Why We Travel

In Strategy, Hospitality, Deep Insight

“In a world where governments are increasingly interested in building barriers and insisting on our separateness, it is up to travellers to tear down the walls, reveal our shared humanity, and cause the good kind of global warming – the thawing of the human heart.”

– Kevin Grange, Beneath the Blossom Rain

I want to look at the reasons we travel as a way of improving our approach to marketing travel experiences. I believe our reasons for travel fit into three categories of motivation: economic necessity, self-development, and identity affirmation. By better understanding why we travel, we can improve our approach to marketing travel experiences on the web.

Travel for Economic Necessity or Opportunity

In the beginning, economic travel was really the only reason to travel. Human beings would change physical environments in order to find new and/or better forms of food and shelter. Following a herd of buffalo with the hope of eating one might be the only way to keep the kids alive.

As our modes of transportation evolved, so too did our business relationships. People began to look beyond their direct neighbours and started working with people on the other side of the planet in entirely different cultures. Sharing resources and technology through partnerships (however one-sided they might have been) allowed the global economy to evolve into what it is today. Travel was a huge part of establishing and maintaining these relationships.

Economic necessity was the first way humans thought about travel. And whether you were boarding a sailboat from Valencia to look for spices, or a plane at O’Hare to open a new office for Xerox, you were essentially doing the same thing. The goal of travel was not leisure, or self-discovery, it was a kind of economic mission.

Today, we simply refer to this business travel and it represents a $1.3 trillion global industry.

Travel as a form of Self-Development

The industrial revolution led to excess capacity in commercial shipping lines. If there was extra space on the boat, why not bring people? For the first time, instead of using ships to migrate across the ocean, the traveller would now simply be coming to visit. Of course, this type of travel was reserved for elite social classes, those that could afford not only the fare, but the freedom to skip work for a few months.

“…tourism is an 18th century invention. Tourism is travel without a real purpose. The pilgrims, for example, wanted to find salvation; the conquistadors wanted to conquer. What changed in the 18th century is that people began to travel for fun.”

Hasso Spode, Free University of Berlin

As an actual “travel industry” developed and expanded, leisure travel became accessible to the middle class. Travel became a social badge of honour for a much wider segment of the population, remaining a source of captivating stories to be shared at dinner parties. We were, indeed, defined by where we travelled.

This perspective of travel as a form of self-development through leisure persists in many cultures, but it is quickly being supplanted by a new approach.

Travel as a form of Identity-Affirmation

More recently, humankind’s approach to travel, especially for the group that self-identifies as “travellers”, has changed in a subtle but important way. People no longer travel to change or improve themselves, instead, they travel to affirm their idea about themselves.

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