Travel is said to increase cultural understanding. Does it?

While researchers say travel does affect the brain’s neural pathways, true empathy remains an elusive destination.

Empathy is commonly defined as “putting yourself in another person’s shoes” or “feeling the emotional states of others.” It’s a critical social tool that creates social bridges by promoting shared experiences and producing compassionate behavior.

But can empathy be learned? And can travel help facilitate this learning?

The answer is complicated. “Research has shown that empathy is not simply inborn, but can actually be taught,” writes psychotherapist F. Diane Barth in Psychology Today. While past research has indicated that empathy is an unteachable trait, newer research—including a 2017 Harvard study—suggests that the “neurobiologically based competency” of empathy is mutable and can be taught under the right circumstances.

Whether seeing the world actually opens travelers’ minds—that it makes travelers more empathetic—is up for debate. In a 2018 Harris Poll of 1,300 business travelers, 87 percent said that business trips helped them to be more empathetic to others, reports Quartz. And in a 2010 study, Columbia Business School professor Adam Galinsky found that travel “increases awareness of underlying connections and associations” with other cultures.

While self-defined empathy and awareness are unreliable measurements, it stands to reason that cross-cultural exposure through travel would at least create conditions for checking conscious and unconscious biases. “If we are to move in the direction of a more empathic society and a more compassionate world, it is clear that working to enhance our native capacities to empathize is critical to strengthening individual, community, national, and international bonds,” writes Helen Riess, associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of the 2017 report.

But the coronavirus pandemic and, more recently, the global Black Lives Matter protests have forced an uncomfortable reckoning—that all the travel in the world might not be enough to engender the deep cross-cultural awareness people need now.

“There’s this false adage that travel opens minds, but that’s not [a built-in] fact about what travel does,” says Travis Levius, a Black travel journalist and hospitality consultant based in London and Atlanta. “Travel does not automatically make you a better person,” nor does it clue you into “what’s going on in terms of race relations.”

Black Travel Alliance founder Martina Jones-Johnson agrees, noting that tourism boards have made it “overwhelmingly clear that travel doesn’t necessarily build empathy.”

The lack of diversity within the travel industry itself suggests that there’s much work to be done to make the industry as inclusive as the world of travel consumers. According to a 2019 annual report by the U.S. Commerce Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, workers in the leisure and hospitality industry were overwhelmingly white. Consumers, meanwhile, say they want to spend their money on travel companies whose employees reflect the world they work in, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council.

Additionally, companies that embrace inclusivity may have a better chance of avoiding tone-deaf messages, such as using “free at last”—the line is from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Dream” speech—to caption a billboard depicting white children jumping into the Florida Keys. The advertisement, which has since been taken down, launched in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis that sparked worldwide protests against police brutality.

(Related: Learn why it’s important to have diverse perspectives in travel.)

A road paved with good intentions

Interestingly, modern tourism has fairly empathic origins. In the 1850s, Thomas Cook used new railway systems to develop short-haul leisure travel as respites for hard-working British laborers, according to Freya Higgins-Desbiolles, a senior lecturer on tourism management at the University of South Australia.

A hundred years later the United Nations declared reasonable working hours, paid holidays, and “rest and leisure” as human rights. By the 1960s, spurred by related movements to increase holiday time, the leisure sector had coalesced into a full-fledged professional industry.

Since then, the World Tourism Organization and international aid groups have championed tourism as both “a vital force for world peace [that] can provide the moral and intellectual basis for international understanding and interdependence,” as well as an economic development strategy for poorer nations.

But not everyone agrees that the travel industry has lived up to these lofty goals. In recent decades, it has been accused of doing just the opposite. As Stephen Wearing wrote nearly 20 years ago: “tourism perpetuates inequality” because multinational corporations from capitalist countries hold all the economic and resource power over developing nations.

(Related: This is how national parks are fighting racism.)

These days, inequality is baked into the very process of traveling, says veteran Time magazine foreign correspondent and Roads & Kingdoms co-founder Nathan Thornburgh. “Your frequent flier status, the stupid little cordon separating the boarding lines, the way you take an Uber or cab from the airport after you land, not a bus or colectivo or matatu—those all reinforce divisions, not empathy,” he writes in an email. “And that’s just getting to a place.”

Empathy’s downsides

Experts say developing empathy isn’t easy and comes with a host of problems. Joseph M. Cheer, a professor at Wakayama University’s Center for Tourism Research in Japan, notes that empathy inherently “others” another person.

In his 2019 study of westerners on a bike tour in Cambodia, Cheer found that despite the prosocial aspects of the experience—visiting local non-governmental organizations, interacting with local Cambodians—post-tour interviews revealed that the tourists didn’t understand the cultural context of the outing. The visitors leaned into problematic tropes like “happy,” “lovely,” and “generous” when describing locals or simply saw Cambodians as service providers.

This “othering” bias, Cheer says, becomes more noticeable the greater the distance between tourists and locals, and especially so in strictly transactional encounters, such as in hotels.

Our individual travel experiences oppose our best intentions, says travel writer Bani Amor, who has written extensively on race, place, and power.

“The stated [positive] intentions are completely contradictive to what happens in the tourism industry and how oppressive it is to BIPOC [Black, indigenous, and people of color] around the world, how tourism laborers are being treated, and how they’re being dispossessed, not having a right to their own land and to enjoy our own places,” says Amor, who has worked in the tourism industry in their ancestral home of Ecuador.

“You can only really know your own experience,” adds Anu Taranath, a racial equity professor at the University of Washington Seattle and a second-generation immigrant.

“I think we can develop empathetic feelings and sort of crack open our sense of self to include other people’s experiences in it. We can only deepen our own understanding of who we are in an unequal world and how that makes us feel and how that motivates us to shift our life in some way or another.”

Or as Thornburgh puts it: “I think in its purest form, empathy is basically impossible. I can weep for you, but I can’t weep as you.”

Traveling deeper

While experts conclude that travel may not inspire enough empathy to turn tourists into social justice activists, the alternative—not traveling at all—may actually be worse.

“[B]ecause travel produces encounters between strangers, it is likely to prompt empathetic-type imaginings, which simply wouldn’t be there without the proximity created by travel,” says Hazel Tucker in a 2016 study published in the Annals of Tourism. It’s also one reason why it’s important to expose children to travel at an early age.

Yet truly transformational experiences require more than just showing up with a suitcase. It requires energy, effort, and commitment on the part of tourists, as well as specific conditions, says Higgins-Desbiolles. “Visitors need to be prepped for the interaction so that they are ready to engage with the people on an equal level,” she notes.

Taranath’s book Beyond Guilt Trips: Mindful Travel in an Unequal World may provide some starting points. “It’s an invitation to think more carefully about our good intentions and where they really need to be challenged,” Taranath explains. “How do you think about identity and difference in an unequal world? What does it actually look like?”

Additionally, Tucker suggests embracing what she calls “unsettled empathy”: learning about the cultures you’re planning to visit and sitting with uncomfortable legacies of colonialism, slavery, genocide, and displacement from which no destinations are exempt.

That background can be the basis for meaningful conversations, which Cheer found are “the key element that prompted empathy.” Thornburgh adds that travelers should seek out places where there is “an equal and humanistic exchange, or something approaching it, between the visitors and the visited.”

(Related: The E.U. has banned American travelers. So where can they go?)

Toward that end, experts generally ruled out cruises. Instead, immersive experiences like Black Heritage Tours that amplify historically marginalized voices provide better opportunities for meaningful connections.

Fortunately for would-be travelers, those opportunities can be found even in these pandemic times, when many countries are restricting international travel, especially for Americans.

“We are so lucky in this country that the whole world has come here to build their lives, in big cities and small, and that we have Black and [Native American] communities throughout,” says Thornburgh. “Go to their restaurants, lend your talents to their schools, help them raise money for their playgrounds.

“You want travel? You want to experience different cultures? Start at home. Start now.”

Ruth Terry is a Black and Puerto Rican American freelancer based in Istanbul, Turkey, who writes about race, travel, and wellness. Follow her on Twitter.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story identified Nathan Thornburgh as the founder of Roads & Kingdoms. He’s a co-founder.

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