When I reminisce about my childhood vacations, my thoughts invariably return to the moments I spent among the mountains in Himachal. During that era, when there were fewer hotels, restaurants, and tourists, the hills appeared even more beautiful and serene. There was scarcely a need to document those experiences; smartphones had yet to infiltrate our lives and steal away those cherished, unrecorded moments that still linger vividly in my memory. In fact, a collection of photo albums, accompanied by a stack of film negatives, suffices to transport me back to those simpler times. It was a period when I relished vacations and travel in its purest form, unburdened by the pressure to showcase it to the world or the anxiety of succumbing to the FOMO within this commodified escapade that now envelops us.
Why do we travel anyway? Why do we explore? I grew up immersed in the pages of books like Gulliver’s Travels, where I encountered these fictional worlds and characters, and I still find immense pleasure in reading them. One recurring theme in these travelogues is the universal human instinct to explore the world, which can yield both positive and negative consequences.
Columbus' expedition, for instance, opened the door to what we now call the Americas. Without the pioneering spirit that drove those early explorers, Europeans might never have ventured to colonize other lands. Similarly, Persian travellers documented their journeys to India, contributing to the rich tapestry of historical knowledge, and the Mughals left an unforgettable legacy through their invasions and reign in our world. The world as we know it today owes much of its shape and character to these explorations.
Without the impetus to travel and discover new horizons, our world would be far more confined, with limited possibilities. Humans' innate desire for exploration has led to countless adventures and shaped the world we inhabit, making it a more diverse and dynamic place.
While I believe that the tourism sector has experienced a significant boost, to its advantage, I am also critical of how the perspective of travel has evolved drastically in the post-COVID-19 era, which poses as a demerit. The confined life we spent locked up in our homes has made us more receptive to our immediate surroundings. Certainly, we have become more appreciative of the world around us, but it still raises the question: are we truly appreciating the world around us as we should?
Thailand's three tourist destinations have made it onto the list of the World's Most Overcrowded Destinations of 2023, with Phuket leading the way. While the surge of tourists may have had a positive impact on the commercial aspect of the economy, its environmental consequences have been disastrous for the overall ecosystem, resulting in severe pollution and violations of the peaceful islands and pristine waters.
Furthermore, the violation of animal rights has reached its peak due to the 'unique experiences' that animal theme parks offer in the name of entertainment for foreign tourists. To some extent, a similar trend can be observed in India, with the state of Himachal Pradesh being commercialized to the extent of natural destruction in order to cater to the needs of travelers and explorers.
Efforts toward natural restoration may have been put in place, but they seem to be in vain. The unchecked construction of roads and highways for the sake of smoother travel, hotels boasting captivating views of rivers and mountains, and restaurants catering to global tastes, along with the expansion of markets in the form of multipurpose areas and showrooms to cater to the everyday needs of city-dwelling travelers seeking 'essential' and additional services for a more comfortable stay—all of these have had a grave impact on the geological and natural ecosystems of the state.
The most severe consequences are wrought by the construction of tunnels, which involves the demolition of mountain structures and the felling of age-old trees that have long preserved the essence of the hills through storms and natural disasters.
The recent destruction caused by a heavy monsoon season in the state has unmistakably exposed the damaging impact of the extensive commercialization of its key destinations, including Manali and Shimla, at the expense of their natural splendor. The modern tourist leaves behind an indelible mark on places that were once lush and exquisite, only to move on to the next destination and repeat the same pattern all over again. This pattern seems almost symbolic of the myth of Sisyphus.
Our inherent flaw is reflected in our quest for finding peace while inadvertently sowing chaos in its wake, perpetuating an inevitable cycle. We often seek to rejuvenate our souls in lesser-known parts of the world, only to watch them become mainstream, prompting us to extend our search for the next undiscovered gem. But how far can we go? What happens when we have exhausted all our options? Perhaps, this relentless pursuit is what drives us to explore celestial space—to keep our options open.
The influence and consequences of social media on this unrestrained approach to tourism and travel cannot be disregarded. The inherent desire to discover life's purpose while endlessly scrolling through social media has convinced us that travel is the ultimate solution to our existential quandaries. We believe that with the limited time we have on this planet, we must explore and wander to comprehend the world and find inner peace. While this approach may appear reasonable in countering our existential instincts, it may not be entirely practical.
We are being sold the idealized notion of self-discovery through a capitalist mechanism that can detract from the true essence of our travel experiences. The rise of backpacking culture within the tourism sector has found its place in society, largely due to social media. It lures travelers with its competitive prices and promises of unique experiences. However, it operates on similar capitalist principles, herding people from one destination to another without allowing sufficient time for reflection and meaningful contemplation of the overall journey.
The purpose and perspective of travel have undergone a profound transformation. While some still seek to explore and embrace new possibilities, others are merely traveling for the sole purpose of showcasing their journeys. Travel has been condensed into quick weekend getaways, with experiences reduced to content for Instagram. Travel is no longer an escape; it has become more of a rat race. Everyone wants to travel simply because everyone else is doing it. Somehow, algorithms have made it more cost-effective to visit Thailand than even Goa.
The current mindset lacks curiosity or the eagerness to discover new paths or simply relax under the stars. Instead, it has become a frantic race to post as many pictures, stories, and reels as possible to assert our relevance in this ever-evolving digital landscape. The paradox of contemporary travel is that if you aren't posting about your experience, it almost feels as though you're not truly living it.
Travel has become more accessible than ever before. With the convenience of direct flights, various lodging options, organized group trips, and a multitude of new places to explore, it's as easy as ordering food on a mobile app. The post-COVID-19 development of the tourism sector has been remarkable. It not only recovered but expanded on a much grander scale, as more and more "offbeat" destinations became mainstream, thanks to an influx of tourists seeking the uncharted in search of something elusive, perhaps the peace that eludes us city-dwellers during our endless 9-5 workdays, spent relentlessly typing on screens in the hope of making our lives better: a better view, a better house, a better life.
However, the essential question remains: are we genuinely improving? Are we making any progress at all?