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Travel With Purpose — Experiences that bring us closer to our changing world

Today, as part of my path toward greater global engagement — in my life, my work, my studies, and career — I prepare to travel to Mexico and India.

These will be my second and third “travel with purpose” journeys in the past three years.  (In 2011, I traveled to Thailand with Cross-Cultural Solutions where I served as volunteer for an NGO helping to write a website, and engaged locally in Bangkok.)

My travels begin in mid-March and end in late June, and I intend to continue to report on my progress on the pages of this blog.  These travels are for me part personal, part professional, part career redefining, and part ongoing study in global affairs.

As I prepare to embark upon these journeys, I intend to document and share how I find relevance within the context of a globally engaged individual — the Chief Global Officer, the advocate for mindful global connections, the advancer of new skills for a global world.

I have chosen travel with purpose over all other types of travel because I know it offers the greatest  potential to change me, deeply.  I know from past experience how it can put me up close and personal, intimately engaging me with the “real world.”

But what is travel with purpose?  How is it different from traditional travel, such as taking a beach vacation or an island cruise — the so-called “sea, sand, and sun” motivations so typical of mass-produced corporate travel.

The Importance of Impacts over Activities

According to the United Nations Center for Global Tourism and the Center For Responsible Tourism at Stanford University and Washington DC, tourism worldwide accounts for more economic benefit to poor communities than any source of  international aid or direct foreign investment.  In 60 countries, tourism is the largest export.

Accounting for nearly 10 percent of world GDP (over $600 trillion spent annually) and with over 1 billion people now traveling as tourists every year around the world, and with double-digit annual growth rates, no other sector delivers more benefits to the world’s poor than tourism (UN Center for Global Tourism and Center for Responsible Tourism.)

But what differentiates “responsible tourism” from mere recreational tourism seems to be the way it emphasizes impacts over activities.  These impacts include:

  • Maximum benefits to local communities (vs. large-scale tourism typically characterized by distant corporate ownership,  minimal investment in the destination country, and package tours)
  • Respect for fragile local cultures, habitats and species
  • Direct benefits for poor people in the destination country
  • Conservation — both environmental and cultural heritage
  • Sustainability — tourism that helps to enhance the quality of experience for future travelers

In His Own Words — U.S. Ambassador Max Baucus and a ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide’ to Travel With Purpose

As a testament to the impact of travel with purpose on one’s life and views, how it shapes understanding of the world, consider what a U.S. Senator (and now U.S. Ambassaodr) recently said.

This month, Max Baucus, the U.S. Senator from Montana, was confirmed to become the U.S. Ambassador to China.  In his acceptance speech, he cited his own travel with purpose — something he embarked upon while a student at Stanford, describing it as “an epiphany,” as a “definitive year,” as an experience that shaped his whole life toward service to his country.

U.S. Ambassador to China, Max Baucus:

“Fifty two years ago,  I was full of youthful idealism and curiosity about life beyond the ranch.  As a college student at Stanford, I decided to take a year off from my studies.  I grabbed a knapsack and hitchhiked around the world.

“I set out to visit countries I had only imagined – India, Japan, and China, to name a few.  Before I departed, I had never thought about a life of public service, but that trip opened my eyes. It charted my course.”

“I realized how people across the globe were interconnected, and I saw the indispensable role, America plays as a leader on the world stage.”

“I had an epiphany in what was then the Belgian Congo.  It just hit me.  The world is getting smaller. Our natural resources are diminishing.”

“I would not be standing here today had it not been for that trip around the world.  It was, by far, the most defining year of my life.”

While by itself, Ambassador Baucus’s “gap year” does not make for the only qualification for success to become ambassador to China (or any country), it does speak to the power and profundity of travel with purpose and a way it moves us to understand ourselves, to understand who we are in the world, and to inspire us positively to want to engage to help address the many problems we see in the world today.

What My Own Experience Has to Offer

My own recipe for success with travel with purpose seems to point to the importance of local engagement.  It seems the more more local I become when in country, the richer the experience (and hopefully the greater the impact for the local community as well).

Here are a few approaches I have found to  make travel truly travel with local purpose:

  • Take local public transportation — within a busy city especially, get around in the same way that average citizens travel
  • Participate in local family rituals when possible, like weddings and funerals, graduations, and family celebrations
  • Share in local meals, not only to sample the indigenous cuisine but to experience local culture, family life and traditions in and around mealtime
  • Become familiar with local work-life routines — there’s something about getting up and commuting to work in busy city traffic and helps you to become more intimate with a place, the ebbs and flows of a city and its people
  • Help to build something or engage in local work — but when doing so, it’s vital to invest particular attention to the needs of the locals, to become aware and understand what is appropriate and ethical and what it not (and I’ve found it helps to drop as many of our own cultural attachments, comforts, habits, and biases as possible)

Purposeful Travel as Competency for a Global World — Tools for the CGO

Ultimately, travel with purpose ends up being a two-way street.  As travelers we go in search of an experience, an adventure, but we end up transforming ourselves in the process.  Travel reshapes our world view, just as it did for Max Baucus when he hitchhiked across the world.  Done mindfully and with examined intention, travel both helps the world and changes our destiny, it alters our path through life, and orients us to what is vital in our world and in ourselves.

As I prepare to embark on my global travels, I intend to share first-hand my personal investigation of what it means to live, work, study, and relate to the people, places, processes and things that make up our increasingly globalizing world today.  I’m committed to finding relevance to advance practical skill-building and to connect it to my own understanding, and hopefully for others as well.