The commodification of travel

In today’s postmodern world, the prevailing paradigm is that travel abroad can solve all your problems and help you find your soul. There are so many stories of people who quit their jobs and sold everything to travel the world. These individuals see travel abroad as some kind of spiritual odyssey to find their true selves buried under the trappings of their capitalist, consumerist societies (overflowing wardrobes, sleek cars, fancy houses, stashed bank accounts, and/or full-time jobs).

For these travelers, foreign countries become exotic stages for personal quests. They head to the jungles of Borneo even though they are afraid to step into the concrete jungles of Harlem. They travel to Italy, India, and Bali with well-thumbed copies of Eat, Pray, Love. They climb Macchu Picchu just to snap selfies with the ancient city in the background and think they travel off the beaten path when nameless thousands have trod before them.

These individuals clamor for “experiential travel” in cultures that are wholly foreign to their own. These travelers become cultural voyeurs,  taking random pictures of things they do not understand, unwittingly exoticizing the people they claim they want to get to know.

No other photo says this better than that National Geographic shot of an ordinary Afghan girl in a refugee camp. Seventeen years later, photographer Steve McCurry and journalist Cathy Newman track her down. They confront the nameless girl, now a woman, to tell their version of her story.

In “Afghan Girl: A life revealed” Newman writes:

“She remembers the moment. The photographer took her picture. She remembers her anger. The man was a stranger. She had never been photographed before. Until they met again 17 years later, she had not been photographed since.”

Newman continues:

“She cannot understand how her picture has touched so many. She does not know the power of those eyes.”

Sharbat Gula, formerly known as the Afghan girl for almost two decades, is justifiably angry. In 1985, her terrified gaze earned profits for National Geographic and accolades for McCurry.

According to Patrick Holland and Graham Huggan in Tourists with Typewriters: Critical Reflections on Contemporary Travel Writing, most travel writing tends to be ethnocentric. People, places, and cultures become the exotic backdrops to bloggers’ quests to find themselves. Through the traveler’s lens, local people become caricatures and landscapes become sterile and photogenic, stripped of unsavory histories.

For example, many foreign travelers romanticize my home country, Trinidad and Tobago, as a place of friendly locals and pristine beaches without seeing the reality: pollution, crime, corruption, and other Third World problems. For others, India becomes the land of spiritual enlightenment, without recognizing its real issues of poverty, sexual violence, and gender inequality.

Similarly, do we stop and question the motives behind our travels? Holland and Huggan point out that travel writing is sometimes an expression of the traveler’s economic advantage and power over the host people and culture. When travelers boast about how cheap South East Asia is, do they realize that it’s so cheap because they are so economically privileged? What about the locals who live in these destinations and can’t afford to live like kings in their own countries?

Because of their economic advantage, traveler identities soon become enmeshed with how many countries they can tick off off the bucket list. Haven’t we seen/heard this charade before?

“So how many countries have you visited?”


“Oh really? I’ve been to one hundred. Have you ever visited Namibia?”


“You haven’t traveled unless you’ve camped in the desert there.”

We need to stop commodifying travel in this way. Countries are more than just stamps in your passport. Travel isn’t a contest for people to one-up one another with more outrageous experiences/off the beaten track destinations. Peoples, places, and cultures are more than what we see with our myopic personal lenses and travel should be more than a hodgepodge of voyeuristic impressions on the ‘gram. Travel should challenge us and what we believe in. It should force us to interrogate how we perceive others and how we are perceived. It should change us for the better.

What do you think? Share your comments!




16 thoughts on “The commodification of travel

  1. I couldn’t agree with you more! It seems like a constant competition to reach as many countries in as little time. The thing is, many of these exotic countries as you say, aren’t exotic to the people living there. Instead they face the same issues, sometimes worse, just with more sunshine. It kind of incenses me when I hear someone say their idea of paradise is to sleep on a beach hut in Thailand somewhere, not knowing this is someone’s everyday’s existence!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Exactly! And trust me, if you have to sleep in your beach hut your entire life, you would get fed up of the mosquitoes and heat eventually (speaking from the experience of living on a Caribbean island).


  2. This has crossed my mind but I haven’t delved in it deeper like you did. My husband and I travel for the experience. It’s fun to collect memories together and experience a world different than ours. Every single one of our travels is eye-opening and I think it has changed us for the better. Still, I’m not sure if I’m one of those who you categorize as commodifying travels but I hope not. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Such a beautiful post! I definitely agree with you and I really wish I could travel more the way you describing it. If you would follow my travel you would see me as a girl who just collecting stamps in passport and photos on instragram. And the true is I always try see as much as I can, I am trying to walk the whole time to explore more than just what we see in travel guides, I read about the history of the place I am visiting and I am always trying to get in touch with the locals to find out more. Sometime I just wish I have more time to explore, stay few more days and see hows the life really is over there

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ada, you have described the conundrum many travelers face. They don’t have enough time to really immerse themselves and learn from the cultures they visit. I think it’s one of the pitfalls of mass tourism today.


  4. This is an incredibly thoughtful piece of writing, which i think will be confronting to any traveller or travel writer. I too remember the photograph, and there was always something that didn’t sit right with me. As much as I try and be respectful, moving silently through places I travel, I often reflect on what mass tourism has done to the world.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. A very brave article. In social media era, travel has become more about posting in Facebook and Instagram than immersing yourself in a new place and culture. I don’t blame them, some people are easily influenced by commercialism. But we are also not in the position to judge their way or purpose of traveling. To each his own.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I totally agree I don’t know how many times I have read about people quit their jobs and sold everything to travel the world. Though I think each to their own when it comes to travel and what people want and trying to achieve as long as they are respectful. I have seen the original photo of the Afghan girl in a refugee camp by photographer Steve McCurry, he had an exhibition in Slovenia that I saw when I was travelling.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Woahhh you spoke my heart…I have always wanted to travel different countries and know the people and their culture in real than just seeing the beautiful pictures on the internet. Now that we started travelling we are learning alot and every place we travelled is an eye-opener for us which is good 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I loved and enjoyed this article so much – its so east to get caught in the trap and forget the bigger picture – I would love to feature this on my blog please advise how I can go about getting permission to do this.

    Liked by 1 person

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