In a time of border crises and tragedy, is it still OK to go on a vacation?

Maspalomas beach, Canary Islands.
Maspalomas beach, Canary Islands.
Image: Reuters/Borja Suarez
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As African migrants land on European beaches and Central American asylum-seekers are criminally prosecuted and separated from their children at the US border, the simple act of traveling for pleasure can seem an obnoxious display of privilege.

Each seamless border crossing is a reminder of how arbitrary the very concept of a national border is. And indeed, in 2018, moving across the world is getting easier for one set of people (those we call travelers or tourists) as it becomes unimaginably harder for others (those whose tragedies and plights are daily news fodder).

To be sure, it has always been the case that those with powerful passports can move across the world with a carefree ease that others could only dream of. Tech enhancements like Global Entry and the rise of low cost air travel have made that even more true. But in the past few years—starting with the refugee crisis that roiled Europe in summer of 2015—the gap between those privileged by nationality and those displaced by circumstance somehow feels wider. The sorrow and sacrifice of involuntary migration mingles uncomfortably with the Aperol spritzes of vacation.

If you’re someone with the freedom to travel, you might be asking yourself some hard questions right now: Should you avoid a location where your sunbathing could be interrupted by a migrant boat landing? Not go to a country where the hospitality you’d experience is in stark contrast to the harsh reception your homeland offers its citizens? Cancel your vacation altogether, and donate its cost to an organization helping refugees? There are no easy answers.

One thing that’s undeniably true, though: Staying home solves nothing. And it precludes the wider perspective that traveling can bring.

Of course, it’s easy to be irritated by travelers who tell of their adventures in cliched, hackneyed platitudes, or with a condescending, neo-colonialist attitude. But let’s not forget that travel can still be transformative when done with an open mind and spirit of curiosity. A meaningful conversation with a person you’d never encounter at home can yield a powerful shift in perspective, one that can add the essential context and empathy that the breathless 24/7 news cycle precludes. A trip abroad can force us to let go—even if only temporarily—of our calcified opinions in a divisive time. And this shift in perspective can even help us to see our own country, and its people, in a new light.

The late chef, writer, and TV host Anthony Bourdain described such a shift in 2011, on an episode of the podcast WTF with Marc Maron. Travel abroad, he said, helped him grant some grace to the grassroots ultra-conservative “Tea Party” movement then sweeping the US:

As a lefty democrat it’s really easy for me to see all of the things that I find scary and offensive about the Tea Party. But I guess because I’ve filmed in places like Saudi Arabia and Vietnam, Mainland China, I’ve broken bread with ex-KGB officers, ex-Viet Cong cadre, with people from very fundamentalist Muslim sects. I started when traveling around my own country to say ‘Listen, why can’t I be friends with Ted Nugent? Why can’t I find some common ground here?’ They’re angry, they’re scared, they feel disenfranchised, they feel the government has let them down. I don’t like how they’re manifesting it. I don’t agree with what they say. But I definitely understand anger, disenfranchisement.

Bourdain points to a fundamental truth of travel: that by removing ourselves from our country, our routines, and our daily life (as well as the relentless news cycle), we can allow more room for common ground, more openness to change, more slack to those we don’t agree with. These are all things that the world needs more of.

It’s perhaps the ultimate privilege of crossing national borders with ease: the opportunity to soften our own, internal borders.