Meaningful Travel: Does it mean anything anymore?

(This post was written for Melibee Global)

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We hear the phrase “meaningful travel” being used an awful lot as of late. Travel bloggers write it, education abroad providers have coined it as a slogan, colleges’ and universities’ global education offices slap it onto their brochures, and, yes, the term even gets tossed around in the Melibee hive as well. It has become a hot catch phrase and marketable tagline in international education; the new “global citizen”, if you will. And much like “global citizenship”, it is a term that is largely open to interpretation.

I was asked on a recent job application to detail my experience in “meaningful travel”. Looking at the phrase through new eyes (Melibee’s theme for this year, inspired by our youngest team member) led to the following questions swirling around in my head:

  • Meaningful to whom?
  • Is it referring to personal development, benefitting the host community, or both?
  • What about travel in your own country, state, or even local region, does that count?
  • Does it refer to travel done through a program or with a group? Can solo travel be meaningful too?
  • Is it more than a self-serving term?
  • Does meaningful travel end upon re-entry, or can it continue, or even begin, through reflection?
  • Is it simply a way to distinguish cultural and educational travel from tourist travel?

When I reflected on my own meaningful travel, I realized that I considered so many, if not most/all of my experiences to be meaningful. I consider moving to another state to attend college to be a meaningful travel experience. Studying, interning, and volunteering abroad… all meaningful. Working in the field of international education and cultural exchange is a way of facilitating and strengthening meaningful travel. If I consider many of my experiences meaningful, I’m sure most people categorize their own travels as meaningful too. So if everyone thinks their travel experiences are meaningful, does this term become null?

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Perhaps we should think of what the phrase does not embody. When trying to discern what I think of as NOT meaningful travel, my list actually looked a lot like the “Bad Abroad” examples given on BetterAbroad.org. Some characteristics I would attribute to non-meaningful travel include being glued to your camera/smartphone, using social media too much, not venturing off the beaten path, making no real attempt at communicating with locals, voyeurism, and being concerned solely with how much shopping you can accomplish.

To me and I am sure most people in the field, “meaningful travel” is interacting with other cultures, people, and places with thoughtfulness, openness, respect, and curiosity. When I travel, I try, to the best of my ability and resources, to experience life as a local. As such, I have experienced meaningful travel in the souqs of Marrakech, in a cozy pub on the west coast of Ireland, visiting a small town in my home state of Maryland, in a cafe in Old San Juan, and will continue to do so in many places that I have not yet explored.

Fellow bloggers and travelers, what do you think of the phrase? What does meaningful travel mean to you?

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2 thoughts on “Meaningful Travel: Does it mean anything anymore?

  1. Hi Sarah. Thanks for following us! We really appreciate this post because “meaningful” (or “intentional,” or “transformational”) travel is really important to us. We think the beauty of travel is that it has the power to transform us on an individual level and, through increased “global citizenship” (that other buzz word!), transform communities for the better as well. There is no one way to do meaningful travel, and perhaps you’re right, the easiest way to define it is by what it is not. In our opinion, it takes intentionality, respect, and stepping outside your comfort zone a little to make travel more than an escape or an indulgent vacation. If you have further thoughts on this topic, we’d love to hear them.

    1. Absolutely agree! Love your mention of stepping outside your comfort zone. Travel shouldn’t always be comfortable. If you aren’t uncomfortable at some point, you aren’t learning 🙂 Thanks for reading!

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