The irresistible dream of travel
Why do we travel?
The traditional answer is ‘to broaden our minds’, but this collapses about as quickly as a sandcastle in the tide. I started writing my book The Escape Industry partly because I wanted to look at travel as a consumer experience, as something many of us acquire in the same way that we shop for sharp clothes or well-designed furniture.
Almost from the very beginning, the purveyors of travel have insisted that it has a noble purpose. The Grand Tourists of the 18th century were encouraged to polish their educations while visiting the sites of classical antiquity. But the same period witnessed an early information explosion, which among other things resulted in more books. Many of them were travel accounts. A new social class had the money and the leisure time to read – and travel. Taking a Grand Tour may have been educational, but it was above all fashionable.
A century later, Thomas Cook invented the travel brochure for the same reason. A printer as well as a preacher – Cook was a fervent advocate of the Temperance movement – he found that more people would sign up for his package tours if he could make them daydream with his writings. Cook’s industrial age target market were factory workers who regularly escaped the misery of existence by crawling into a bottle. Cook offered them an alternative exit, as temporary as drunkenness but far healthier.
Cook accepted that escape was one of the main drivers of travel. In the 20th and 21st centuries, however, travel companies have preferred to insist that travel will make us better people – and the world a better place. In 1955, Juan Trippe – the founder of Pan Am and one of the heroes of my book – insisted that humankind would be enriched by ‘the air tourist, charged with curiosity, enthusiasm and goodwill, who can roam the four corners of the world, meeting in friendship and understanding the people of other nations and races’.
I think we can all see how that worked out. Today, Airbnb has a similar pitch, promising travellers that staying in a real home with a local host will enable them to truly understand a destination. In campaign after campaign, the travel industry offers us the chance to reinvent ourselves, to become more ‘open’. Hyatt’s latest effort, launched earlier this year, bears the tagline ‘For a World of Understanding’.
Other campaigns suggest that we will become cooler, calmer, more sophisticated versions of ourselves. The ‘well-travelled’ person is somehow superior to the one who prefers to kick back in an armchair with a paperback and a cuppa.
The pressure on us to travel well – indeed, to travel excellently – has been increased by Instagram. How many of you had Instagram envy this summer as you scrolled through your friends’ perfectly composed images of their holidays? Or perhaps you were the one doing the ‘Insta-bragging’? It’s not surprising that travel companies all have their own Instagram accounts, and encourage customers to populate them.
To a certain extent, Instagram has become as divorced from reality as travel brochures. No trip can be as perfect as those depicted in this digital dream world. For a start, as the philosopher Alain de Botton once pointed out, we’re obliged to take ourselves on each trip with us. We have to deal with our back pains and bickering, our digestion disorders and sunburns. And it’s noticeable that Instagram feeds tend not to show the line at airport security.
Of course, there are as many different travellers as there are trips. There’s no doubt that travel broadens some minds. But I suspect that most of us travel for other reasons. For bragging rights. For excitement. For variety. For the weather. For escape.
The travel industry sells us a dream as effectively as the fashion industry does. And just as an item of designer clothing often looks better on the page than it does on us, frequently the best part of travel is thinking about it long before we’re due to leave. Or recalling it through the forgiving filter of memory.
About the author:
Mark Tungate is a British journalist based in Paris. He is the author of several books, including Fashion Brands and Adland. His articles have appeared in publications including Campaign, Advertising Age, The Financial Times and The Daily Telegraph. He is a regular contributor to the ad industry intelligence site AdForum and editorial director of the Epica Awards, where journalists celebrate excellence in design, advertising, PR and content.
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