Humans have always travelled - for survival, power, and leisure. In a globalized world, what purpose does travel serve?
Humankind is a unique species. Throughout tens of thousands of years, we’ve shown an irresistible urge to move and spread out. We are, no doubt, the traveling species and our history, from our ancestors to present time, clearly demonstrates this. But, travel was not always a positive activity, and involved cultural appropriation, looting and various forms of colonization.
Our story starts out with the Homo-erectus, who wondered the globe for almost 2 million years, just up to 150,000 years ago, colonizing Europe and Asia. The Homo-erectus’s heir, the Homo-sapiens, reached all the world’s continents 10,000 years ago, driven by their thirst for traveling and exploration which allowed humankind to fully populate planet earth.
It was, however, inventions such as the modern wheel, the sailboat and the map that allowed explorers, from Ancient Greek and Carthage to China, to cross the earth and sea safely in any given direction. Travel led to knowledge and trade, giving rise to new kinds of empires that had sprung up from the first millennium, most prominently the Roman Empire. Rome itself became a great hub from which many highways were spread across the empire, allowing the Romans to facilitate travel and create a vast network navigated by soldiers, traders, but also leisure travellers.
Pilgrims also contributed to the formation of new kinds of travel, from those of early Christianity to the Hajj of Islam, which puts the focus on the journey itself, transforming travel into a sort of ritual that lingered on even after arriving at a destination. Islam especially holds a unique relation to travel and nomadic lifestyle, both at its founding and later, as it asserted itself as the greatest empire in the world, igniting the Golden Age of Islam, a craving for knowledge that translated into vast traveling,erecting trade routes from China to northern Africa and the Mediterranean.
Later on, it was Christianity that promoted the crusade as a traveling-ritual, sending tens of thousands of warrior-crusaders to Jerusalem and taking control of it simply by sheer numbers.
Travel was not only a religious duty but a secular one as well. The most well-known examples of this were the adventures of Marco Polo, Columbus and Magellan, who embarked on world-wide traveling through diplomatic missions. Polo returned with the Book of the Marvels of the World, describing in detail many areas of Asia, Africa and the Middle East, ushering in the European Age of Discovery.
Columbus’ accidental discovery of the American continent or the New World, established regular contact between Europe and these new lands. And Magellan took on the great challenge to complete an entire circumnavigation of the planet.
Following these great explorers, many young aristocrats began traveling across Europe in the mid 17th century, to expand their classical education, witness ruins from the Ancient Greek and Roman worlds, mingle with the high society of their European neighbours, to study first-hand the grand masterpieces being created by the great artists, to perfect their foreign languages and etiquette, or to commission paintings and sculptures which they could bring home as souvenirs; in short, to broaden their horizons and connections.
With the industrial revolution and the construction of the railroad in the mid 18th century, travel became cheaper, quicker and safer throughout western Europe. Simultaneously, new kinds of great steamships emerged, making transatlantic travel a common and regularly-scheduled practice, bridging the old and new worlds.
The invention of the airplane at the end of the 19th century marked a turning point in military conflicts, as the First and Second World Wars clearly expressed the newly found potential of aerial combat. But it also initiated a new age of commercial air travel.
In the golden period of the age of travel from the late 50s to the 70s, young travellers formed trails from Europe via Greece to Turkey, continued through Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, before ending up in Goa, India, Kathmandu, Nepal or Thailand, all sharing a desire to be on the move for as long and as cheaply as possible.
In the beginning, air travel was too expensive, and so the majority of young travellers opted for overland journeys, their travelling accompanied by the writing of guidebooks for others, which would later become some of the most well-known guides in the world, such as Lonely Planet.
The digital age in the late 90s would prompt similar efforts, such as gapyear.com. The screen would soon become the most fundamental doorway to the world. Revolutionizing the travel industry, it virtually transcended all boundaries, making everything and everywhere accessible and connected. This didn’t replace true experience but enhanced it, allowing us to discover new thresholds and continue in our thirst for travel.
Today, our globalized and documented world has given us the privilege of awareness to how our actions impact other countries. Improvements in tech have made the world more accessible to many of us, and connecting with locals will help us see things from their perspective, respect their living space, support their businesses and make sure both locals and travelers benefit from this utterly human endevour.
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Itamar Weizman is co-founder & COO at Cool Cousin.