Why you should travel overseas: How travel makes you a better person

Before I began to travel seriously at the age of 19, I was a half-formed person. A small-town country upbringing, limited exposure to news beyond the six o'clock variety, well-meaning but not particularly worldly parents: these were the trappings of my regular childhood. 

Then suddenly, with little warning, I was disembarking at Heathrow and strutting into London as if I owned the place, although really I was so naive that I even left my wallet in an airport toilet.

Brash confidence and cluelessness got me into some interesting situations. I was robbed in a Soho bar (passport, computer, hundreds of pounds) and on a train while travelling to Auschwitz (camera, Czech korunas). 

I was sexually assaulted by a supervisor in a Holborn pub, and was too polite to say anything. I accidentally went sightseeing in Ciudad Juarez, then the most dangerous city in the world, where killings were alarmingly frequent. 

I witnessed a drug sting in the Sonoran Desert just across the United States-Mexico border, watching a young man dragged off the bus, while I sat two rows behind eating a Snickers bar that had started to droop in the heat. I paid a man to lead me to peyote, the hallucinogenic cactus, then stood there poking it with a long stick, unsure of what I was supposed to do next.

I'm admitting my blithe ignorance here not because I'm ashamed, although did I really celebrate my 21st birthday in Times Square and think it was glamorous? (Yikes.) No, I'm admitting my gaffes because they made me who I am today. 

I was incubated in the Hunter Valley, just outside Sydney, but I learnt how to be a person by, for example, dancing on a cathedral rooftop in Mexico City on New Year's [Eve], and by walking daily past the Rosetta Stone, while I worked at the ticket desk in the British Museum, dazzled by a history I could scarcely comprehend.   

If I know anything at all, it is because I exposed the blank slate of myself to the world and allowed the world to leave its mark. Travel is life-changing. Taken seriously, it can change a person into someone unrecognisable, change everything about them from their accent to their moral compass.

Paul Theroux said it best: "You go away for a long time and return a different person – you never come all the way back." 


Perhaps this seems like a banal observation, but as tourism becomes increasingly commodified, focused on leisure, souvenirs and luxury, it strikes me as an important point to emphasise. Many people travel because they want to see something new, acquire new knowledge.

Travellers want to return home a little bit wiser, with an enlightened understanding of their place in the universe. In this way, I think, travel can make us better people. It is an antidote to small-mindedness and provincialism, or unsophisticated thinking.

I am reminded of this fact whenever I read those increasingly frequent accounts of somebody dismissing Muslims with a single blanket statement such as, "Islam is a religion of violence." Anybody who makes such generalisations has clearly never travelled much.

They have never been to Oman, for instance, where I once passed two illuminating weeks wearing a dishdasha​ in the Wahiba Sands and Nizwa​, learning about Ibadi Islam, a sect motivated by peaceful coexistence and the acceptance of other beliefs. Omanis were, without exception, welcoming and hospitable, about as far from al-Qaeda extremists as I was. The idea that one could dismiss them out of hand is ludicrous to me because I have met them face to face, individuals with hopes and aspirations.      

I could cite countless other examples, ways in which travel cancels out ignorance. Once, at an art gallery dinner in northern NSW, I sat next to a woman who was decrying those Sri Lankan Tamils crossing the Indian Ocean and tangling with our navy. Australian tourists are visiting Sri Lanka, the woman announced to the table, therefore everything is obviously fine and they have no valid claim for asylum here.

"Have you been to the Jaffna Peninsula?" I asked her. Many of the refugees were from the towns of Jaffna and Mullaitivu. She had not. If she had arrived in Colombo and headed north, away from the tourist hoards, who generally go south, perhaps she would have noted, as I recently had, the barbed wire rolled along beaches, and signs notifying pedestrians of live land mines, and heard about Tamils unfairly imprisoned and still prevented from returning to their homes several years after the official end of the civil war.

Perhaps, with a little travel, this woman would have been a more generous person, inclined to think deeply about why a person might risk their life crossing a vast and terrifying ocean on a rickety boat. Travel incites reflection. It is an education. It is harder to dismiss somebody when you've sat in their living room and eaten lunch, and harder to shrug off an entire population when you've driven through desperate shantytowns and felt the presence of despair. What I am trying to say is that travel exercises the empathy muscle, making it grow. 

Another reason travel makes us better is the exposure to history it provides. Walking through the ancient streets of Rome, examining skulls of Australopithecus​ in Nairobi, visiting universities five times older than white settlement in Australia. Travel can't help but burst our misguided presumptions of self-importance. It creates perspective. 

It is no coincidence, I think, that the most jingoistic nationalists often seem to be the kind of people who refuse to get on a plane or go anywhere except their own backyard. People are disinclined to hear any evidence that undermines their case. Ignorance is bliss, as the saying goes. Of course, Australia seems perfect, impossible to improve, and better in all conceivable ways than every other country, if you've never actually been to any other country.

Given this country's multiculturalism, visiting origin points such as Britain, Greece, Italy and Vietnam can only produce a richer, more nuanced understanding of home. It is hard to trumpet isolationism once you recognise that half of Australia's richness comes from somewhere else, that it was our willingness to open borders in the past that makes Australia an interesting and dynamic place today.

There is a flip side to all this, though. Treating travel purely as an exercise in self-improvement – an eat, pray, love-style pursuit of personal enlightenment – ignores a simple but indelible truth. Travel is not experienced in a vacuum. A person heading overseas affects countless others, from street beggars to entire towns. A traveller is like a stone dropped into a still pond, creating ripples they might not even notice.

Most of the time, these ripples have a salutary effect. Tourism provides money, jobs and opportunities. It can prop up entire economies that would otherwise sink into depression, and more than once I have seen it rescue indigenous groups from the brink of extinction, such as the Masai in Kenya, guiding people on safari, or Quechua speakers in the mountains around Ausangate​, building lodges to funnel tourist dollars into their community.

These ripples can also change cultures completely, turning people into luggage mules or the equivalent of zoo animals. There is nothing more depressing than seeing somebody reduced to the status of a sideshow attraction for visitors wanting to expand their knowledge.

Once, on Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, near the ruins of Chichen Itza​, I watched a group of Mayan woman dancing in a line with Corona bottles balanced on their heads. The dance was traditional, the literature claimed (not accounting for the beer), and the tourists watching the show had come expecting something culturally authentic.

I couldn't fault these tourists, who were simply trying to expand their horizons in a foreign country, but how awful it was. Their presence and desire, combined with the forces of market capitalism, had hollowed the dance of any meaning and produced a troupe of women who looked bone tired and miserable. Maybe you have seen a similar spectacle in Bali or a Honolulu resort.

I am not recounting this anecdote to discourage travel. Far from it. My point is that, for all its good, travel can also have lamentable repercussions. It is more ethically complicated than we might like to imagine.

But we should try to imagine it, this network of effects, such as what impact a cruise ship has on a Polynesian island, or how an influx of Westerners will change Cuba in the coming years now that the United States embargo has been lifted, because travel can illuminate the ways in which we are all connected.

"No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main," wrote poet John Donne. This, in my experience, is the most life-changing dimension of travel, the thing that resonates the longest. It's the reason it's more important than ever to pack your bags and book a ticket. 

See also: Six holidays that will change your life 
See also: Why getting the travel bug can be a blessing and a curse