Why travel should be considered an essential human activity

Travel is not rational, but it’s in our genes. Here’s why you should start planning a trip now.

In 1961, legendary National Geographic photographer Volkmar Wentzel captured two women gazing at the surf off Peggy’s Cove, Nova Scotia. This and all the other images in this story come from the National Geographic image collection.
Photograph by Volkmar Wentzel, Nat Geo Image Collection

I’ve been putting my passport to good use lately. I use it as a coaster and to level wobbly table legs. It makes an excellent cat toy.

Welcome to the pandemic of disappointments. Canceled trips, or ones never planned lest they be canceled. Family reunions, study-abroad years, lazy beach vacations. Poof. Gone. Obliterated by a tiny virus, and the long list of countries where United States passports are not welcome.

Only a third of Americans say they have traveled overnight for leisure since March, and only slightly more, 38 percent, say they are likely to do so by the end of the year, according to one report. Only a quarter of us plan on leaving home for Thanksgiving, typically the busiest travel time. The numbers paint a grim picture of our stilled lives.

It is not natural for us to be this sedentary. Travel is in our genes. For most of the time our species has existed, “we’ve lived as nomadic hunter-gatherers moving about in small bands of 150 or fewer people,” writes Christopher Ryan in Civilized to Death. This nomadic life was no accident. It was useful. “Moving to a neighboring band is always an option to avoid brewing conflict or just for a change in social scenery,” says Ryan. Robert Louis Stevenson put it more succinctly: “The great affair is to move.”

What if we can’t move, though? What if we’re unable to hunt or gather? What’s a traveler to do? There are many ways to answer that question. “Despair,” though, is not one of them.

We are an adaptive species. We can tolerate brief periods of forced sedentariness. A dash of self-delusion helps. We’re not grounded, we tell ourselves. We’re merely between trips, like the unemployed salesman in between opportunities. We pass the days thumbing though old travel journals and Instagram feeds. We gaze at souvenirs. All this helps. For a while.

We put on brave faces. “Staycation Nation,” the cover of the current issue of Canadian Traveller magazine declares cheerfully, as if it were a choice, not a consolation.

Today, the U.S. Travel Association, the industry trade organization, is launching a national recovery campaign called “Let’s Go There.” Backed by a coalition of businesses related to tourism—hotels, convention and visitor bureaus, airlines—the initiative’s goal is to encourage Americans to turn idle wanderlust into actual itineraries.

The travel industry is hurting. So are travelers. “I dwelled so much on my disappointment that it almost physically hurt,” Paris-based journalist Joelle Diderich told me recently, after canceling five trips last spring.

(Related: How hard has the coronavirus hit the travel industry? These charts tell us.)

My friend James Hopkins is a Buddhist living in Kathmandu. You’d think he’d thrive during the lockdown, a sort-of mandatory meditation retreat. For a while he did.

But during a recent Skype call, James looked haggard and dejected. He was growing restless, he confessed, and longed “for the old 10-countries-a-year schedule.” Nothing seemed to help, he told me. “No matter how many candles I lit, or how much incense I burned, and in spite of living in one of the most sacred places in South Asia, I just couldn’t change my habits.”

When we ended our call, I felt relieved, my grumpiness validated. It’s not me; it’s the pandemic. But I also worried. If a Buddhist in Kathmandu is going nuts, what hope do the rest of us stilled souls have?

I think hope lies in the very nature of travel. Travel entails wishful thinking. It demands a leap of faith, and of imagination, to board a plane for some faraway land, hoping, wishing, for a taste of the ineffable. Travel is one of the few activities we engage in not knowing the outcome and reveling in that uncertainty. Nothing is more forgettable than the trip that goes exactly as planned.

Women in period dress greet women arriving on a Pan Am flight.

Brownsville, Texas: 1938

Women in period dress greet women arriving on a Pan Am flight.
Photograph by B. ANTHONY STEWART, Nat Geo Image Collection

Travel is not a rational activity. It makes no sense to squeeze yourself into an alleged seat only to be hurled at frightening speed to a distant place where you don’t speak the language or know the customs. All at great expense. If we stopped to do the cost-benefit analysis, we’d never go anywhere. Yet we do.

That’s one reason why I’m bullish on travel’s future. In fact, I’d argue travel is an essential industry, an essential activity. It’s not essential the way hospitals and grocery stores are essential. Travel is essential the way books and hugs are essential. Food for the soul. Right now, we’re between courses, savoring where we’ve been, anticipating where we’ll go. Maybe it’s Zanzibar and maybe it’s the campground down the road that you’ve always wanted to visit.

(Related: Going camping this fall? Here’s how to get started.)

James Oglethorpe, a seasoned traveler, is happy to sit still for a while, and gaze at “the slow change of light and clouds on the Blue Ridge Mountains” in Virginia, where he lives. “My mind can take me the rest of the way around this world and beyond it.”

It’s not the place that is special but what we bring to it and, crucially, how we interact with it. Travel is not about the destination, or the journey. It is about stumbling across “a new way of looking at things,” as writer Henry Miller observed. We need not travel far to gain a fresh perspective.

No one knew this better than Henry David Thoreau, who lived nearly all of his too-short life in Concord, Massachusetts. There he observed Walden Pond from every conceivable vantage point: from a hilltop, on its shores, underwater. Sometimes he’d even bend over and peer through his legs, marveling at the inverted world. “From the right point of view, every storm and every drop in it is a rainbow,” he wrote.

Thoreau never tired of gazing at his beloved pond, nor have we outgrown the quiet beauty of our frumpy, analog world. If anything, the pandemic has rekindled our affection for it. We’ve seen what an atomized, digital existence looks like, and we (most of us anyway) don’t care for it. The bleachers at Chicago’s Wrigley Field; the orchestra section at New York City’s Lincoln Center; the alleyways of Tokyo. We miss these places. We are creatures of place, and always will be.

After the attacks of September 11, many predicted the end of air travel, or at least a dramatic reduction. Yet the airlines rebounded steadily and by 2017 flew a record four billion passengers. Briefly deprived of the miracle of flight, we appreciated it more and today tolerate the inconvenience of body scans and pat-downs for the privilege of transporting our flesh-and-bone selves to far-flung locations, where we break bread with other incarnate beings.

In our rush to return to the world, we should be mindful of the impact of mass tourism on the planet. Now is the time to embrace the fundamental values of sustainable tourism and let them guide your future journeys. Go off the beaten path. Linger longer in destinations. Travel in the off-season. Connect with communities and spend your money in ways that support locals. Consider purchasing carbon offsets. And remember that the whole point of getting out there is to embrace the differences that make the world so colorful.

“One of the great benefits of travel is meeting new people and coming into contact with different points of view,” says Pauline Frommer, travel expert and radio host.

So go ahead and plan that trip. It’s good for you, scientists say. Plotting a trip is nearly as enjoyable as actually taking one. Merely thinking about a pleasurable experience is itself pleasurable. Anticipation is its own reward.

I’ve witnessed first-hand the frisson of anticipatory travel. My wife, not usually a fan of travel photography, now spends hours on Instagram, gazing longingly at photos of Alpine lodges and Balinese rice fields. “What’s going on?” I asked one day. “They’re just absolutely captivating,” she replied. “They make me remember that there is a big, beautiful world out there.”

Many of us, myself included, have taken travel for granted. We grew lazy and entitled, and that is never good. Tom Swick, a friend and travel writer, tells me he used to view travel as a given. Now, he says, “I look forward to experiencing it as a gift.”

Eric Weiner is a former foreign correspondent for NPR and the author, most recently, of The Socrates Express: In Search of Life Lessons from Dead Philosophers. Follow him on Twitter.

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