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The only difference between first class travellers and first class idiots is the price they pay.

Viral travellers welcome

How travellers armed with knowledge, and double-ply toilet paper, can change the world.

Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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MARKETING PUNDITS MAKE A LOT OF HOOPLA about the various kinds of travellers and “market segmentation”. In truth, there are just two kinds of travellers – first class travellers, and first class idiots. The only thing separating the two is “knowledge”. Armed with useful insights, the former will head for a charming café on the Seine while the latter, unencumbered by information, simply drives his family insane, wandering from one cut-price cheese factory to the next.

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Today, information is no longer a scarce commodity controlled by government or media monopolies. It is democratic, freely available, and no respecter of boundaries. With data moving through optical cables at the speed of light, we are all information junkies, and we expect news in an instant. What better time to travel, as educated homo sapiens? The world is not flat. TV sets are. This is of course unfortunate. Rappelling down the side of Africa to get to Johannesburg would have been incredibly cool.

The world is not flat. This is unfortunate. Rappelling down the side of Africa to get to Joburg would have been incredibly cool

From time immemorial travellers have encountered new mysteries and adopted invigorating new habits. While Indians (in India that is) headed to the river to attend to the call of nature and perform prayerful morning ablutions, Americans sawed through entire continents to churn out that mainstay of the modern economy – toilet paper. And everyone followed suit. Ergo, global warming. Had Marco Polo not visited the court of the Great Khan, Kublai, children might still be wearing skirts and bed sheets, instead of jeans fashionably belted just above the knees, defying gravity, parents and the laws of physics. Pantaloons were a Mongol invention, to facilitate horseback riding. Travel, whether through military adventure, blunder, curiosity, trade, or the imperative of empire, has shrunk the world, and made it what it is today. Travel is not a marginal industry. It is the principal architect of the modern world.

Consider yourself a virus. Human beings transmit ideas, mutate, and impact on everything around them. There’s a word for it – evolution. This is the cumulative impact of mutual acculturation over time. Air travel has dramatically changed the way we view one another – often up close, sardine-canned between sweaty armpits in cattle class – offering millions of points of contact, with millions of perceptions altered, for better, or worse. Sneeze in Turkey and Europeans will embark on an exodus rivalling the wildebeest herds. Sneeze on an aircraft and the pilot might as well head for the South Pole, along with all those chickens demanding a new homeland.

The interaction of travellers is a catalyst for change, often for the better. It has been argued, frequently, that sanctions and travel restrictions can bring about democratic outcomes. Not so. Isolation simply encourages and strengthens status quo. This is akin to recognising a patient has cancer, but insisting the doctor stay on the other side of a locked door, because the patient is a curmudgeon, or disagrees with the popular view. This simply plays into the hands of repressive regimes that stifle dissent under the pretext of lurking danger. Issues are forced underground whence they often emerge, years later, with a terrorist face.

Knowledge is the key and perceptions are important. Take an innocuous thing like geography. After the Boxing Day tsunami, I was deluged with letters from people asking whether friends in Chiang Mai and New Delhi were safe. Presumably no one bothered to look at an atlas. We published a detailed tsunami map for reference. One holidaymaker perused it at length and immediately wrote in enquiring about how to get to “Epicentre” and what the best resorts might be.

One holidaymaker perused our tsunami map and asked us how to get to "Epicentre" and what the best resorts might be

Perceptions are hugely impacted by the media, which defines priorities. A newspaper presents news in a hierarchical format. You have important front page stories – with large headlines – and less pressing inside page stories with smaller headlines and fewer column inches. Over time, readers imbibe and adopt these “perceived” news values. On 22 September 2005, several days before Cyclone Rita reached the Gulf Coast – while it was still a gathering storm – it was given prominent front page play in Hongkong’s South China Morning Post. In the same edition, buried at the bottom of page 14, with a small-point headline and barely two paragraphs of text, was the news that over 1,000 people were missing after a severe storm in the Bay of Bengal. Readers skimming through their papers over breakfast might simply conclude that South Asia, and Asians, are an irrelevance. Over time, this has consequences.

Perception is a wonderful thing. If someone asked you whether you’d like to take your family to Phuket (where you’ll find white-sand beaches and chilled Singha beer) or the Ring of Fire (where you’ll experience bone-rattling earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and rivers of hot bubbling lava), what might you pick?

The “Ring of Fire” of course refers to the intensely active seismic and volcanic ring girdling the Pacific and encompassing places as innocent and diverse as Japan, New Zealand, Philippines, Hawaii, California and Chile. Yet, based on this scientific fact, is anyone going to cancel their vacation to see Dolly the Cloned Sheep’s siblings cavorting with Kiwi farmers? Or cancel their Tokyo holiday? Or drop San Francisco? I would hope not. That’s the power of positive perception. Arm yourself, with knowledge. And travel. So, what kind of traveller are you?

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