As an American, a lot of the messaging I received growing up had to do with what I could or should do to get ahead in this world. It’s a message that continues to be reinforced in the United States with rhetoric like “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” and encouragement to “look out for yourself.”
This “me vs. the world” mindset is magnified within the “us vs. them” reality spreading across much of the world today. We see this divisiveness as it relates to the climate crisis and action, racism and reparations, human rights and restrictions, technology integration and accessibility. Once upon a time, we used to say it takes a village to raise a child, but the thinking now seems to be that it's best to hedge your bets against the village in order for that child to get ahead.
Emboldened by outspoken politicians and forced to eke out an existence within a highly flawed system often stacked against the average person, lots of people are turning inward. They’re focusing on what they need to do to center their desires, protect themselves and their families above all else, and ensure that, at the end of the day, they’re able to reach their goals and achieve their dreams.
But for every further step toward individualism, we also move one step away from collectivism. And with the erosion of community, we fail to recognize or embrace the essential interconnectedness among people and between people and the natural environment.
The solutions to today’s challenges won’t be found by separating ourselves. Rather, they have the potential to be uncovered, supported, and appropriately applied when we, generally speaking, let go of our sense of entitlement and individualism. If we are willing to listen and learn from others and from nature, speak up as necessary and step aside as appropriate, give and receive help, and accept that we may need to sacrifice as individuals for the betterment of the community, we stand a chance at actually recognizing the regenerative ecosystem we all talk about and desperately need.
What does tourism have to do with any of this?
Tourism isn’t the end-all-be-all answer to the world’s problems. In fact, no tourism may be the solution at times. After all, what’s best for communities might not be what those working in tourism want.
However, insofar as tourism is a gateway to personal transformation, breaking down barriers between people, introducing new and surprising ways of thinking, and offering opportunities to connect with nature, then the industry is also in a powerful position to address the rise of individualism.
Here are a few of the ways industry partners can take advantage of this influence to strengthen that sense of togetherness and community.
Endorse community homestays.
People’s homes are among the most intimate spaces we inhabit. Homestays (spending the night in someone’s home) are an invitation for travelers to enter into that personal space and be part of those everyday routines that make us who we are.
There is often a bit of uncertainty around homestays. However, after both parties get over that initial bout of awkwardness, the organic conversations and activities that arise from these experiences are often those that travelers remember most. Nothing breaks down barriers faster than experiencing just how similar we all are … despite the different ways we live.
Build active learning opportunities into travel experiences.
From replanting coral reefs to cooking meals, active learning in a tourism context can help turn passive travelers into more engaged global citizens. As its name implies, active learning requires people to learn from others while also participating in an activity.
Not only are travel experiences fun and interesting, but active learning has also been shown to enhance the development of creative thinking, adaptability, communication, and interpersonal skills. It also requires giving up a bit of control and trusting in others — a tangential benefit on the road to revitalizing community.
Pay a visit to green spaces.
We can’t build our way out of the climate or biodiversity crisis. But we can learn a lot from Mother Nature if we’re willing to listen. With more people than ever moving to cities, it’s never been more important to get outside.
Even for those trips built around manmade enterprises — restaurants, nightlife, museums, and other attractions — it’s important to build in a little time for nature. Sit quietly, observe, breathe in the fresh air, and simply appreciate how nature enhances well being even in urban green spaces.
Create common gathering spaces.
Hostels have made budget travel possible for a lot of people, and they’ve also excelled in creating gathering spaces. Most hostels have communal kitchens and lounges where people hang out and get to know each other. It seems that, as people pay more for accommodations, they’re also paying to stay in their own isolated bubbles.
Accommodations that create inviting communal spaces with cozy seating, tables, group-friendly activities like games, and even light refreshments create the conditions for people to break out of those bubbles.
Encourage family-style seating or dining for meals.
Why have we let family-style dining go the way of the dinosaur? Sharing food — or conversation over food, or at least the table at which we eat — is a natural icebreaker.
I’ve been to a handful of restaurants over the years where people share long tables with strangers, and it’s never been a hostile experience. Occasionally, they’ve even resulted in friendly conversations. We can encourage these kinds of interactions in dining establishments throughout the world. Similarly, on tours where family dining is the norm, encourage people to sit with different folks at each meal.
Incorporate intentional conversations into tours.
When people think about travel activities, they don’t normally think about conversations. Yet, thoughtful, intentional conversations can add a powerful dimension to travel, especially if those conversations are with people who bring a new perspective to the table.
This is an area that Mejdi Tours excels in: Its dueling narratives experiences incorporate several intentional conversations across a wide range of local people. They thoughtfully build nuance into itineraries, encouraging travelers to engage in critical thinking and conversations with both diverse local guests and each other. While this is the specific point behind Mejdi’s trips, tour companies can add a couple conversations into itineraries and destinations can amplify diverse storytellers so travelers can easily do this on their own.
Invite visitors to help in property gardens or with other agritourism activities.
So many people sit down to a meal without any idea where their food came from. Even though food waste is a huge problem in tourism, there is also a huge opportunity to help people connect with food through tourism. Food doesn’t just magically appear, so if possible, give travelers a chance to learn about the path food takes to reach their plate.
Agritourism experiences (whether planting seeds, harvesting vegetables, or crushing wine grapes) encourage travelers to interact with farmers and appreciate the land from which their food comes. It’s a win-win scenario.
But what if travelers just want to be left alone?
Yes, there are people who have no interest or intention to interact with anyone when they travel. Yes, there are people who have a set agenda, and no amount of nudging will encourage them to change their minds. So, no, these suggestions aren’t a panacea to the challenges we face in the world today.
But, just as little actions and interactions can push us apart, they can also collectively bring us together. The intention isn’t to force people to do something: They can always choose not to use these spaces, join in on these experiences, or engage in these conversations.
However, if tourism partners across the industry make them available, then travelers have the option to participate in them — and together we can use tourism as a tool to chip away at the corrosive individualism splintering our society today.