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Is travelling noble? Or: “The Emperor’s New Clothes”

There’s a school of thought, today as in the past, that sees travelling as noble: The more you travel, the better you are as a person. It broadens the mind. It gives you an understanding of other cultures, enhances your emotional, intellectual, and social skills. It’s good for you, and for others, if you travel. Is this true? I would like to suggest a debate. I have many questions, even more doubts, and almost no answers.

Is travelling the new colonialism? Isn’t “travelling” just a luxury concept, restricted to the small percentage of the world population that own the large percentage of the world wealth?

Is it morally justifiable at all to travel for fun, especially to fly, in the face of global warming?

Do we have a duty to “offset” the emissions caused by our travelling, by making a corresponding donation? Or is it cynical to establish a “right to pollute” for those who can afford an offset payment?

When we encounter poverty and suffering where we go, does that give us responsibilities?

Do we change the places we go to? For better, for worse? Can this mean it would be better not to go? At least not to certain places, or in certain ways?

Isn’t hospitality networking ultimately just a way of extending the privileges of those already better off, by making their money go even further? Is the world really going to be “better” because of millions of white, male, heterosexual, not gainfully employed, under 25s, middle class, with higher education, from North America or Europe, visiting the rest of the globe, without spending much money there? Isn’t it really just an exclusive golf club type thing?

Why are 80% of signed up Couchsurfing users from North America or Europe? Why are so many active Couchsurfing users in the rest of the world expatriates from North America or Europe?

What would be necessary to make hospitality networking equally interesting to people from other continents? What are the cross cultural borders that prevent people from other cultures to become equally involved? Can it be that people from other cultures don’t like to talk about themselves that much in their profiles? Can the positive and negative feedback options be contrary to what they are used to? Can the dominance of traditional colonial nations and races just be scary?

What does travelling to the 1st or 2nd world mean for people from the 3rd world (and what about these numbers)? What does it mean to go to a rich place where the legal minimum hourly wage is what you make in a day or week?

I’ll stop here, and open the field for others, to come up with answers, or more questions. In the middle of all political controversy about how to run a show like Couchsurfing, I would really love to have an open debate about the underlying concept of travelling as such. Just one more question:

Is Opencouchsurfing usership possibly even less diverse than Couchsurfing?


23 Responses to “Is travelling noble? Or: “The Emperor’s New Clothes””

  • Thanks, that you rise these points here and set everything in a larger frame. Maybe it is possible to argue on this in a more constructive way and it is at other topics. I started with little essay heading this way, I might post it here when I managed to finish it.

    Some of my thoughts regarding you the points you raised in you post here, you can find in this topic:—cultural-biases/page2/

  • Personally, I don’t think “travelling” is anything. You can travel in such a way that you genuinely learn from and share with the people you meet. Likewise, you can travel in a destructive fashion. Travel itself is something people do. How they do it is what matters.

  • travelling is what you make it.

    and yes, i think that spending money, even a little bit, is generally a good thing in a lot of “third world countries”

    more importantly, it’s time to stop thinking of people as existing in large groups.

    I’m less worried about the golf club, and more worried that your “we” is speaking about too many people that you haven’t met and don’t know, myself included.

  • So, is it all about your personal experience and development?

  • Isn’t “travelling” just a luxury concept, restricted to the small percentage of the world population that own the large percentage of the world wealth?

    It used to be a luxury in the 1970′s or earlier.No longer with the low budget airlines and hotels.More and more budget travellers travel.

    Is Opencouchsurfing usership possibly even less diverse than Couchsurfing?

    Maybe but I fail to see the connection to travel .

    white, male, heterosexual, not gainfully employed, under 25s, middle class,

    From your experience do you see this as a fact ;)

    Is it morally justifiable at all to travel for fun, especially to fly, in the face of global warming?

    I thought bush said during the koyoto protocol in the 1990′s that global warming does not exist!!Ans anyways the world is doomed for better or worse. Take the weather in germany ,nice sunny weather , not the case 10 years ago.

    What would be necessary to make hospitality networking equally interesting to people from other continents?


  • - just thoughts – don` get down, the sun is still shining!

    sleeping on couches and dusty grounds = luxus? the “i don`t need more” mainly crisis management?
    hospex networks instead of established golf clubs rather a sign for the white middle class still privileged but confronted with its own financial fall, completely decrease of importance and fragmentation into isolated subjects?
    last try to find and keep “safe” way of “traveling” in a world full of privatized spaces and all over impoverished jobless/working poor masses of precarious existences trying to survive the competition?
    travelling = escaping from this world? And most of this escaping traveling is virtual, because the majority cannot go beyond the long journey from the couch in front of the tv towards the seat in front of the computer (89.1% this week, this even is a low value! check CS statistics)?

  • I’ll pass to answer the question whether travelling is ultimately noble or selfish; I agree with Callum that that depends greatly on the individual traveller. That said, I observe that the vast majority of travellers is selfish (strangely enough, especially low-budget travellers, although I must admit I don’t meet that many high-end travellers), and worse doesn’t want to be bothered by people confronting them about the size of their global footprint.

    As to your question what should change in hospitality exchange to make it more interesting to non-western users, I think that is an entirely separate issue.

    There are no simple measures when it comes to promoting cross-cultural understanding, I’m afraid; I can give you a ton of quotes from anthropological and sociological literature about people simply preferring to hang around with those with a similar mindset and socio-economic background. It reduces tension, and makes people feel good. This is where travelling comes in; since most (all?) people travel selfishly, they don’t WANT tension and awkward silences. From the host perspective, you don’t WANT tension and awkward silences in your own home, because they make you feel you’re doing a bad job at being a host.

    That said, I think that some of the ‘western’ edges could be removed from sites like That takes a sincere effort by the ‘management’ to turn around the mentality of the current heavy users, however. Instead of systems like vouching, that promotes in-crowd buddy-ism, brownie points could be awarded for hosting/surfing with people from a different cultural background (please, nobody lecture me on how difficult it will be to classify cultures!); profiles could be made much more flexible, so that users can easily add fields about things they think are important, while leaving out some of the ‘occidentocentric’ field that is currently attached so much importance to (right now, such changes are possible but require a considerable knowledge of HTML).

    Most importantly, however, the ‘management’ has to replace some of its American members by non-westerners/Asians, and some of the men by women. Only with sufficient representation at the top of the organisation will the promotion of cross-cultural understanding through couchsurfing stand a chance.

  • Good questions, Pickwick (too many though!)

    Nice comments Niels, and i agree completely, excellent points.

    I believe the most important thing we as humans can do right now is to expand our conceptual frameworks. Get out of the right/wrong imperialist & colonialist, guilt/blame etc etc dichotomies. In adding to our conceptual frameworks, ideas, insights, solutions and connections become possible that otherwise would escape us. Look at how few people from the USA are travellers to see what damage not expanding frames of reference has done to the world, the environment, our future.

    I have always used travel to expand my receptivity, to induce revelations, to challenge my beliefs, to shock myself out of the boxes of my own cultures and upbringings and expectations. I have always benefited tremendously from travel, and done my best to break preconceptions of others while traveling by being friendly, receptive, appreciative and ‘not a typical American’. I plan to build on these experiences to aid the world in the most profound ways i am capable of.

    Couchsurfing has aided me in this, and i will be forever grateful to it for that and all the amazing connections i can now access. Because of that i will always try to support it, while challenging it because my integrity forces me to where i see that its actions are out of alignment with its proposed purpose.

    I look forward to helping BeWelcome and other far broader global initiatives for connecting and learning and sharing. To helping us all move forward in ways that may be necessary for our survival and success as a species.

    I appreciate you all tremendously , and thanks again for reframing this into the larger picture, Pickwick and all others who have contributed and built this space (thanks Callum!). For myself i feel it is time to move to these larger questions, time to create and to activate the Beauty Path (as the Navaho say). I can accept what is good in CS, and learn from what is clearly damaging, what path should not be taken. Even for that i am grateful.

    But it’s time for the Big Picture! How to use what we have learned, for the betterment of our worldwide ecosystem, humans included?!

    Hugs to all if that’s ok in your conceptual framework :D


  • P.s. I know i didn’t answer the question! so to be brief.. I don’t know if travel is ‘noble’ – but it can be a catalyst for awakening in every way, and that is precious.

  • While few from third-world countries travel, it’s a mistake to assume that travel is necessarily the hobby of some Western European or American elite. Just look at the Russian hitchhikers who can make 200 euro last for months and months as they cover an enormous distance, or the Moroccans who can’t get a visa to anywhere but still like to go around and visit the rest of their quite large country.

  • or Christopher the concept of a pilgrimage (Mecca) which is as old as the hills.

    I think that travel used to be considered noble because it was uncomfortable and dangerous. You not only were leaving your family and identity behind, but taking on true risk for your life…perhaps to benefit your family or community or spiritual self. When I think of those Polynesian canoes fanning for a thousand miles across open ocean to reach remote Pitcairn or Henderson islands I really get the chills.

    now that there is not much potential risk or identity-stretch involved…I don’t consider it noble. Disney cruise anyone? I still admire those people who do things like walk across half a continent living on alms alone…or pogostick across Siberia….crazy adventures that really are more than entertainment for the people who take them on. I talked a lot with my kids about Chris McCandless (did I get his name right?) of “Into the Wild” fame…and whether he was stupid or brave. what was he looking for?

    it’s an awesome thing to leave your familiar life and go travel to where you don’t know anyone or the language. You really get tested and feel like a child all over again. I admire this type of travel a lot…where a person is truly uncomfortable for a long time: homesick, out of place, lonely…and have to use creative intuition to get by. I remember helping one of my Thai neighbors rethatch her chicken house years ago and I looked like an idiot…any little kid did a better job at it than I did and I got laughed at by everyone…in addition to the kindergartenish speech errors I made (sigh). A humbling experience that was worth the carbon output in my opinion. I clicked into your website Christopher and I think what you’re doing is great.

    now I try to “purchase” my airline CO2 by using only my bike during the day. I’ve done this for 3 1/2 years now. I have a little computer on my bike that racks up the mileage…and some weeks I clock in more than 75 miles (which is chump change to you Dutch people, I know…but it’s difficult to do here in the states). it probably means nothing but makes me feel better.

    I think that the hospex mode of travel is still noble…even if you stay with your same cohort. You have to be “on” and visit, share space, converse and be polite after you arrive..rather than comfortably mummify sprawled in front of the hotel tv. The hosts too I think deserve good samaritan credit for taking a chance on a stranger.

    you should write a book Pickwick.

  • oops I’m sorry…one more thing

    I think what makes travel noble or not is the purpose: vanity vs. truth-seeking.

    so I agree with Callum.

  • “My antidote to being some kid in a room without really anything, living paycheckto-paycheck, no access to the world… was to create a website which would help me go and stay on people’s couches…, give me access to the world, substantially lower the costs, and I’d be able to gain those important, intense, frequent and diverse experiences.” – Casey Fenton, founder of couchsurfing
    Intimate Tourism Friendships in a state of mobility – The case of the online hospitality network

  • I think that’s cool!

  • ” What does travelling to the 1st or 2nd world mean for people from the 3rd world (and what about these numbers)? ”

    interesting debate, but can we Please stop using these artificial constructs? The term “3rd World” is quite insulting, at least to me.

    For those of you not familiar with the history of the terminology, it came about in Cold War era from a French official to distinguish between the West (1st W) and the Soviet sphere (2nd W). It was noticed the rest of the countries in the world did not easily fit in this paradigm, and hence coined the term “3rd World”.

    When the Soviet system was disassembled, the “2nd World” ceased to exist… so how would it even make sense to have a 3rd with no 2nd? Moreover, the term still has some serious connotations associated with it. We are now euphemistically called “developing nations”… but does that make us 3rd in class to the top elite of the world, the so called industrialized 1st world? really? 3rd in terms of what?: money, education, moral value, BMI, IQ, religion?

    I think that in order for us to have constructive discussion on travel and its value, we first need to drop these Classist Misnomers!

    Sure the industrialized nations have a ton more money, and can travel the world at leisure… but are they happy? Compare the suicide rates, number of heart attacks, divorce rates, etc in the so called developed nations, with the rest of the world, you’ll be surprised.

    A more accurate reflection of “class” can be found on this list. Happiness, however elusive its definition may be, rings a sharper bell than crude monetary figures:

    *gets off soapbox and back to work*



  • Cyril –
    your comments on 1st, 2nd, 3rd world are apropos. I’ve also been called on the carpet by cultural anthropologists when referring to East and West, North and South, developed vs developing nations, and so on. Frankly I think it would be most helpful if you would simply tell us what the acceptable terminology is these days and then again when it changes :) . (Seriously, i do need this myself)

    However, we have yet to scratch the surface of the real underlying questions here. I for one, AM concerned that mostly Europeans and Americans are provided with hosting to an incredibly high standard, in Asia and other sections of the world where guests are honored. Yet the visa requirements in many of the western nations literally prevent us from reciprocating – i know, because i’ve been trying to help people get visas. To me this is a fundamental problem because the reciprocity is core to the real success of the project.

    Moreover (and just my opinion) i have begun to feel that many in the developing nations are, to some extent, being taken advantage of, because their forms of hospitality are so much more encompassing (providing all food, airport pickups, etc) and a matter of cultural pride, than in the states or Europe. I have in fact heard many excellent hosts in developing nations say this directly when they or theirs have traveled. I find this inequity – yet another matter of cultural difference and expectation that goes unspoken (and of course is not always true, either), quite troubling. I don’t know the solution(s) but perhaps with others of similar mind, there really could be some.

    To address a question of pickwick’s though – i DO think travel for even those privileged white male types (and i fit in there somewhere, except for maleness), at least from the USA, is an excellent idea. Simply to change their perception of the world as bigger than their often small-minded conceptions. Simply to have some damn gratitude for all that we have and take for granted. Simply to see how much we waste, and in many cases, to be shown the barrenness of our culture in terms of ‘happiness’ as you point out, Cyril. My own plan would be to kick a bunch of entitled american teenagers out to some non-European cultures for a healthy dose of culture shock, to force them to reset their expectations of what makes life good, away from the latest Ipod, and toward personal authentic connections and more basic necessities of life that billions sadly do without every day. I did something similar and it changed me forever.

    Travel can be a chastening, eye-opening, reset of understanding about the world, and one that CAN fuel working together for a better and fairer planet for us all. If then each person who traveled makes up for their carbon emissions etc by building bridges of shared understanding, *getting* that there ARE other valid viewpoints, learning to quit whining when so many others have it so much harder, and generally becoming a global citizen rather than a partisan small-minded greedy imperialist (I speak only of my own government at the moment, mind you) – then travel is ‘worth it’ – not just for them but quite possibly for the world.

    If travel helps us become a person who makes a truly positive difference to the world at large, its peoples, cultures, ecosystems, highest principles, true wisdom and fulfillment of what is best in humanity, because of their experience… I would assess travel to be once again, ‘noble’.

    We can thus aspire to truly ‘noble’ traveling. Let it be so, say i.. but then, my travels have given me a sense of responsibility to our planet as a whole. I hope, but i have no idea how common that is.

    all the best to all.

  • thank you so much Cyril and Valerie! What great posts…I appreciate all of the thought and expertise you give us; truly a free education. I remember being hosted by a Cambodian family who truly sacrificed for me and gave me the biggest luxury food item of all: beef. I couldn’t imagine how they afforded, or even acquired, it.
    I was reading the Washington Post’s front page yesterday and saw this article
    about how carbon output must approach zero to make a difference in global warming…makes me wonder if any petroleum-based travel will be feasible, much less noble, in the coming years.

  • “Frankly I think it would be most helpful if you would simply tell us what the acceptable terminology is these days and then again when it changes :) . (Seriously, i do need this myself)”

    Well to answer this question i would say: NONE

    I think the sheer fact of trying to group countries in this way is highly counterproductive. Why do we NEED to have a group name for countries with, say, a low GDP or higher poverty rates?

    The grouping into rich/poor, fat/skinny just creates artificial constructs in our minds, a new wall between the understanding of nations. Why can’t we speak about countries in their own sake, or if need be, in geographical nodes?

    To me “1st world” sounds so much like the “cool kids” in school who many many years down the line finally realized that being “cool” is just as pointless as struggling to keep the statistics to fit in the “1st world”.

    (I’ll add more later, gotta go for now)


  • If anything, I’d say that the users of this forum use ’1st world’ as a term with a critical rather than a positive connotation. Which kinda illustrates the pointlessness of the whole debate. Categorisation, no matter the category labels, always leaves some people unhappy. That’s why I prefer to use ‘canonical’ terms anyway. 1st and 3rd world are useful labels because many people can relate to them (however differently); let’s not make too much of them and have interesting discussions go out in senseless bickering over semantics.

  • (while i agree with staying on topic, i wouldn’t call the discussion on the stigma posed by these labels senseless bickering; it’s especially relevant for those of us who happen to live in areas discriminated by them.)

    to norbert’s original post on if traveling is a noble/selfish deed: no. i think that in the long run cross cultural interaction is going to teach us one important lesson: no matter how far you travel and where you end up, people are the same. we all eat, love, and die… it doesn’t really matter if you travel 100km or 10,000km to realize that.

    i see traveling as a unifying experience that serves to lower xenophobia and ignorance. true that now and in the past it has been the privilege of the rich, but that is rapidly changing. what used to cost $700 to fly, now can cost as little as $200 (sjomia for example). sites like CS, HC, and BW all provide a framework for this to happen on a higher human level, and so hotels are no longer a pre-requisite. i know of vast amounts of people with relatively lower incomes who have traveled the world on a shoestring, so as said above, it’s really on who you are. dooming the entire phenomenon of travel to the monopoly of the rich whites is a short-sighted view. if the travel bug bites you, there will be a way to do it… you just have to want to do it.

  • err… that should read “SJO to/from MIA” (airport codes)

  • on the other hand.. the cost from the US to India has increased by 50% in the past three years.. but that’s due to oil and the fall of the American Empire. So not all travel is cheaper or more accessible.

    I do think semantics is quite important, but as those of you who me, know, i believe in straight talk as well. It can be a useful distinction to label what were once the colonial empires (so much of the West, now) and the poor nations that were left with say, imposed and arbitrary national boundaries and divisions that cut through castes and tribes and clans, inducing many of the wars we see today.

    There is also such a thing as addressing common understanding, which allow us shortcuts to communication. (Why ppl use the 1-2-3 world misnomers). However, to me, because there are some demonstrable differences in cognition, attention, and cultural emphases (like on the individual vs the clan/family/region), I personally find the East/West division useful in a functional sense.

    And really, as humans it is difficult to avoid categorization, generalizing, good or bad, so i am quite curious now how either the anthropology people or the International Relations/political economic s types divide the world up. I understand you don’t like these distinctions, Cyril, but they don’t need to be pejorative to your locale, nation, culture or history. There could be the happy non–consumerist mentalities, or the utter materialist ignoramuses, or whatever.. but labels can enhance our thinking if used wisely. So.. i really am wondering if you simply think of ‘everyone being the same’, or you divide by nations, or cultures, or regions, or economies, or what.

    By the way – i think it is equally important to realize how different people can be as well as how similar. As an example, the American predilection to assume ‘everyone is like us, values the things we do, and is evil if they disagree with us’ makes clear that acknowledgment of differences is pretty damn crucial in today’s world. And don’t you find tremendous beauty in those differences? I really do.

  • Those are some good points Valeri, I hadn’t placed it in that context of communication before. Niels also pointed out in a previous post how at least in this particular website people use it in reverse; in other words, 1st world is not necessarily a better thing. The usual context in which these terms are found (not here) is in the context of stereotypes and simplifications.

    Have a look at another 3 worlds imagery (green +, yellow 0, brown -):

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