Why I Travel: Television Made Me Do It!

Just for the record, let me first say that I’m a fan of the Viator travel blog and an avid daily reader. With that said …

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I read Scott McNeely’s recent piece entitled Why We Travel and I have to say that it struck a real chord with me. It’s condescending, self-righteous and just plain irritating.

In much the same way that my grandparents heralded disco music and bell bottoms as the end of civilization and my parents thought my first Nine Inch Nails CD was my fast track to Satanism, Mr. McNeely blames the imminent and ultimate demise of “real” and fulfilling travel among today’s youth on (what else?) television:

Have you noticed the latest trend in travel?

This deceptive opener really should be:

Have you noticed the latest trend in travel television?

Television in Air

The post has little to do with what’s wrong with travel and everything to do with what the author feels is wrong with travel television. If there’s some correlation or connective tissue between the two, Mr. McNeely fails to lay it out for us. He instead makes the naive and baseless presumption that, because travel television is bad (his sentiment, not mine), it certainly must be influencing the impressionable minds of today’s traveling youth.

TV executives know a good thing (read: money maker) when they see one, and the combination of far-flung locations and people doing all sorts of stupid things was ”” and still is ”” a tempting concept. Witness the latest crop of reality shows. I’m talking about 1,000 Places to See Before You Die, Bizarre Foods, The Best Places to Find Cash and Treasure, Man vs. Wild, I Shouldn’t Be Alive, Going Tribal, Everest: Beyond the Limit, Survivorman …

And here’s the rub: these shows are inspiring an entire generation to make bad travel decisions.

[insert jukebox record scratch here]

Huh? How’d we make that leap? Without prejudice to the inane assumption that there is some objective and universal list of good travel decisions, where are the examples of this growing epidemic among young travelers because I have to admit it’s certainly news to me?

These shows represent a narrow slice of niche travel programming. I happen to like Bizarre Foods and Survivorman among others, and I can assure you such programming will not detract from my travels. I’ve personally written reviews deriding shows like 1,000 Places to See Before You Die as hollow, overly polished drivel. As have others.

Just because I’ve played Grand Theft Auto and seen a Ludacris video once or twice doesn’t mean I need to pimp slap a ho or bus’ a cop on the way to Target. Likewise, I can’t say that Tony Bourdain’s eating bugs and durian in Vietnam is the driving force behind my want to visit Asia. Nor has Les Stroud‘s scraping by on his wilderness survival techniques for a week in the Arctic Circle inspired me to visit Northern Canada. Believe it or not, not all young people are blindly influenced by the “stupid things” we see on The Television. Clearly, today’s young travelers are far more sophisticated than you understand and give them credit for.

As someone who spends a great deal of time writing this travel blog and reading scores of reviews, industry websites, and other travel blogs, I can tell you that these shows are most certainly not the impetus behind many a young person’s desire to travel. Not the folks with whom I correspond on a daily basis.

Go read Hedgehogs Without Borders, Brave New Traveler, The Daily Transit, et. al. Or any of the blogs in my blogroll for that matter – blogs which I guarantee are quite representative of today’s sophisticated traveling youth. Then come back and tell me how travel television is rotting our brains and forcing us to make “bad” travel decisions. These blogs are smart, witty, and cleverly written by passionate young travelers who couldn’t give two hoots about what Andrew Zimmern is eating, let alone allow their travels to be dictated by same.

When I started backpacking, travel was all about discovering new cultures, interacting with locals, becoming better people. My generation was weened on Lonely Planet. We were all about discovering ourselves, and the world, through travel.

And that’s why we travel. To learn. To make new connections. To gain new experiences and to grow as individuals

You’ll forgive me, Mr. McNeely, but what gives you the right to force your self-righteous reasons for travel down the throats of us “young people”? I’ll be the judge of why I travel, thank you very much. Frankly, all this hemming and hawing about how today’s youth “should’ve traveled back ___ years ago when you were traveling – back when travel was real and fulfilling” sounds eerily like some mutant strain of Kathmandu Syndrome to me.

Sure, times change. People change. But to imagine some objective and historically precise Golden Age of Travel to which we’ll never return – the devolution of which we can surely blame on television – is not only philosophically lazy, but just wrong.

At the end of the day, travel television is just that: television. So relax.

Founding Editor
  1. Something tells me Mr. McNeely “walked to school in 3 feet of snow, uphill both ways. Oh, and he wants you damn kids off his lawn.

  2. Steve, to be fair, I don’t wish to slam Mr. McNeely personally. I’m a fan of his work and the rest of the team at Viator.

    But your point is well taken – his post reminds me of my Tennessee grandfather shooing the damn neighborhood whipper snappers off his lawn, while chewing a grass shoot from the comfort of his homemade rocking chair.

  3. Mr. McNeely grew up in LA, so don’t take any of that up the hill in snow crap from him. But I have to say, you’d be surprised at the amount of people who take their travel cues from tv — and from that perspective, I agreed with a lot of what his post said. I see the search trend data and the buying trends on Viator’s site, and there’s often a heavy correlation to tv shows and movies and travel to their settings. I think a question we all might want to ask is why do we feel the need to see in person what we already saw on tv? The characters and drama aren’t there, its just a setting, yet it acts as some sort of mecca for travelers. Why?

  4. Hi Mike. First off, I love your post. My feelings are not hurt, I think this sort of thoughtful debate / discussion is what the blogosphere is all about. And it’s nice to hear you’re a regular reader of the Viator travel blog. Thanks.

    OK, now for my reply. I think some of your points are valid. If all you know about me is gleaned from that blog post, I can see why you think I suffer from “walked to school in 3 feet of snow” syndrome.

    But let me ask you this — how old are you? My guess is, you’re in your mid- to late 20s. If that’s true, then you’re actually not part of the “problem”. Obviously, you are a serious traveler with an open mind, and I don’t think that TV is to blame for your taste in travel, music, etc. Go listen to your NIN albums, you won’t get any hassles from me.

    You see, I have a sister. I was in LA last weekend at her high school graduation. It’s her age group that worries me. I was talking to many of her friends, all of whom are “traveling” this summer. And here’s the interesting part. About half of her friends are going to Europe to shop. I wish I were kidding.

    And the other half, they fall into two groups. One group is doing US-based road trips. Hooray, that’s very cool.

    And the other group, well, I met one 18-year-old who is planning a trip to Borneo because “that’s where they filmed Survivor”. Any other reasons? Nope. Does he know what country Borneo is in? Nope. Does he know what language they speak there? Nope.

    I met another of her friends who is planning a trip to Mexico with the stated goal of “doing some weird shit so I can make a video and get into Princeton”. That’s nearly a direct quote. This kid didn’t get accepted to his #1 school, so now he’s going to Mexico to do some weird shit for You Tube. What did he mean? Well, the best he could say was “eat some grass hoppers, steal a car, walk across the desert.” Again, I wish I was kidding. I am not.

    So my point, Mike, is more about the generation who’s in high school right now. The 16, 17 and 18 year olds who confuse reality and TV in a way that I never did.

    If I’m wrong, and if you really are 17 or 18, then forgive my presumption. Otherwise, here’s my challenge to you: go find a few high school students, talk to them about travel, and tell me what you think. This debate is not philosophical for me. It’s very real. My sister is living proof.

  5. Thanks for checking in, Kelly. I don’t doubt that search trends have indicated a spike in TV-influenced travel since the advent of reality television. But, for me, thinking it’s an epidemic is a bit hard to believe.

    Stepping back to the analogy in my original post, there will always be people who imitate the “stupid things” they find in video games, reality TV, music videos, etc. But I think we can agree that they’re most certainly a narrow exception to the rule.

    I think a question we all might want to ask is why do we feel the need to see in person what we already saw on tv? The characters and drama aren’t there, its just a setting, yet it acts as some sort of mecca for travelers. Why?

    -Kelly

    Again, I just can’t see that this is an epidemic among travelers – young or old. I think, if they happened to be in the area, the average person would be content to detour to some spot where their favorite movie was shot. Or their favorite band was from, etc. But is the majority of young travelers thinking, “Yes, I’ll spend several thousands of dollars to travel to Borneo just because Survivor was filmed there and I need to see it!” I’m just not buying it.

  6. Hey Mike – really thoughtful post, and thanks for the shout-out.

    Mr. McNeely brings up some valid points. But I think what he’s done is mistake the mainstreamers for the travelers, and overlook trends that are cross-generational.

    True, there are probably a ton of girls who watch way too much MTV think shopping in Europe sounds fantastic – but I bet a walk around your office would prove most women feel the same way.

    Traveling off the beaten path has never been the popular thing to do, that’s why it’s called “off the beaten path.” It’s not suprising to me that in a snapshot of random high schoolers there are some who want to go where Survivor was filmed, or do some crazy shit in Mexico. That’s immature kids who saw some crap on TV, and that story is nothing new.

    But a deeper investigation would probably find kids at 16, 17, 18 who are well-versed in Lonely Planet and have meaningful travel aspirations. I knew when I was 15 I wanted to live for a while in South Korea – we had MTV and terrible reality shows back then, I just didn’t watch them.

    The truth is that mainstream American culture, as a whole, does not really embrace travel in the truest sense of the word – and it never has. Jack Kerouac was just mad before he was hip, and it was the rare person who understood why Simon Winchester would want to travel the length of Korea on foot. Travelers have always been a bit on the fringe…and we like it that way.

  7. I agree with you that these TV shows don’t necessarily represent why people, namely young people, travel today; I also don’t mean to prescribe any moral advice about the how and where and why one should travel. However, I do share McNeely fear that some of these shows turn places into mere stops on a global gameboard (I have Amazing Race in mind, mostly). And even though I couldn’t help but chuckle at Bourdain’s episode on Vietnam (where I grew up), there was something disturbing about the way he turned it into his own Bondian adventure. On a slightly different note, I have always been annoyed by how some Americans treat their vacations; when they say, for instance, that they’re going to Mexico, they mean two weeks in an all-inclusive resort and frequent inebriation at Senior Frogs; Mexico, for them, offers only its weather, beaches, and perhaps cheap touristy souvenirs (not to mention a more liberal drinking age). As the world becomes a smaller place, are other destinations serving the same banal purpose?

  8. Scott: I appreciate your thoughtful reply. And to be sure: I don’t believe you to be one who suffers from “walked to school in 3 feet of snow” syndrome. I’ve read plenty of your other writings and I have a better sense of who you are than what I may have gleaned from this one post. Even if you were that way, there’s a special place in my heart for old curmudgeons anyway. =P

    So my point, Mike, is more about the generation who’s in high school right now. The 16, 17 and 18 year olds who confuse reality and TV in a way that I never did.

    I’m 27 years old so I’m evidently not part of the “problem”. Perhaps I’m on the cusp of an age where I still wishfully consider myself part of that younger generation. =P Even were I part of the younger generation, I still wouldn’t have taken personal offense to the piece.

    My issue is when someone makes a very broad assumption about a very broad demographic (in this case high school age “travelers”) with only a tiny slice of anecdotal evidence. I appreciate that your sister and her friends don’t share your idea of “good” travel decisions. But for me the only thing that proves is that … your sister and her friends don’t share your idea of “good” travel decisions. It says very little about the millions of other students who do share your travel values.

    Case in point: four of my younger cousins all traveled recently to various parts of the globe for intensive high school language study – Chile, France, Spain, etc. They’re all taking advanced language courses and one is even double-majoring in French and Spanish while still in high school. I don’t think any of them could name a single cast member on Survivor, et. al. never mind allow such drivel to influence their travels. By your logic, I could submit this as proof that most high school kids make “good” travel decisions.

    I’m honestly not trying to be a smartass, but I hold logic and debate in very high esteem. And when judgment about an entire demographic is based solely on a few off-the-cuff conversations with members of same … well that’s not a very compelling argument in my book. Isn’t it likely that your sister hangs out with like-minded people? Did you happen to have a similar conversation with any of the several hundred other kids at her graduation?

    Like the very niche travel programs you mention in your post, your conversations are examples of the motivations of a small niche minority.

    Where that leaves us, I’m not sure. I suppose the questions is: where do we go for definitive proof that reality television is rotting our kids brains? I think we can certainly agree on one thing: it’s definitely doing more harm than good.

  9. The truth is that mainstream American culture, as a whole, does not really embrace travel in the truest sense of the word – and it never has. Jack Kerouac was just mad before he was hip, and it was the rare person who understood why Simon Winchester would want to travel the length of Korea on foot. Travelers have always been a bit on the fringe … and we like it that way.

    – Ben

    Spot-on and perfectly poignant as always, Ben.

  10. Fair enough, all. It seems like we all have homework. I need to speak to more teenagers (granted, the 79 people graduating in my sister’s class generally come from wealthy families and are definitely not representative of an entire generation).

    That said, everybody else has as assignment, too. Go talk to some teenagers, and engage them in a discussion about travel. Everybody who has commented all sound like we believe in pretty much the same ‘vision’ of what travel is, can be, should be, should not be. So go talk to some real teenagers, see what they have to say, and share your own views on travel. Who knows, maybe you’ll inspire somebody to go explore the world and discover new people and ways of living, which really is the whole point of why we travel in the first place.

  11. LOL, Scott that is a tough one. I try to avoid teenagers as much as possible, which is difficult when I have 2 of my own. I agree, though, if you can make an impression on a teenager, and give them something to think about, it would be a great thing. My boys have heard it all from me, so I should probably start to engage their friends now. Does this homework have a due date? I’m really good at procrastinating!

  12. That sounds like a pretty darn good idea to me, Scott. It actually might be a decent cause to start a NGO. Lol … Perhaps we can have satellite offices in countries around the world to ensure that our youth isn’t straying too far and using moronic reality TV as a guidebook to fuel their travels?

    It would be interesting to talk with 100 different American high school kids to get their perspectives on travel in general. Do they have travel aspirations? If not, why not? If yes, what inspired them? Etc.

  13. Stacy: I hope for your sake, your kids aren’t looking over your shoulder =P. Seriously though, they’re lucky to have a mom like you who instills in them the value and ethics of travel.

  14. It’s pretty funny that we read people presenting themsekves as alleged experts who have spoken to their sister, and that is the basis for articles that we are to accept as thoroughly researched and factual.

  15. Thanks Bill. I’m surprised you didn’t leave a spam link to one of your websites, or your son’s website. Oh well, better get back over to Flickr and carry on your spammy ways.

  16. It’s called link baiting, Bill, you know, when a person posts links back to their own commercial website pretending they’re an average Joe recommending something. It’s pretty easy to suss out, luckily. I feel bad having a snit here on the Vagabondish blog, so why don’t you hop over to the Viator Blog, be upfront about who you are, and I’ll be happy to continue this argument with you.

  17. I have demanded a retraction. Please issue a retraction. The comment box on this web site has fields for name, email, and website. I entered “Bill Windsor,” which is my name. I entered [email protected](mypersonalwebsite), which is my email and has been for 10 or so years, and I entered http://www.roundamerica.com, which has been my web site for 5+ years. I have not pretended I am an “average joe.” I didn’t recommend anything. In my opinion as a magazine publisher, conference producer and owner/operator of publishing companies for over 15 years of my career, your article seemed to me to be lacking proper research. In my opinion, you have libeled me by accusing me of spam. Now you have seem to have accused me of posting links back to my own commercial website pretending I am an average Joe recommending something. is that what you are accusing me of? If so, please issue a retraction, or provide facts to back up this claim.

  18. I’m so very sorry Bill Windsor, clearly I must have been mistaking you for somebody else. I hereby issue a full retraction. Of course, now you owe me one, for opening the door to inserting your URL in the above post. Nice one, even if it is no-follow! Sadly, I am unsubscribing to comments now, this conversation is dead to me.

  19. Mr. McNeely, thank you for the retraction even though you have clearly made false statements in it. You know exactly who I am and who I was when I posted. I owe you nothing. I provided proof of your false statements and if one of those pieces of proof appeared as a hyperlink, that’s how this site is set up…not a sinister plot, and you know it.

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