‘Travel Privilege’- What Is It, and How to Combat It

I think we’ve all seen it at one point or another: a white, upper-class student studies abroad, and posts all about their amazing travels all over social media. They do not seem concerned about the people or the culture of a place, they do not seem concerned about how their tourism is going to affect the environment or economy of where they are. They are just their for the abroad experience, and for the well-liked Instagram pictures.

This, right here, is privilege. It is white privilege, rich privilege, American privilege. And it needs to be talked about.

The thing is, it’s okay if you fall into this category, as long as you recognize it. The phrase ‘check your privilege’ exists because sometimes people need to take a second and realize that not everyone has the ability to go scampering around Europe. Just having an American passport is a great privilege in itself: the Amerian passport is one of the most powerful in the world, allowing holders into 176 countries without a Visa. That is a privilege, not a right.  

Just the concept of travel itself is rooted in European colonialism. We, as people from a first-class country, believe that we can not only go anywhere but that we will be welcomed and accommodated when we do. Far too often, American’s believe that they are better than the countries they are visiting. And even worse, they don’t realize the devastating effects they are leaving behind.

Take places like Hawaii, for example. Tourism is booming there, without a doubt. If you ask any American on the continental US if they’d like to visit Hawaii, their answer would likely be yes. But the effect that tourism has on the state has been awful. Tourism is ruining the economy, the environment, and even Native Hawaiian culture. And that’s just one place, out of hundreds of tourist destinations throughout the world. And why? Because privileged travelers give their money to huge resorts instead of local businesses, they use tons of water and create even more waste, and they exploit local culture so they can enjoy an ‘authentic’ luau.

I know that I have been privileged to be able to travel as much as I have. I have worked hard to allow myself the financial flexibility to take a few trips, but I have been able to do that because my parents help support me. I have no kids to raise and few bills to pay. I also know that my fair complexion plays a role in how safe people around me feel. No woman with children has ever scooted away when I sit down near her in an airport. I don’t believe that many men of color can say the same. As much as we want to believe our world is improving, racial bias and racism still exist, and if you aren’t a victim of that, that’s a privilege.

I just think it’s important for those studying abroad, or those planning to, to really think about what it means for them to see the world. To understand that not everyone can. If you are out there seeing the world, that’s not a bad thing; in fact, I’m happy and excited for you! But remember to stay grounded and humble, leave nothing but your footprints in the sand, and remind yourself that your travels are a great privilege, not a right.