Most of us in the travel industry view our activities as life-affirming at best and benign at worst. We tempt people to broaden their horizons and interact with other cultures. We bring even the physically challenged to the most remote and beautiful places on Earth, democratizing access to views that were once seen only by the hardiest explorers.
We deepen the world's understanding and appreciation of humankind's accomplishments by interpreting myriad lessons of our history on the very sites where they occurred.
We can, in other words, deliver on the World Travel & Tourism Council's assertion that travel is a force for good.
Increasingly, and on many fronts, critics are saying, "Not so fast."
The documentary "Blackfish" has SeaWorld and "dolphin experience" attractions on the defensive. Cruise lines and airlines are under fire for their contributions to carbon emissions and, by extension, climate change. Last year's publication of "Overbooked" (Simon and Schuster, 2013) and this year's commercial release of the film "Gringo Trails" look at the damage done by both the industry and travelers themselves, with "Gringo Trails" documenting before-and-after cautionary tales.
In a discussion that followed the New York premiere of that film in September, the audience and a few invited speakers focused on the responsibility travelers have to be more thoughtful about their impact on the places they visit. What struck me was the elastic nature of the word "responsibility." An anthropologist in the audience, for example, was insistent that it was the obligation of travelers to fully research the local social and political structure of a destination, then not simply be passive visitors but engage in local issues and address perceived injustices.
The director of "Gringo Trails," Pegi Vail, was a guest at a board meeting of the industry nonprofit Tourism Cares the next day. I'm on the board, and like many of the board members, I had seen the film prior to the meeting.
The board's discussion about its content was fascinating. The film, which presents case studies of paradise lost to poor tourism development, was by and large admired by board members. We discussed whether Tourism Cares might play a role in supporting the film's underlying message about the need to understand the physical and cultural fragility of tourism destinations prior to developing them, then treading carefully and respectfully to preserve that which made it attractive in the first place.
"Travelers have to understand that it's not just all about them," one board member said.
But that comment speaks to the heart of the industry's split personality. Isn't that one of the overarching messages of modern travel industry: that for the most part, yes, it is all about you?
Everything from the ascendancy of spas and wellness programs to the emphasis on experiential travel keeps the traveler at the center of his or her vacations.
There is, of course, a grand continuum of travel, and the place where people end up on the spectrum depends upon a complex mix of their interests, their sense of adventure, their economic capabilities, their cultural sensitivity, their previous travel experience and their immediate needs.
At one end of the industry are old-school motorcoach tours, where passengers sit passively, watching exotic worlds from behind glass windows, then descend at intervals, in packs, to be led through carefully engineered local experiences.
In a broad band in the middle of the spectrum of experience are vacations whose primary focus is on fun and relaxation, often incorporating soft elements of self-improvement.
And near the far end is what passes for cultural immersion, ranging from Masai warrior training camps in Kenya to largely unstructured backpacker travel.
But in the final analysis, travel, like physics, is ruled by an Uncertainty Principle which states that the very presence of an observer influences the behavior of what is observed. A truly "authentic" travel experience is nearly impossible. To minimize the impact of travel's Uncertainty Principle, one would have to do as explorers Richard Burton and T.E. Lawrence did more than a century ago: learn the language, dress and customs of their destinations and try to pass through unnoticed.
(Ironically, both men were among the most high-impact travelers in history. They became deeply involved in the colonization of the Middle East lands they visited, and the negative consequences of their involvement are still playing out in today's headlines.)
So, where does this leave us as an industry and as individual travelers? In light of the projected growth of travel, which will in relatively short order make our industry the largest in the world, one hopes that being conscious of the impact of travel on people and places brings sensitivity to tourism development. And for the most part, there has been significant progress in this regard over the last decade.
Global travel companies have embraced corporate social responsibility programs as never before. Perhaps the most positive developments in the past five years or so result not so much from the impact of critics as the growing recognition in boardrooms and C-suites that sustainable practices and cultural sensitivity can actually save corporations money in the long term.
By and large, the travel industry is not villainized by society the same way that, for example, tobacco companies, Big Oil or even the pharmaceutical or insurance industries can be. There will always be social critics who will use "Disney" as shorthand for artifice, joke about cruising as an activity for gluttonous, retired people and characterize traveling Americans as loud, uncultured boors.
Outdated stereotypes aside, both "Overbooked" and "Gringo Trails" make clear that there still is plenty of room for travelers and the industry to elevate our respective roles in the world and bridge the gap in our split personality. Ultimately, it comes down to how we split the difference between "It's all about me" and "It's all about us."
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.