel, and all of it political.
An excellent article Beth, that really got me thinking, and once again remembering deep gratitude.
Hi Alison – as a white Australian/Brit with US citizenship I also share your sentiments with your post. Thanks for bringing those to my attention.
Glad you had a chance to read, Alison! I agree that it’s always good for us to take a moment to reflect on these things. We can get so caught up with travel sometimes that we forget. Appreciate you taking the time to write and share your story!
This article came in timely. It’s a good read and I got some lessons from this🤍
Glad to hear this, Charis!
I do believe that travelers have the responsibility of being ambassadors of their country. In every aspect, being in a foreign country is akin to interacting with that country’s political situation and learning about the way the country is governed. Travel is certainly interspersed with politics first, before the rest like learning about culture, tradition, etc. Any restriction imposed by a country is a political move. We follow their rules and regulations as well as maintain the dignity and respectability of our own countries.
Thank you for the article. I enjoyed reading your views here.
Thanks for commenting, Shobana! Completely agree. Sending all my best to you.
Travel is certainly interspersed with politics first, before the rest like learning about culture, tradition, etc. Any restriction imposed by a country is a political move. We follow their rules and regulations as well as maintain the dignity and respectability of our own countries.
I love your article very much