Challenging and Changing Perceptions Through Travel

Challenging and Changing Perceptions Through Travel

Kuwaiti Women Watch a Sunset - Kuwait City, Kuwait

Kuwaiti Women Watch a Sunset – Kuwait City, Kuwait

Travel is one of the great hopes for people of different countries and cultures to understand each another. Travel is a wonderful way to challenge and change perceptions about other places and other people. We share a lot of similarities with other people on this planet, even if they have a different skin colour, speak a different language, eat different food, or worship a different religion. The similarities that unite us as people are far more significant than the differences that may divide us. We all enjoy a good meal, listening to good music, spending time with family, and work to build a better life. Travel can clearly show us these similarities.

Mark Twain once penned a famous quote about this subject:

‘Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.’  

If I had the opportunity to speak with Mr Twain about this quote, I would ask him to amend the first few words to this: ‘Travel is usually fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness…’ People with prejudices who travel can return with their prejudices unchanged – they will use their experiences to reinforce their beliefs. Travel is only a great educator if the student is willing to learn. However, for the majority, travel does change their view of the world and it can increase their understanding of the diverse people that inhabit different countries.

The reality of visiting a place rarely equates to the perceptions we possessed before we visited there. Usually this involves us thinking that the people are friendlier and the place less dangerous than we had previously imagined. Unfounded fears have deterred many a traveller from experiencing something new and special on this diverse planet.

Below are four perceptions that travel can challenge and change if you approach destinations with an open mind and are willing to have these perceptions altered.

Political Perceptions

Turn on your TV to watch any international news, or perhaps listen to the radio or read a newspaper for the same. In the majority of cases what you see, hear and read is (knowingly or unknowingly) tainted with bias against a number of countries. This is fairly easy to identify – there is a pattern of reports by a media outlet that will almost always denounce a foreign government, and they will only interview local people those who don’t support the government, even if the government has majority local support.

For example, let’s look at reporting of mass rallies in a city against government policies. If you are watching western media outlets (Europe, North America, Australia for example) and these rallies occur in other western countries, these mass rallies are termed as ‘protests’, but if these occur in countries that are not western and/or countries that have less than friendly relations with your own, these rallies are termed as ‘uprisings’, or something to do with ‘liberation’ or ‘democracy’.

Combine these two and you will see, hear or read plenty of comments from protesters who are rallying against the government, but almost no comments from those organising pro-government rallies elsewhere in the same city. I have lost count to the number of times I’ve seen this pattern occurring – especially in portrayals of non-western countries.

This portrayal of a ‘hostile country’ is effectively demonising the leadership of that country and in turn, demonising it’s people. I remember once visiting a certain Middle East country that is accused of supporting terrorism, and on more than one occasion, people would approach me to say ‘Please tell the world we are not terrorists.’ In another Middle East country subjected to negative criticism in western media a young man walked up to me and questioned in a quiet voice ‘Why does the world hate us so much?’ These messages were not orchestrated by some government official watching my every move, these were genuine concerns from citizens of these countries.

When watching the media, think critically, and use independent thinking to decide why you are seeing, hearing or reading something that is being reported – is there an agenda behind this coverage? If there is a pattern of reporting that is being used to denounce the government of a supposedly ‘hostile country’, and if so, why is this occurring? The reality may be far different to the perception you are given.

Read more: The Benefits of Slow Travel

Racial Perceptions

Watch a news report of sub-Saharan Africa – and you can almost always guess what will be shown; if it isn’t wildlife, then it must be political instability, armed conflict or poverty.

Below is a photo of a shopping mall in Nairobi, a city where I have been based for more than 3 years. When have you ever seen something like this shown in international media? When have you ever seen the high rise buildings or skyscrapers that dominate the skyline of Nairobi? Where are the stories about the entrepreneurs of Kenya? Where are the stories about of the world-leading mobile/cell phone payment system called Mpesa that was developed in Kenya and implemented more than a decade ago? You are unlikely to see any of these, but instead you will see stories of poverty, conflict, crime and more poverty. Nairobi is just an example, similar questions can be asked of many more cities in Africa or Central Asia to name just two areas.

The Hub Karen Shopping Mall - Nairobi, Kenya

The Hub Karen Shopping Mall – Nairobi, Kenya

Let’s take this further – watch a report from an international news outlet of a sub-Saharan African city – and the reporter will almost always stand on a dirt street with ramshackled buildings behind them. Now let’s take the example of a local news station in sub-Saharan Africa reporting on its own city – and the reporter will usually stand in front of a modern government building, a bitumen road, or something similar. They too will sometimes stand on a dirt road but only if the report directly relates to the scene. The difference with international media is that will almost always stand in front of scene that creates a poor impression regardless of the story.

I am a white Australian from a white European and Australian heritage and I see many prejudices in international media in its portrayal of places such as Africa. They usually only report on the negative (poverty, crime, armed conflict) – and these reports come from white reporters or from white dominated news outlets. Yes, such reporting occurs in other regions as well, but negative reporting of these countries is largely based on the race of the majority of the people in the destination. Fellow white dominated countries receive far more balanced and positive reporting than non-white dominated countries.

This perception is perpetuated by the rise of voluntourism (or volunteer tourism), and is detailed further on another page on this site. Look through the voluntourism options that a company offers – how many of these occur in non-white countries – it is most likely to be all. People who participate in voluntourism are almost always a white person coming to a non-white country to provide their ‘help’ that is supposedly needed. This practice is actually resented by many in these countries for it further perpetuates the idea that people of colour need to be helped by white people. How many people of colour do you see heading to non-white countries to help out on some volunteer project? Even if you can find them, it is a disproportionately small minority when compared to the usual demographic of travellers.

Read more: Beware of Voluntourism

Cultural Perceptions

There is a habit of people to judge other countries by the values they hold. However, values differ across cultures and to impose our value system onto different countries leads to a lot of misunderstanding.

I’ve spent years based in the Middle East and have visited almost every country in the region. One notable aspect from this part of the world is the way women dress. Some will look at what women wear and say ‘Look at what the women are forced to wear!’ But consider for a moment that in most parts of the Middle East, both men and women dress in similar clothes – the women cover their head, and wear full length black clothes that only shows their face and hands, whereas men cover their head and wear full length white clothes that only shows their face and hands. These are traditional clothes that were introduced to protect both men and women from the heat, sand and dust of a desert landscape. Are women and men being forced to wear these clothes, or do they wear it because they are proud of their tradition?

Likewise, many foreigners will advocate for the introduction of democratic values in the Middle East, but would it really improve the situation in many countries that are stable and successful constitutional monarchies? One can still have people (including elected representatives) participating in issues of importance in a country ruled by a monarchy. This would be unthinkable in some places in the world, but such a system can and does bring stability to countries in the Middle East, whereas a full democracy can bring tribal conflicts to the fore and cause protracted and armed conflict – is this really preferable?

Issues of equality of women and of democratic rights are very important, but one must be sensitive to cultures of different regions, and we should not judge the culture of another country by comparing it to the culture of our own.

Crowded Street Market - The Old City of Sana'a, Yemen

Crowded Street Market – The Old City of Sana’a, Yemen

Safety Perceptions

Never, ever rely on the media to determine whether a country is safe to visit. I have visited numerous countries that are deemed to be ‘dangerous’ – such as Afghanistan, Somaliland, Yemen, and North Korea and I have never had any safety issues in any of these countries. It’s the lack of common sense that most often puts travellers in peril. People sometimes ask me ‘Why do you travel to dangerous places?’ and my response is ‘I don’t travel to dangerous places, I travel to places that are wrongly perceived as dangerous.’ This is an important distinction.

If you want to portray a destination as dangerous, only show images and speak with frightened, angry, sad or desperate people – this is how large sections of international media operates. I was overwhelmed by laughter, smiles and warmth during my visit to Afghanistan (with just one example shown in the photo below) – the totally opposite perception of the country as portrayed in international media. When was the last time you saw an image of an Afghan smiling or laughing on international media? To state again, never, ever rely on the media to determine whether a country is safe to visit.

The issue about the safety or otherwise of a destination is explored in greater detail elsewhere on this site, and this can be found by following the link below:

Read more: Is Travel Safe?
Friendly Times in Afghanistan - Ishkashim, Afghanistan

Friendly Times in Afghanistan – Ishkashim, Afghanistan (Proof that people do smile and laugh in Afghanistan)

How to Stop Spreading False Perceptions

By way of example, overseas visitors to Nairobi can sometimes head to Kibera, one of Africa’s largest slums. That is not a problem of itself, but what is a problem is that this visit can be the only city life overseas visitors explore in Nairobi. When Facebook posts from overseas travellers visiting Kibera appear on Social Media, Kenyans can be quick to question the poster asking why don’t they also show the other more affluent side of the city? There is no balance in the way the city is portrayed.

Try to avoid only portraying stereotypes of places when travelling. People in places away from the usual tourist routes are very proud of their country and they always struggle presenting their city or country in a positive light (which means dispelling stereotypes) because the media almost always portrays the negative – and this is an extremely frustrating situation for many.

This is not to say that you should never comment on something negative about a country, but if you do, please remember this rule: ‘Praise lavishly, but be measured in your criticism.’ This will help you to achieve more balance and perspective in the way you talk about a destination, and it is more respectful of the places you visit.

However, in some places, any criticism is seen as inappropriate by the local population and if this occurs, it is best to keep your opinions away from public scrutiny. I remember being in one country and sitting with a fellow traveller and some local people and we were talking our travel experiences within the country. The other traveller said something neutral about the country (it was related to the standard of accommodation in one place he stayed) and shortly after he walked away to do other things. The locals who remained were genuinely hurt that someone would even say something neutral about their beloved nation, let alone saying something negative.

Overall, look at different parts of places you travel – try to show a balance of what is there. Don’t just only visit and show poor places in cities like Nairobi, and don’t only visit and show lavish shopping malls in places like Dubai. There is a richness of culture, food and music in almost every part of the world – why not explore these things as well – it not only helps you perceive a place better, but you can share your first-hand experiences and explain the depth and richness of cultures and societies in different parts of the world. You will then understand that the world doesn’t hold to the stereotypes that the media would have you believe.

Furthermore, travel to enough destinations in Africa, Asia and the Middle East and you will realise that foreigners commenting negatively on the internal or political issues of a country is usually seen as offensive at worst, and disrespectful at best. Respect is a vital component of any travel and being disrespectful is something we at The Travel Camel strive to avoid at all times. Internal political or social issues are best debated by local people, and without a foreigner who knows little or nothing about the complexities and intricacies of the country imposing themselves in the debate. These opinions from foreigners are almost always regarded with disdain by the local population.

The Travel Camel never makes statements about politics of a country and rarely comments about internal issues. The only time we comment on internal issues is when it influences the travel experience, whether that be a tourism issue (tourism infrastructure, overtourism, responsible tourism) or if something directly impacts the traveller – positive aspects such as genuine hospitality, delicious food, wonderful attractions and negative aspects such as taxi drivers that overcharge or police demanding bribes. The Travel Camel promotes travel to less visited destinations by providing information and inspiration to our audience – we are not journalists.

Read more: Improving The Travel Experience