Travel and Tourism as a Constructive and Positive Dialogue

The word ‘dialogue’ originates from the Greek term dialogos--‘to discuss’. In its purest form, it referred to a conversation between two people—the classic Socratic dialogue comes to mind. But if we broaden its definition to ‘communication’, the term covers a vast range of verbal, non-verbal, physical and mental activity through which one human being connects with another. In my paper, I wish to focus on travel as dialogue, with one specific question: can travel help us to overcome prejudice and hatred amongst peoples of the world?

At one time in the last century, 400 years after the Enlightenment, it seemed at last that reason and science would provide all the answers to overcome irrational human prejudice based on race, creed, religion, nation etc. Alas, no! The turbulent history of the last century—and the continuing violence today-- says it all. And despite evidence from the biological and genetic sciences, many people still believe that humans were created by God in 6 days, or that one type of human is somehow more acceptable than the other. Why is this so?

The answer lies in the realm of psychobiology. Superficial facts, casually collected, are loosely held in the surface cortical areas of our brain and can easily be altered or substituted by more recent information. But beliefs formed early in our lives and reinforced throughout childhood are become electrochemical impulses held in neuronal circuits wired and linked closely to the emotional centres deeper in the brain like the amygdala and the limbic system. Such beliefs are not changed easily through reasoned discourse or rational debate. This is evident when we look at what happens in parliaments and national assemblies around the world. When facts prove inconvenient to received opinion, the facts are simply ignored. We fear the unknown ‘Other’, quite unreasonably, and particularly so when times are bad.

So if prejudices and stereotypes cannot be changed through education and reason, is this then a counsel of despair? Fortunately, there is a remedy, one known throughout history to the great spiritual leaders, creative artists and scientists. This remedy is personal and direct subjective experience. Such experiences can transform deeply held opinions, reveal new insights and open fresh perspectives. Biases accumulated through years of unquestioning acceptance of a prevailing cultural stereotype can fall away after a period of intense personal exposure to that culture. Such an experience is more than a perception or an intellectual appreciation; it combines elements from all the five senses together with reason, emotion and instinct, and that is why it has such power. This combined assault on the neuronal system shakes up deeply-held connections, and allows new neuronal linkages to form in the brain, which can reveal themselves as startling new insights, indeed as revelations.

Travel and tourism in the modern world has the potential to play the same transformational role that pilgrimages, great trading journeys and voyages of exploration did in ancient times. Travel at that time meant journeys that lasted years, often undertaken in the face of danger and difficulty. Travel today has become safe and inexpensive enough for over 800 million people to travel each year as ‘tourists’. Some years ago, such mass tourism meant large tour groups who were shepherded from site to site, with little contact, if any, with the locals. Today, with modern technology and low-cost fares, it is possible to create customised travel programmes to suit every individual taste, and yet largely retain the cost advantages of group travel. This has resulted in an enormous explosion in what is known as ‘special-interest travel’, covering a range of activities from spiritual tourism to mountaineering, trekking, wildlife, nature trails and cultural tourism. The aim of such travel is no longer just ‘to see and to tick off as having seen’ but ‘to experience the true authenticity of exploration’. As such interests are shared worldwide, special interest travellers generally develop deep feelings of fellowship with other enthusiasts, be they local residents or travellers from other parts of the world. Such feelings arising out of authentic travel are instrumental in changing mindsets, as I illustrate now with one example from history and one from my own personal experience.

The first historical character is Francis Younghusband—a British imperialist, soldier and explorer of the Victorian age—who was commissioned by the then Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon, to participate in the ‘Great Game’ against the Russians. His early exploits included a journey from Peking to Rawalpindi across the deserts and mountains of Xinjiang culminating with his crossing of the redoubtable Muztagh pass. His military pacification and survey work in Gilgit, Hunza and the Karakorum made him a natural choice to lead an armed expedition in 1903 to Lhasa, ostensibly to pre-empt the Russians, instigated (the British feared) by Agvan Dorjieff. Overcoming weak Tibetan resistance (with unnecessary force), the British pushed on to reach Lhasa, where the Tibetans were compelled to sign a treaty making many concessions. During a year in Tibet Younghusband got to know the Ganden Tripa (Abbot of Ganden Monastery) who gifted him a bronze Buddha, which never thereafter left his side.

Yet this man, steeped in war and espionage, experienced a remarkable epiphany on his last day in Lhasa. As he sat on a rock on a fine Tibetan summer’s day gazing at the Himalayas, he felt “far more than elation or intensity of joy and a revelation of the essential goodness of the world....and convinced past all refutation that men were good at heart, that the evil in them was short, that men at heart are divine.” This transformation was permanent. When he returned to England soon after, he turned to humanism, philosophy and spirituality, befriending Bertrand Russell amongst others. Amongst the role models of this ex-imperialist were Swami Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Raja Rammohun Roy, and he became an early and ardent campaigner for Indian independence. He had long conversations with Tagore, Gandhi and Verrier Elwin. Even when he assumed the Presidency of the prestigious Royal Geographical Society in London and established the Everest expeditions of the 1920s, he kept Indian interests in mind. Indeed, in those years he was regarded as somewhat of a ‘geographical ambassador’ for Great Britain and especially an expert advisor on India. When he died, the Buddha of the Ganden Tripa was still at his bedside.

The second story relates to a school exchange programme organised by me every year for the last 5 years between Indian and Chinese students.15 Indian school children from Delhi, aged about 17 years, visited Kunming, capital of Yunnan Province in Southwest China for three weeks as guests of the Chinese counterpart school. Each child stayed at the home of a local student, thus experiencing at first hand the atmosphere of Chinese family life. They spent time during the day at school, taking as well as giving lessons, and participating in a variety of sporting, social and cultural activities. The children were overwhelmed by the affection and care they received from their fellow students, teachers and parents. They displayed their skills in Indian arts and customs with pride, and were open to learn from their new friends as well. They became stars at the local TV and radio stations and gave interviews with practised ease! Chinese grandfathers could soon demonstrate a little yoga along with taichi during their morning walks. By the end of the trip, the partings were indeed tearful. Similar experiences were reported by the Chinese students who were their counterparts as visitors to India.

What happened before and after this trip is equally interesting. Before the journey, the parents of the Indian children had been particularly anxious. Apart from the usual worries about health, safety and food (Indians have a complicated list of food preferences!) they were concerned about whether the children would receive a friendly welcome. Would the hosts be warm? Would Tibet come up? What about the language barrier? After the children returned, they made a presentation of their experiences to the school assembly including the parents. The change in parental attitudes was dramatic. Some of the parents even asked me how to arrange a tour so that they, in turn, could experience China! The most moving reaction was from a grandfather who had fought in the 1962 Sino-Indian war, and so had been highly sceptical, if not fearful. He had only agreed to let his grand-daughter go on the trip as she pleaded that all her friends would be part of it. His emotional response after hearing her account: “I never knew this could be possible...…my image of China has changed”. This, I think, illustrates the power of travel as experiential learning, and is the ultimate accolade.

From these and many other examples, I am convinced that mutual understanding and fellowship amongst peoples can be greatly enhanced through travel experiences. In particular, we must focus on young people. Let a million dialogues bloom, with each being confined not by boundaries but only by the imagination. Within large and complex multi-ethnic countries too, like India, Russia and China, the integrating power of travel and tourism even within their vast boundaries, will be apparent. Rather than treaties or diplomats, the modern day traveller, armed only with his backpack and camera but above all a respectful and open attitude, is probably our best ambassador for a peaceful and harmonious world.