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Travel must be available for all to counter the closed-mindedness of Brexit

Photo: elitatt. Source: Flickr.

Photo: elitatt. Source: Flickr.

Those of us who are mourning Brexit may have missed one intriguing difference between the camps: the majority of the Remain voters were more likely, demographically, to have traveled internationally.

They were more likely to have been born abroad, have a degree, and have a higher than average income – all of which increase your likelihood of travelling, whether during your studies, thanks to your birthplace, or simply because you have the means to.

Much was made of other measures of difference – the wider issues of class and geography – but not enough attention has been paid to this distinction.

Why should travel be a luxury?

For many, travel is a luxury. Exciting voyages appear in every glossy magazine, and seldom does a celebrity profile run without evidence of globetrotting. It’s up there with fancy cars, granite countertops in the kitchen, and designer clothing. The types of travel advertised are often opulent and involve palm-fringed beaches, hotels where you live better than you do at home, and opportunities to ski or see wild elephants or visit the Rialto bridge.

At the other end of the spectrum is the kind of “worthy” travel undertaken by students in a gap year to broaden their horizons, by missionaries who bring the Word to people who have not arrived at some particular Christian practice, and by eager Westerners who charitably help to build schools and hospitals and community centers in countries bereft of such structures.

Not a superfluity

Hedonism, intellectual curiosity, and moral vigor are all perfectly good reasons for travel, but I would suggest that they do not cover all the bases. Travel is also a means of communication.

When I was a kid, my parents would tell me: “Remember that whatever kind of impression you make here you are making for your whole country.” I found that responsibility irksome, but I now know how right it was. I have been called a dirty American or an arrogant Brit (I am a dual national) and I have likewise had moments of pride when I have tried to show the values I learned at home in societies where they are not presumed.

Yet travel remains inaccessible to large portions of the population, thanks to a short supply of money or time. I believe that we should consider travel not a superfluity only for those with cash and leisure, but a part of every good citizen’s rights and responsibilities.

What you find abroad

If our governments, which deploy so many pounds for cultural diplomacy, were to recognize the real merits of travel, then a program to help disadvantaged people to go abroad would soon be instituted—much as parental leave has followed on revelations about the importance of infantile attachment.

This idea is not as unrealistic as it seems. The European Union has recently pledged to offer free Interrail tickets to teenagers (a scheme which the UK will sadly miss out on), while the Italian government hands out €500 on young peoples’ 18th birthdays to spend on expanding their cultural horizons – whether that be museum visits, or trips to national parks.

Many of our diplomatic problems would evaporate if we had a populace that understood more clearly that other people live differently and wish to do so – that they haven’t failed at being like us; they have succeeded at being themselves. If we saved the cost of a single averted war by establishing wider travel opportunities, the program would pay for itself.

A single world

Four months ago, my family took in a refugee. I met him briefly when I was reporting in Libya nearly fifteen years ago, and had had only very sporadic contact with him in the years that followed. He fled Libya and applied for refugee status in Beirut, and it eventually became clear that he would get admission to the US only if we agreed to take him in.

I have depended on other people’s kindness as I’ve travelled the world, and I believe in the duty to reciprocate. But I also thought that it would remind all of us, especially my children, that we are part of a single world and bear responsibility for one another.

He has turned out to be an admirable and brave person who is wonderful company and enriches all our lives. He is working on my son’s football skills with him (an area in which I am sadly inadequate) and he bakes remarkably well. More than that, he teaches us a different perspective, one not incompatible with our lives — revealing our unnoticed assumptions.

Suiting your surroundings

When my husband and I had children, we began taking them with us on long trips as soon as they learned to walk, because we wanted them to have a sense of the world as a large and varied place overflowing with possibilities. We were lucky to be able to do so. Children are malleable for a short time only, and whatever limits you set soon become their norm.

My seven-year-old son George declared when we went to Sri Lanka this summer that he would like to be a Hindu, mostly, I think, because he liked the panoply of gods and the exuberant carving and gilding of Sri Lankan Hindu temples, but also because he had learned about the civil war and wanted to cheer those who had lost. “I’ll be Christian at home and Hindu here,” he announced.

While I am not persuaded that he will devote any significant part of his life to the Dharma, I think his sense that he can change to suit the place we are visiting, instead of asking the place to conform to his preconceptions, reflects his understanding of the demands of diversity that accompany its privileges.