It’s not every day you receive travel advice from a former leader of the free world. Especially one who’s actually seen a fair chunk of it.
Last week I got to attend the World Travel & Tourism Council’s Global Summit in Seville, a gathering of some of the most important people in travel (and some journalists). The keynote speaker at the conference was none other than “44”, Mr Barack Obama, who shared his thoughts on the best way to see the globe, and why doing so is still so important.
I thought I’d pass on some of the former president’s wisdom.
The best experiences cost the least
When asked to recall a few of his favourite travel memories, Obama spoke about a backpacking journey he took around Europe in his early 20s, where he lived off bread and cheese and wine, and caught overnight buses to save money on accommodation. On one of those bus journeys, from Madrid to Barcelona, he bonded with a local guy, despite their not sharing a common language. “We became friends that night,” Obama said. “I shared some bread. And maybe a little wine. By the time we pulled into Barcelona, at dawn, we were friends.”
If you visit the sights, you change the world
“When I was President I made a point of visiting cultural sites,” Obama said. “Sometimes I would get in trouble back home because the conservative opposition, they would say, ‘Oh, Obama’s on vacation’. What I understood, though, is that part of diplomacy is letting other people know that you recognise and appreciate their cultures, their stories, their history, their memories. When people feel as if they’re known and understood and seen, they’re more open to your perspectives as well. That’s true in individuals and in nations.”
Experiences are key
For modern-day travellers, and in particular young people, the world isn’t so much about attractions, but experiences. “What really excites those young people is to feel as if they’re interacting with a new culture,” Obama said, “meeting people, listening to their music, eating their food… But to attract them you have to be environmentally conscious, too. If young people feel like an attraction or a sight or a city is not conservation-conscious, they won’t be interested.”
Millennials are smarter than you
And those young people? They’re smarter than they’re given credit for. “The generations behind us are more sophisticated, worldlier, more cosmopolitan and more appreciative of cultures than the old people are,” Obama said. “They are not afraid of difference, they are not afraid of change, they are not afraid of things that are unusual or unfamiliar. That’s the world they’ve grown up in.”
We need to protect important sites
“Climate change isn’t something that’s happening off in the future,” Obama said. “It’s something that is happening right before us. And the places on this planet that we most want to visit and share with our children and our grandchildren, they are at risk by these changes. Some of the most spectacular parts of our civilisation are built along coastlines that won’t survive when you have an extra four feet of ocean.”
Travel with your kids
Another of the former president’s lifetime travel highlights has been seeing the world with his two daughters. “Travel makes you grow,” he said. “And watching the sense of discovery in your children’s eyes, that is more special than anything else.”
Travel to understand that we’re all the same
“One of the benefits of travel,” Obama said, “is to remind people both of the incredible value of the diversity of this planet and the differences we have, and also of what we share and what we have in common; the ability for us to recognise ourselves in each other. So that if you’re wandering through some small village in Kenya and you see a mother and child playing and laughing, that’s not different from a mother and child back in Virginia or in Hawaii.”
Travel to rid the world of nationalism
“[Travelling as a child] helped me recognise that in this great world of ours, there are great differences, but there are also great commonalities,” Obama said. “[Travel made me] less fearful of different cultures and my capacity to make a connection with different people. It probably created a certain amount of humility, too. It made me appreciate the United States more, but it also made me realise that there are a lot of other wonderful countries and wonderful people, and you know, they’re proud of their stuff too.”
South America is the next frontier
Next on Obama’s bucket list, now that going kite-surfing with Richard Branson has been ticked off, is South America. “I still haven’t seen Angkor Wat or the Taj Mahal,” Obama said. “But I love Latin America, so I want to see Bahia; Argentina is a fantastic country; and Chile, going all the way south to Patagonia, that’s on the bucket list. Then we’re thinking about just jumping off into Antarctica.”
Air Force One is pretty awesome
“It’s not just the plane,” Obama said. “They close down the airspace for you too. I was on a plane in Amsterdam recently, and it was a private plane, but I noticed we were just sitting there on the tarmac. ‘Why aren’t we moving?’ ‘Well… There are other planes in front of us’.”