Although travel is formative, and although it has the potential to lift individuals, families, and communities, it’s also a luxury that not all can afford. It’s a foray into a world where billions are often just trying to survive, let alone live and thrive.
It’s a gift made possible by privilege, a gift accepted by people who are no wiser or smarter or kinder than the people they encounter in new places. No one has to be a hero, or even a proverbial ‘good guy,’ to embark on vacation — that person just needs a little extra money and possibly a passport.
But even though travel isn’t a hero’s journey, some people perceive it that way anyway. Ironically, they often go on to create the very conditions that they supposedly travel to ameliorate — income inequality, lack of sustainability, et cetera. That’s hero syndrome.
That’s why, before the pandemic swept across the planet, many travelers tried to make their wanderings sound like Herculean tasks: journeys that ended in thunderous applause or medal ceremonies or both. You’ve seen those posts on Instagram — “Trekking to Everest Base Camp was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but I’ve never felt stronger.” “I treated myself to the most amazing week in Bali, and it was so perfect. Take me back.” “Working in an orphanage was unlike anything else I’ve done. I felt so tired but so good about myself every night when I went to bed.” There’s no mention of the support staff, including the Sherpas, who guided the traveler to the foot of Mount Everest. Or of the things the traveler appreciated about Balinese culture. Or of the notion that orphanage voluntourism generally does more harm than good.
The journey’s richness and fullness are understated (or misrepresented to the point of erroneous overstatement), and the traveler haphazardly assumes the role of hero.
There’s nothing wrong with sharing your travel experiences. There’s nothing wrong with talking about how your travels have affected you. But if travel is supposed to teach us that the world is too wide to be fully experienced by one person, and if the only details you share about your travels frame you as a hero, you might just have a new syndrome.
How Travel Leads to Hero Syndrome
Of course, there are a few similarities between hero narratives and travel tales. Both heroes and travelers leave home to experience something new. Both heroes and travelers make use of various resources — like mentors, Airbnb hosts, magical artifacts, and social media — as they venture into the world.
But that’s where the similarities end and the differences begin.
The first major difference: the hero is unique, and that uniqueness qualifies the hero to undertake an important journey. Harry Potter, for example, is a wizard raised in a non-magical world. He’s also the only known individual who has ever survived the Killing Curse, and according to Albus Dumbledore, he has a uniquely powerful ability to love.
But a quick glimpse at global tourism statistics suggests that travelers are not nearly as unique as the heroes of their favorite fictional stories. More often than not, travelers benefit from some form of privilege, such as white privilege, socioeconomic privilege, straight privilege, or even passport privilege; those privileges frequently overlap, funneling hordes of fairly well off, often white Europeans, Canadians, Australians, and Americans into airplanes. (To be fair, the travel community does comprise many races, nationalities, sexual orientations, gender identities, and other groups, but many travelers are underrepresented in travel media, their stories untold, their spending power underestimated.)
Then, when hordes of travelers stream into destinations like Barcelona and Dubrovnik, they strain resources, infrastructure, and locals’ patience. This is overtourism, a huge problem that’s caused by the privileged masses.
Another critical difference between heroes and travelers?
The hero is (and should be) at the center of the narrative, but the traveler is not (and should not be) at the center of the destination.
Young Harry Potter’s life makes for a good story, so his school years are chronicled in a seven-book series. But Venice would never feel the absence of one traveler who decided to visit Florence instead. Venice wouldn’t miss the Instagram photos you could have posted of a gondolier and instead posted of Michelangelo’s David.
Bluntly, Venice doesn’t need you — and if you do decide to travel there, the locals certainly don’t want you to act as though their city is yours for the taking.
The final major difference between travel and hero’s journeys: heroes are heroic, and their journeys positively impact their environment. Travelers don’t always have a positive impact on the places they visit.
Sadly, travelers sometimes cause a negative ripple effect in the destinations they explore, creating the very conditions they try to raise attention or otherwise virtue signal about. That’s hero syndrome.
Make no mistake about it, global tourism is a solution to many problems — it boosts economies, it strengthens cultural connections, it counteracts prejudice. It teaches and delights and inspires. But it also causes new problems: it has a large carbon footprint, and it often inconveniences people who want to live unobstructed lives in the place they call home.
And that’s exactly why travelers need to recognize that their excursions are not hero’s journeys.
Bad examples: travelers who were not heroic
When travelers make headlines for their bad behavior, it’s often because they’ve convinced themselves that they’re heroes, or that their vacation stories and Instagram likes trump all other concerns.
So, in recent years, travelers have bathed in the Trevi Fountain. They have chopped down Joshua trees in a U.S. national park. They have pulled a baby dolphin out of the ocean and made it a prop in their selfies, subsequently abandoning it on the beach.
But one particularly horrendous example of hero syndrome from the fall of 2019 took place at Uluru, a sandstone monolith that figures prominently in the creation myths of the Anangu people of Central Australia. For decades, the Anangu had asked visitors to learn about their culture, to respect the landscape and what it represented, to refrain from climbing the rock. But some tourists climbed it anyway, insisting that they had the right to reach the top of a monument that meant much less to them than it did to the Anangu. Then, in 2017, the board that manages Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park passed a motion to ban climbers. The ban took effect in October 2019; in the final months before the shutdown, hundreds of people climbed Uluru.
Some of those climbers defiantly peed on the rock.
Others left behind their trash.
Still others defecated on the sacred site.
These ugly actions are symptoms of individual travelers’ egocentrism — symptoms of thinking that a landmark, a national park, or a marine animal exists for their pleasure alone. Travelers, take heed: there is nothing heroic about believing that your tourism dollars give you license to stomp on someone else’s culture or damage the planet that we all share, and being defiant does not make you an individual. It just means you might have hero syndrome.
White Saviors aren’t heroes either
Then there are the white saviors who also consider themselves heroes: the individuals who believe that they are doing so much good that throngs of people praise their names. The individuals who believe that it’s up to them to eliminate poverty, hunger, illiteracy, and violence in communities that they don’t understand or belong to.
In the aftermath of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless other Black Americans, people of color have made this clear: outsiders should act as allies, not saviors. They should listen to the people who need help or attention, trusting that every community in the world is home to brilliant problem-solvers who know how to make things better. Allies should trust the problem-solvers’ ideas and advocate for their solutions.
How does this apply to travel? Sometimes, tour operators boast that they’re making a life-changing impact in the communities they take travelers to see. For instance, some operators take clients to visit small villages in Africa, Asia, or elsewhere. The operators argue that this brings money and jobs into those small villages, which is true but also superficial, since the operators don’t always make the villagers their equal partners, or even disclose how they’re splitting the revenue. That’s just profiteering, and it upholds the hero syndrome of our travel community. Often, the operators don’t stop their clients from gawking at the locals or posting photos of children (often taken without consent) on social media.
Similarly, many American high schoolers and college students — especially those affiliated with religious organizations — visit developing countries to complete voluntourism projects. But voluntourism has many shortcomings. For one, American students don’t really know how to build hospitals or schools, so their craftsmanship is often shoddy. For another, sending volunteers to work in orphanages actually hurts the children who live there and diverts attention from the underlying social issues that exist in their countries.
White saviors don’t help the communities they claim to serve, and travelers shouldn’t follow their lead.
Where does this leave us?
When travel returns in its full-fledged glory, it could be better than it was before the coronavirus pandemic began. It could offer travelers a chance to think more critically and act more judicially. But to make that happen, travelers will need to use the interim to think about what travel does and what it means.
They will need to demand accountability from the companies they support, then use their dollars for good. They will need to make compassion and sustainability their guiding virtues. They will need to recognize that some of the most important travel lessons come from just listening.
Critically, they will need to stop seeing themselves as heroes.
Of course, the industry itself will have to change too. Tour operators will need to partner with the communities they visit in meaningful ways, then share the bounty. Travel brands will need to promote greater diversity and hire from a wider talent base. Travel media will need to share more stories from women, people of color, members of the LGBTQ community, people with disabilities, and people from the Global South; travel media will also need to share a wider variety of destinations and cultures.
Travel can become more meaningful, more generous, more thoughtful. Allyship can become more supportive and less performative. Communities can have a say in what their own future looks like.
But it will take work to make these things happen — and that work has to begin now, while we have ample time to think and restructure and change. Let’s get started.
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