The Way We Travel

Which destination do we choose? How do we prefer to spend our holidays? Scientist Allison Hui explores the processes that influence our traveling. Nicole Graaf met her for an interview.

Often our hobbies influence our traveling. Photo: Suat Gürsözlü/ iStockphoto

Nowadays it’s common to travel and go on holidays, but that hasn’t always been the case. Let’s first talk about how travelling for leisure has evolved over time.

Hui: Obviously people travel much more today thanks to technologies such as airplanes and related global infrastructures. But it is also interesting to look into how specific types of travel evolved. For example, in the 18th century in the UK, walking in the countryside was dangerous and stigmatized due to poor roads, highwaymen who would attack travelers, and assumptions that only the poor needed to walk. Then when poets like Wordsworth and Ruskin wrote about the beauty of places like the Lake District in the UK during the early 19th century, people realized that it is really interesting to go out and explore different types of places on foot. Today, many natural landscapes are UNESCO World Heritage sites visited by millions of people every year, aided by travelling cars, trains or planes.

Which factors influence the way we travel today? Why do people choose to go where they go?

Hui: I think the connection between what we do in our daily life and where we might go for tourism is quite fascinating, because often the kinds of things that people engage with in their everyday life are very connected to what they end up doing when they go for longer trips. Their everyday leisure activities can be the ones that inspire them to go somewhere when they have a holiday.

For example?

Hui: I did some research on patchwork quilting, which is a common hobby in the UK, Canada and the USA, where there are an estimated 10 million participants. Quilters sew fabric into items like blankets and it’s a type of leisure activity they can just do at home. But often when my interviewees went for a holiday, they looked for a related event where they could learn something new or exchange with others and just be a part of that passion and enthusiasm elsewhere.

Can we say the same is true for any other kind of hobby or leisure activities?

Hui: Yes, absolutely. For example, I found the same with some people who are into martial arts or yoga. They would look into studying with particular experts abroad. The destination will vary according to their hobby: people doing yoga might go to India, or people who are into surfing would be going to somewhere like Australia or parts of the US. The tourism industry over the last few years has become more and more aware of how there are particular niches of people. Some people might be enthusiastic to travel for one purpose or to one kind of location and completely uninterested in other kinds of travel.

In the United Kingdom at Lancaster University’s Department of Sociology, Dr. Allison Hui researches the processes that influence our travelling. Photo: David McBridge

In the United Kingdom at Lancaster University’s Department of Sociology, Dr. Allison Hui researches the processes that influence our travelling. Photo: David McBridge

Is there also a cultural component to what we think is an important part of our holidays or leisure travels? Does that vary according to people’s culture?

Hui: Certainly, different cultures around the world will have different ideas of what are important or typical ways of having holidays. For example, during Chinese New Year, Chinese people often travel to see their families because it is so important in their culture to be with family during that time. In Australia and the UK, a gap year after school is promoted as a form of holiday to go and explore the world on your own. It is considered important among many youngsters to develop independence and grow into an adult. In China there is not such a strong culture surrounding this.

We can see that people travel to a faraway place, but then do the same things they do at home, e.g. they want the same kind of breakfast or the same routine for their day. In such cases, what is the point of going somewhere?

Hui: In some ways it makes a lot of sense. It is not necessarily because we don’t want to try new things, but because there are so many new things that we are going to experience, it is not always going to be easy. So having the same breakfast or wanting to have a similar routine before you go to bed or being able to access similar media or music, it can just be a matter of trying to conserve energy for those new things you explore.

How have media and modern technologies shaped the way we travel?

Hui: Some resources are apparent in terms of how they help us find out what we could be doing in a particular place, like guide books for cities, or specialized tours to see a particular aspect of the local culture or try local food. But there are many more types of resources that affect how people are undertaking travel, and some of those people might not even have engaged with personally.
The example I gave before of how poets shaped the feeling that it’s valuable or enriching to go out walking in nature shows that wherever we go has been influenced by generations of travelers, some of whom we have met, some of whom we have read. But it’s not necessary to know any of their works to achieve this understanding. For example, somebody might enjoy walking in nature and find it is a worthwhile thing to do, not because they read Wordsworth or a similar poet, but it is because other people had and it conjured the sense that it is an enriching and fulfilling thing to do when traveling. These kinds of shifts in traveling that we are seeing today are not just a matter of individuals who find one activity better than another, but because of such collective processes.

What collective processes are in the making today?

Hui: I don’t think people are going to see another Wordsworth, someone who completely transforms the way millions of people decide to visit certain destinations. With the proliferation of different types of leisure activities, different types of media and social media, there are these smaller communities, niche communities, which are coming together and shaping places as meaningful to them. Others may pass such places without even noticing them because they are just meaningful within that small group.

Travel and holidays are usually seen as very positive and enriching, but there are also negative effects when it comes to sustainability, for example the pollution caused by more and more air travel.

Hui: Trying to cut back the amount of global air travel would be difficult without some significant collective acknowledgment that many practices need to change. I think it should become a conversation that we have within groups, in organizations and in society as a whole, not just as individuals. I think it is going to require a significant degree of creativity to think about not just getting away from problematic practices, but how we might generate new interesting things locally, so that people don’t feel like they are losing out by not undertaking international trips.

Lastly, let’s talk about what you are working on at the moment as part of your research.

Hui: My research is different from conventional market research in the tourism industry, as I am interested in the longer-term processes that influence the way we travel today. Currently, I’m looking into how travel can’t be seen in isolation. One of the main things arising from my research is that how people travel, what they prefer about one destination versus another, and what they want to get when they reach a particular destination is often driven by what they are already engaged in in their everyday life. It is something that depends on how we coordinate our families, our work, etc. Both partners having different work schedules, children having different schedules for school and other activities all affect how people can travel. I think it is becoming more complex even to be able to plan for a holiday than it was years ago.

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