For better or worse, travel—how we do it, why we do it, where we do it, and when we do it—has changed a lot over the decades. Veteran Australian travel writer John Borthwick looks at how far we’ve come (and gone).
“They arrived by railway or even by boat: Entire families of eccentric Englishmen with their servants and trunks. For months, they settled in a hotel and enjoyed the peace and quiet of a sleepy town …”
That’s how the Swiss saw foreign travelers 150 years ago. The eccentric English people were on what was known as ‘The Grand Tour’, both a rite of passage and an aesthetic pilgrimage through the sites of European high culture and scenic beauty. First undertaken by the British upper classes, it set a travel template for generations to come, establishing the roots of modern tourism.
Fast forward a century, if you will, through early Thomas Cook tours, the Titanic, Zeppelins, planes, trains, and two world wars. Cross an ocean and a continent, and it’s 1970. You’re in Goa, western India—Arabian Sea coast, languid palms, Portuguese memories, endless beaches, living on a dollar a day, and all that. A contemporary observer might well have written:
“They arrived by railway, steamer or Volkswagen van: Hordes of eccentric Westerners with their music, hash and backpacks. For months, they settled in huts and enjoyed the peace and quiet of a sleepy beach …”
The more things change, the more they stay the same (so they say). Except that they also do change. Since that tribal flood of seekers—hippies, ‘heads’, ‘freaks’—surged across the overland route from Europe in the ‘70s, the population of their main destination, India, has multiplied from 550 million (1970) to an enormous 1.34 billion people (2017).
In tandem, world travel numbers have grown almost exponentially: Annual international tourist arrivals for 2017 are estimated to reach a gob-smacking 1.2 billion. Envisage that figure as the equivalent of China’s entire population being at large across the tourist spots of the world. (Indeed, there are times in midsummer Paris or midwinter Phuket when they—Chinese or otherwise—seem to all be right there.)
If the numbers have changed, so too has the kind of experience that we travelers can now pursue—or not. These days, no joyously scruffy young foreigner would sanely attempt, for example, to hitchhike north through untamed Afghanistan to the Bamiyan Valley, there to contemplate for a day or a week the huge, 6th-century Buddhas carved in the cliff face. If you survived the badlands journey today, you’d arrive to find the two Buddhas as rubble, and their former niches as voids, a pair of gaping, vertical coffins. Thank you, Taliban 2001.
Nor can one wander these days, albeit perfectly safely, through the vast, medieval mud brick city of Arg-e Bam in southeastern Iran. It too no longer exists, although in this case, it was nature in the form of a cataclysmic 2003 earthquake that demolished the World Heritage wonder.
On the other hand, the once-impossible places that you can go to today, admittedly for massive dollars, include grinding through pack ice for a week aboard a nuclear-powered Russian icebreaker to reach the North Pole. You can even take a brief, frosty swim while there. Or, at even greater expense, be dragged breathless and near death to the summit of Everest. Or the ultimate, sign up for a future moon shot.
Taking a thousand selfies hadn’t sucked the life out of simply being there, because film cost far too much to waste on gormless narcissism.
A list of comparisons of how travel has changed even since the early 1980s throws up some doozies. ‘Back then’, no one traveled with a mobile phone because the brick-sized (and weighted) gizmos had just come on the market at $4000 (in 1983 dollars) each. Today it is reckoned that more people in the world have phones than have toilets.
With no mobiles or email, travel communication was a month-old letter from home, collected (if it wasn’t swiped en route) at Poste Restante, Antofagasta, Marrakesh or Zanzibar. You carried travelers checks not credit cards. Pan Am—remember them?—dominated the skies and Emirates was just a patch of sand somewhere around the Gulf. Air passengers smoked furiously throughout a flight, but you could still hitchhike in relative safety and, either way, travel insurance wasn’t in a backpacker’s vocabulary—or budget.
Cast your imagination back a further decade to the 1970s where a budget traveler had to work and save hard for up to a year to afford, for example, the boat journey from the Antipodes to Europe or the Americas—but then they’d stay away, working and traveling, for years. (Career? Meh. Later for that.) Back then, too, straight-laced Malaysian immigration authorities welcomed raggle-taggle gypsy trippers just off the Overland Route (OK, the Dope Trail) with the passport stamp, ‘SHIT’: Suspected Hippie In Transit.
“Travel is glamorous only in retrospect”, wrote the prolific American travel author and novelist Paul Theroux. So too are the ‘You-should-have-been-here-yesterday …’ tales. Things always look way cooler through hindsight shades, which magically also wipe away your recall of the dysentery, hepatitis (strains A through Z), stolen passports, lost travelers cheques, scammers, broken romances, bent cops and worse—all part and epic parcel of being ‘on the road’. And mostly still are.
It’s true that travelers ‘back then’ didn’t have to endure endless airport security shakedowns. Mass tour groups blocking one’s view (of whatever) with a wall of waving, high-held tablets were still to come. Taking a thousand selfies hadn’t sucked the life out of simply being there, because film cost far too much to waste on gormless narcissism. And there wasn’t yet a vast condo escarpment staring down on the remote beach you’d found, just before a poetically-challenged PR team hexed it with the P-word.
Traveling has evolved in just over a century from a privilege for the very few, to a right for many, to a mass obligation.
Paradise ditched—so, who dunnit? The responsibility is eternal, circular, and ours. In 1936, early Bali visitor Charlie Chaplin declared that the fabled island was already “ruined”. In 2017, seeing Seminyak’s culture of mixologists, hipster baristas and celeb cooks in Balinese resorts that look just like one in Mauritius—or was it the Maldives?—in truth, doesn’t thrill me at all. (Why recreate at your holiday all the hometown drek you’re taking a break from?)
But we’ve all contributed to the changes by simply traveling there, anywhere—be it Bali, Goa, Prague, Colorado, or you name it. As travelers, we are part of an industry that, paradoxically, we love to deny being part of. (Anyone for another round of ‘But they’re tourists—I’m a traveler’?)
Traveling has evolved in just over a century from a privilege for the very few, to a right for many, to a mass obligation. Those boomer tribes of anarchic freaks, navigating overland towards ‘Christmas in Goa’ by the ratty glow of a chillum and a scratchy Hendrix tape, have now morphed into industry tours where their grandkids can slot into full-moon beach parties in Thailand (or Goa or Costa Rica or …) as monthly itinerary fixtures.
And does it matter? Our journeys are brushes with life, and sometimes with death, which may be why we are so drawn to them, perhaps rehearsing the round of our own life’s larger voyage.
Meanwhile and regardless, that old dog, wanderlust—like its amorous cousin, lust—never sleeps long and before we know it, we’re packing our bags again, heading for the door, full of hope.
That much never changes.
Many of the images and historical info were kindly provided by Rory MacLean, author of MAGIC BUS: On the Hippie Trail from Istanbul to India.
One of Australia’s leading travel writers, John Borthwick's work appears in The Weekend Australian, Fairfax Traveller and many others—all of which keeps him too long away from surfing good waves or hiking some gob-smacking coastline.