Travel: For Fun, or for the 15-Second of Fame?

Earlier this year at Singapore’s Chinatown, a trio of teenaged, backpacking Indonesians walked past me, arguing. The girls blamed the guy for having rushed to book hotel online, since they now saw some hotels charging SGD 5 lower for walk-ins. The guy defended his call, saying he wouldn’t have risked not finding accommodation in a country they’d never been to.

Last month I bumped into twentysomething Indonesians in London’s quirky Brick Lane who giggly told me that the savings from their first year salary only afforded them hostel bunk-beds and McDonald’s meals—reserving their pretty penny for one lunch at Brick Lane’s famed fish-and-chips joint that was on many travel blogs. Relishing every bite of the precious fish, they cheerily showed me their Instagram posts at every London’s landmark and marveled at my pictures of the Lady Diana’s exhibition in Kensington Palace, which admission of GBP 19 they found too pricey.

When I was that young and cash-strapped, I never dared to hop on a plane to travel. I had to rely on my Balinese dancing prowess to be included in students’ visit programs, rare gifts from my parents or, when I started working, occasional training programs. I traveled around on a string budget during my years in the US, but I was already there and familiar with my ways around.

To be fair, until about 1.5 decade ago choices were quite limited—low-cost carriers were yet to emerge, and rooms were mostly secured with fees through travel agents who never seemed to book lower than three-star hotels. The recent digitalization of travel bookings has indeed widened and democratized options—purveyors post their prices, customers make choices accordingly.

I once read the report on Indonesian tourists by the US Commercial Service. The 2013-2014 stats on Southeast Asia ranked Indonesian tourists just behind the Philippines and Singapore in an uptick trend. Anyone who’s lined up outside the American Embassy would acknowledge that its visa process was the farthest from a walk in the park, yet the jump on Indonesian middle class along with its travel appetite was sufficient to boost tourism to the US. VISA’s Global Travel Intention Survey 2015, also cited on the report, showed a 33% increase on outbound leisure travel and 30% increase on median travel budget of Indonesian travelers in 2013-2015.

The industry has clearly seen the potentials. There are at least 10 travel fairs so far this year—airline, destination, or travel agent specific. Japan and China have relaxed tourism visa requirements for a few years now; New Zealand following suit this past month. I suppose Indonesia’s image is gradually departing from the exporter of domestic workers or potential jihadists to source of bankable tourists.

The domestic destinations are also enjoying the boom. Professional local operators like Kakaban Trip have enabled Indonesians to enjoy our far-flung corners that had mostly been accessible to foreigners who could afford private transportations in this infrastructure-challenged country. In reverse, there is a rising demand from newly-moneyed folks outside Java for proper tours of Jakarta.

I’m personally happy with this phenomenon, as I believe travel enriches one’s experiences and broadens one’s views, something the diverse world can benefit from. Yet many in the industry don’t think that the intention is as noble or inquisitive—bragging rights is more like it.

“For the bragging rights of being the first in their circle” is the insight voiced out by both co-founder of London-based bespoke travel firm Nota Bene Global about the super-rich in 2017 and overseer of the annual Portrait of American Travelers about the millennials in 2016. Across the demography spectrum bragging rights is prevalent, and I guess it’s not that different for Indonesian travelers. Doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why—the digitalization of social circle has made it very easy, almost tempting, to brag.

Certainly before social media people would brag about their travels– but only to their immediate circle with access to the rehashed tales, framed pictures and displayed souvenirs. Nowadays, with a social media account and right hashtag, one’s travel tale can be shared across the globe for the Warhol-would-be-scandalized fifteen seconds it takes to view, like and comment on a stranger’s post.

I wasn’t exactly immune to the trap. I rarely post my face on social media, yet the snap of me jumping on glacier was possibly as much about the view as showing my physical fitness, just as the posted video of a local boy bareback riding his horse at sunset might’ve been as much about the dreamlike moment as parading how far into Sumba’s deserted beaches we ventured.

So, okay, maybe the surge of travel is also about propping up status, a once luxury leisure enjoyed by the elite that is now democratized and made available for the masses. If so, the optimistic in me wonders, what is so wrong about that? Didn’t we always say that the masses needed enlightenment the most? Once they outgrow the bragging phase, wouldn’t more travel bring them more perspectives and wisdom, steering them further from petty arguments over religions and politics?

While you ponder if your sojourns are for fun or for the bragging rights, let me google which part of San Marino during springtime that get the most Instagram-friendly sunlight.

As published:

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