“Frankly, I personally was tired of explaining the difference between a travel warning and a travel alert,” complained the seemingly exasperated US State Department official given the task of explaining the State Department’s new ratings system. The system released recently ranks countries from 1 to 4 based on their safety for American travellers. The new system, she added, would clear up the confusion between the alerts and warnings, and make clear to American travellers planning their summer travels where they should and should not go.
She is not entirely wrong. Ironic as it may seem, given their predilection for lethal weaponry, Americans are obsessed with safety abroad. In the Trump era, where rhetoric from the White House consistently paints most of the rest of the world as an ominous place, full of hatred for America and Americans’ bounty and luck, this habit has become an obsession. The irony is not limited to guns; even as Americans support erecting walls to keep out Latin Americans and Mexicans from its southern border, ban Muslims, denigrate family reunification, they continue to believe in their own entitled right to rank other countries in this way and traipse into them for tourism and vacations.
The inequity is not borne of Trump-era xenophobia alone. At its heart, is an acute inability by Westerners, including anti-Trump tourists, to note this alarming contrast of our time, one in which wealthy Westerners imagine travel to be a right, even an ethical pursuit, even as they shut their own borders for those that travel to actually be safe.
The economies of privilege that maintain this status quo are pervasive; the belief that the rich are entitled to shut their borders while insisting on their own right to travel safely, where the pollution emitted by experience-seeking Millenials is excluded from discussions of climate change, and where the tragedy of migrants who have lost everything merits at best the margins of newspapers, are all part of them.
The blind and blinkered Westerners who fail to see the ghastly injustice of this contemporaneously existing contrast are all over the West: in Denmark, whose parliament passed a package of measures to deter refugees from seeking asylum, including confiscating valuables to pay for their stay; in Sweden, which declared that it would not take more asylum seekers because it was just getting too many; in Italy, where desperate migrants continue to wash up on the shores of the Island of Lampedusa; in Australia, where migrants languish in deplorable conditions in off-shore detention centres; and of course, in the United States, where even those who come legally are imagined criminals or terrorists. All of these countries send vast hordes of travellers into the world every year, even as they refuse those for whom travel is not a choice, not an act of leisure, not a dream vacation, but a condition of life.
The hypocrisy of the Western traveller does not end there. At home, many pretend to be preoccupied with stopping climate change; Europeans bike to work and gather their rubbish into compartments, Americans drive their hybrid cars, everyone imagines that they are doing their part. They are not. Research has shown that air travel is the single largest contributor to an American’s or European’s carbon footprint. One round-trip flight from Europe to New York emits two to three tonnes of carbon dioxide a person. This is a huge percentage of the 19 tonnes an average American and the 10 tonnes an average European produces every year. The round-trip flight produces half of the total emissions a car produces every year, and most wealthy Westerners take a lot more than one trip.
If climate change were truly more than a conceit, there would be fewer Western travellers zipping across continents toting plastic luggage and cramming into jetliners with their goods. Frequent travellers, whose total contribution to air pollution is huge, would not be wheedled and wooed with credit cards and canapes; they would be blacklisted. But this is not so; far from it. Experts estimate that there are currently 20,000 aeroplanes being operated, many to the “safe” vacation destinations listed in the State Department rankings. The numbers are only set to increase; it is estimated that by 2040 the number will double and reach 50,000. The kicker, however, is not simply in these numbers; it is also in the fact that while Westerners are furiously polluting the world to sate their travel fetishes, none of their nations recognise climate refugees whose livelihoods have been destroyed by the pollution that their travel-happy selves emit into the atmosphere. Farmers fleeing famine, medical asylum seekers whose asthma cannot withstand the poor air quality of their homelands are not welcome in America, or anywhere in the Western world.
There is also a generational component to the equation that demands safe travel yet denies safety and refuge to those not out to have fun but travelling to save their lives. A 2016 survey of US Millennials found that 72 percent of the generation prefer to spend more money on “experiences” rather than material things. Inevitably, “experiences” include travel to distant (but safe) lands, where they can post their “experiences” (the more obscure and rare the better) on social media, thus gaining recognition from their peers. To stanch any lingering guilt that this generation may have about their habit of widely broadcasted consumption, new industries of “eco-tourism” (where travelers emit jet fuel all the way to distant destinations and then may help plant trees when they get there) or “voluntourism” (where thousands of dollars are spent to travel to an exotic locale, and a few hours of hugging children at an orphanage is presented as the justification) have cropped up. Since the companies selling tour packages are beholden to their experience-craving customers, nobody ever points this out. The recipients of their “help” are, of course, too poor, not to mention entirely unwelcome in the same countries their benefactors have come from. None of these do-gooder travellers ever seem to go back and oppose the closing of borders, or the granting of citizenship based on the fickle accidents of birth.
Packaging consumption as “experience” may be a great marketing strategy to sell stuff-by-another-name to Western Millennials with full pockets, but failure to expose the hypocrisies involved in maintaining the myth of concern, whether it be for forlorn people everywhere or climate change anywhere, is killing us all. The safe travel rankings are just one daft example of the double standard that creates conditions of exploitation and exclusion and then turns around and blames the excluded for them. The economies of privilege that maintain this status quo are pervasive; the belief that the rich are entitled to shut their borders while insisting on their own right to travel safely, where the pollution emitted by experience-seeking Millenials is excluded from discussions of climate change, and where the tragedy of migrants who have lost everything merits at best the margins of newspapers, are all part of them.
A better world cannot exist unless these are exposed, and until travelling “safely” means not simply ensuring one’s own safety but also the safety of the planet, where safety accrues not simply to those who wish to be safe on vacation but also those who, for the sake of safety, have been forced to abandon home forever.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.