You’ll meet some great, lifelong friends in ‘Welcome Week’, but you might have to wade past some really, really terrible people first. Arguably one of the worst of these is the ‘gap year’ kids, and too often the ‘gap yah’ stereotype isn’t far off the mark.
You might find that guy who brags about finding himself in Cambodia at the very least pretty annoying, but his confidence and sense of self-importance covers a much deeper problem within our western, classist approach to how we value our labour and culture of travelling.
Embedded in such tales of continent-wide debauchery are several deeply problematic assumptions: that anyone can simply just ‘go travelling’ and, most importantly, that we all ‘must’ travel; that discovering new places, cultures and of course ourselves is a rite of passage we should all undergo.
I will admit to having been someone who has enjoyed the benefits of several months abroad. Nonetheless, it is essential that I and others recognise this experience as an immense privilege enjoyed by an incredibly select group of (generally speaking) western, middle-class youths.
Travelling is, like any other thing that costs money, a commodity. And, like any other commodity, the ability to travel is affected by socio-economic differentials.
To have both the funds and time available for such a trip is either from immense hard work or great luck at birth. Travelling is not something we all have to do, and it is clearly something many simply cannot do. Assuming we can all take three months off to ‘find ourselves’ is an ignorant disregard for the harsh realities many families and individuals face.
For many, the extra income from a part-time job is not for individual consumption but needed for other, more pressing, costs.
Furthermore, the ‘necessity’ of travel ignores the difficulties many can face in taking such a trip: from discrimination against LGBTQ+ individuals in certain areas, to the immense challenges differently-abled communities find in tourist industries.
Travelling is merely one choice amongst many that school leavers can take, and the benefits from other options are often markedly more pressing and useful.
This elitist perspective on travel is dominant in society, and is constantly enforced by social outlets. Travelling is promoted as an essential and life-changing experience by multiple sources, from wider media and business organisations, to localised social media feeds. Blogs romanticise travel, encouraging us to just ‘drop everything’ and ‘head out’, with little regard for the financial risk of such a move.
The notion that we can discover deeper meanings through travelling contains the implicit message that those who stay at home are ignorant and unfulfilled.
Travel is promoted as if it is a universally attainable pathway, when it is actually a particular experience tied to the middle-class values and the voices that dominate society. This only makes the financial privilege of travelling more real and painful for some.
Travelling can, and should be, a positive experience that encourages a broader understanding of the world. But it is not the exclusive way to do this, and the many other choices young people can make are both valid and constructive.
In its current form, travelling is an elite experience many cannot afford. If we are to discuss it, it must be situated in its proper context, and we must recognise it as the huge privilege it is.
Image: Hamza Butt via Flickr