Barack Obama on Why Travel Matters
The former US president describes his most memorable travel experience, finding his place in the world on an overnight bus trip and the importance of listening.
This month at the World Travel & Tourism Council global summit in Seville, Spain, horseXperiences™ was fortunate enough to have access to a Q&A with former US president Barack Obama and BBC Travel. In his wide-ranging remarks, the author and Nobel Peace Prize recipient talked to Hilton CEO Chris Nassetta about how travelling helps each of us discover our place in the world and the importance of celebrating each culture’s rich differences.
Obama’s remarks were an eloquent reminder that travel forges connections, inspires transformation and builds empathy.
"There’s something spectacular about seeing a place, experiencing a different culture, being exposed to new ideas"
What is the most memorable travel experience you’ve had and why?
I’m pretty well-travelled, so it’s hard to pick one. I think it’s fair to say that, for me, travelling now with my children is what’s most memorable. There’s something spectacular about seeing a place, experiencing a different culture, being exposed to new ideas. Travel makes you grow. But as a parent, when you are able to watch that sense of discovery in your children’s eyes, that is more special than anything else.
So, I’d say that the most memorable trips that I’ve taken have been the ones with the girls. Some of them have been spectacular – like us walking through the Kremlin when I was president and Sasha was about seven years old and she had, like, a trench coat on so she looked like an international spy. That was a great trip because we went from Russia and then went to Italy. I was there for the G20, but they went to Rome and they were able to also go to the Vatican and meet the Pope. Then we went to Ghana and there was dancing on the tarmac.
So, to see a 10 year old and a seven year old be able to experience that sweep of the world, to some degree for the first time, is something I will always remember. But you know, it’s also fun travelling with them now at the ages of 20 and 17. In some ways, travelling with them now is more precious because one’s already left the house and the other one’s about to leave the house, so if you can entice them with a really nice trip, they’re spending more time with you – because they can’t afford it.
There is also something unique about being a young person travelling. The first lady of Kenya is here. It’s wonderful to see her. As some of you know, my father was from Kenya, but I did not know my father well. I met him once, but basically, I was raised in the United States. My first trip to Kenya was [when] I was already in my mid-20s. I graduated from college, I had already worked and my father had passed away at that point and so I wanted to understand him and understand the land where he was from. So, I went there for a month. But first I came to Europe, and I had never travelled through Europe before. And that trip was memorable because it was part of my own self-discovery. I was travelling alone, and in Europe I was in these pensiones and, basically, would buy a baguette and some cheese and eat that every day. Some wine occasionally.
I still remember taking the bus from Madrid to Barcelona overnight. My Spanish wasn’t very good, but I could communicate a little bit, and I befriended this fellow traveller on the bus who couldn’t speak English. I shared with him some bread and he shared with me some wine. And then we arrived in Barcelona and it was just daybreak, and I remember walking towards the Ramblas, towards town, and the sun was coming up. And so, those kinds of trips are memorable because they’re part of you as a young person trying to discover what your place in the world is.
I went on to Kenya and spent a month there. I went on a safari, met members of my family I had never met before and that was pretty special.
With so much information and a 24-hour news cycle, do you have any words of wisdom for how to filter out the noise and figure out what’s important?
Well, we are going through changes that, in previous times, might take generations, and are now being telescoped into a matter of a decade. The information age, globalization and advances in technology have stitched the world together in ways that when [I] was growing up, wasn’t the case.
The fact that I can fly from Washington to here in a few hours, and as soon as I land, suddenly I have complete access to, on this little device [mobile phone], everyone and everything around the world. It is this extraordinary opportunity, but it’s also creating new challenges. And I think that probably right now, the thing that we’re seeing most is the degree to which the disruptions that are occurring from technology, from globalization, from this constant stream of information is that it makes people feel insecure. It makes them feel uncertain about the world around them.
Some of it is very concrete: the changes that have taken place economically mean that, particularly in advanced economies, but even in middle-income countries, people who felt fairly comfortable and had a job that they would always be in and they had a pension, they had benefits, suddenly they’re finding that they had to run very fast just to stay afloat. And they’re worried about their children’s future.
Some of it has to do with identity and culture. So, whether it’s Brexit in the UK or the political upheavals that have happened in the United States, or some resurge in populism in continental Europe, all of those are not just reactions to economic changes, but also a reaction to people feeling as if their status is being eroded, or their sense of what their country is is being undermined. And they want to either put up either genuine laws or metaphorical laws to preserve what they think they had.
"Travel also reminds us of what we share and what we have become – the ability for us to recognize ourselves in each other"
Nationalism, nativism, xenophobia, anti-immigrant [sentiment] – those are dangerous traits. And I recognize I have some bias because, by virtue of my birth and my upbringing, I’m somebody who believes in bringing people together rather than separating them out into ‘us’ and ‘them’. But I think, objectively, what I can also say is given the nature of information, travel, technology, global supply chains, if we try to reassert these very hard-fixed borders at a time when technology and information are borderless, not only will we fail, but I think that we’re going to see greater and greater conflict and greater and greater clashes between peoples. So, that’s the largest trend that I’m seeing that I’m concerned about, because it’s not isolated to one particular country – it’s a global phenomenon.
One of the benefits of the travel industry, obviously, is to remind people both of the incredible value of our diversity of this planet and the differences we have, because that’s what makes food in Seville different than food in Bangkok – and they’re both really good. But travel also reminds us of what we share and what we have become – the ability for us to recognize ourselves in each other, so that if you’re wandering through some small village in Kenya and you see a mother and a child playing and laughing, that’s not different from the mother and child back in Virginia or in Hawaii.
Now… in addition to this general issue of destabilization of our politics, I am also worried about the destabilization of our environment. Climate change is not something off in the future. It is demonstrably happening right now, and we are seeing the impacts right now. And some of the most beautiful places on this planet, the places that we most want to visit and spend time with and share with our children and grandchildren, are at risk by these changes. Some of the most spectacular parts of our civilization are built along coastlines that don’t survive if you have an extra 4ft of ocean coming. Weather patterns can make certain parts of the world prohibited to live in or visit if we continue at this pace.
And then, and this is where the two issues that I just mentioned converge, climate change is going to contribute to migration patterns and refugees and draughts and famines – all of which will have an impact on the surge of people who are looking to survive. You can’t wall them out. Not for long. So, we have to be concerned about climate change – even if we feel as if we live in wealthy countries that can somehow adapt and manage – because there are large chunks of the world with hundreds of millions or billions of people who are not going to be able to manage. That will fundamentally alter our global economy.
The good news is that there are things we [can] do to make a difference. The bad news is right now our politics is not designed to tackle those things as quickly as we should.
Where do we go from here? Globalization is fairly unstoppable, so how does this work itself out?
Well, the good news is that the generations behind us are more sophisticated, more worldly, more cosmopolitan, more appreciative of other cultures than the old people are.
"The generations behind us are more sophisticated, more worldly, more cosmopolitan, more appreciative of other cultures"
When I look at Malia and Sasha, in part because they’ve been able to consume the entire world on this small device [mobile phone], they are not afraid of difference, they are not afraid of change, they are not afraid of things that are unusual or unfamiliar. That’s the world they’ve grown up in.
As a consequence, I think, of the politics of looking backwards and erecting walls, is a politics that is going to not – certainly in the United States, and I know less about politics, obviously, in other countries, but in the United States, does not – appeal to young people. It’s one that they fundamentally reject.
There is a fairly strong correlation in the United States between progressive attitudes (about different cultures, different ethnicity, different sexual orientations) and age. And so, the good news is that the populations coming behind us – and we’ll call ourselves the end of the Baby Boom… the group that helped to solidify a belief in the United States for civil rights and women’s rights and a lot of those values – the young people behind us feel those things even more strongly. They’ve grown up with them. They assume that that’s the case.
Now, I think the bad news is that old people don’t like to [hand over power]. And the institutions that we’ve built are not equipped to respond to the demands that young people have for dealing with something like climate change or having a more open attitude towards people who look different or come from different faiths. Old people tend to vote more than young people. And so, part of the key is to get young people more engaged and more involved in rebuilding institutions that are responsive to their needs [and] to make sure that their concerns are represented.
One last thing I’m concerned about, though, is that the way our media is currently operating, it makes it difficult for us to create well-functioning democracies.
I’ve said it before, when I was growing up, there were three television stations. And they all, more or less, [said the same thing]. And there were major newspapers, but they all had a certain editorial and journalistic standard. As a consequence, whether you were a conservative or a liberal, whatever your political disposition, you basically got a similar set of facts and information. You had a basic, common worldview so that when you had a disagreement about issues or policy, you were arguing about what to do about the situation, you weren’t arguing about the facts on the ground.
Today, the media is so splintered and the internet, by definition, feeds information to suit people’s pre-existing biases in such a way that, oftentimes now, if you talk to somebody in the United States who watches Fox News and talk to someone who reads The New York Times, they have a completely different view of the world. And that makes it more difficult to arrive at common ground and be able to build cohesion to solve big problems. That is true to some degree in every country we speak of, and is certainly true on the internet.
And so, when you include social media and the fact that, basically, you can spend all your time only getting information from people who already agree with you, and that information reinforces your prejudices and a very narrow view of the world, that can be a very dangerous thing. Some of you may be aware, for example, that there are countries like Myanmar where, through Facebook, you have organised ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya because they are ginning up hatred towards a particular group and they’re not getting any information from the outside saying, “You know what, you’re not understanding [that] these people pose no threat to you.”
So, I think one of the things we’re going to have to struggle with is: how do we not only encourage travel and open-mindedness among elites, but how do ordinary people get a chance to experience different cultures and listen and hear and interact with people who do not agree with them exactly on everything and don’t subscribe to the same political inclinations.
Original text by BBC Travel. Editor’s note: Some of the moderator’s questions have been condensed.