How not to travel?

This article has recently resurfaced on social media (such is the power of social media – the article was written in 2010, but it has received all of its comments over the past few days), and has invited much criticism over its arguably biased and ‘Western-centric’ view of Singapore. As a Singaporean I broadly agree with many of the criticisms made of the article, and worry that many other travellers who have been to Singapore may share the same perspective.

Expectations and bias in travel

I think that there is more to the article for us readers. To me, travel writing like this is broadly indicative of a particular approach taken to travel. When many of us travel, we often expect a certain experience and a level of fulfillment – when it works out well, we feel vindicated, and link the thrill we experience to the place itself. However, when a destination doesn’t meet our preconceived expectations, we start finding the entire place boring, drab, and unsatisfying.

Indeed I’d venture to suggest that the author encounters a lot of this ‘bias’ in her article. The writer compares Singapore with other Asian countries half the time – demonstrating that she carried very heavy notions of ‘what an Asian country should be like’ into her travel experiences, and that they did not square with Singapore. She concluded that Singapore is a country ‘to avoid’.  That clearly wasn’t the best approach, judging by most of the comments.

However, are we all immune to this ‘expectations’ bias? I don’t think so. I feel our expectations of travel are the most evident when we converse about travel. People compare travel destinations like they compare prices (some people do it at the same time!), ‘rate’ the places they have been to (“this castle is not as interesting as others I’ve been to”), and even compare entire travel experiences. I’ve often received advice from friends telling me ‘X is more interesting than Y’ or even ‘Don’t go to Z’ – and I’ve sometimes given that advice to my own friends.

Is it fair for us to judge travel destinations like that?

On one hand, it’s nice to think that every place offers its visitor a unique experience which simply cannot be compared to another place, in the same way we compare prices. It’s also nice to be nice – the world would be so much better if everyone just travelled without casting their expectations and judgements on what they see.

However, we also need to acknowledge the process of travel itself as a limiting factor. Most of us are on a time budget when we are travelling – because of that, we make plans to see specific places, look up restaurant reviews and ask friends for recommendations. We don’t want our time wasted. With a limited time to do what we want, and a limited amount we can spend, we try to go for the archetypal tourist experience – searching for the best places that serve the best food and provide the best experiences.

Can we do better?

It’s difficult to say. ‘Travelling without expectations’ is probably a difficult adjustment to make cognitively, given that most of us want the best travel experience. I admit that I myself carry many expectations into the travel experience. For instance, I routinely over-research the places I want to visit – checking out photographs of places that I’m visiting and seeing if they’re ‘worth’ going to.

There are several things I think we can do. The first thing is for us to be aware of this bias – that we sometimes cast our expectations on places and on experiences unfairly. It will probably help us be less critical travellers. The second thing is to recognise that a good travel experience doesn’t always come by fulfilling our expectations. The more a place challenges your expectations, the more you can learn from it – so stick with it. I lament the fact that the writer only persisted in Singapore for two days, and that she was completely uninterested in finding out more – there’s so little you can experience in two days, even on a small island.

Finally, before dismissing any place as ‘boring’, or even suggesting that some places are ‘to avoid’, think about the people who make genuine choices to live their lives there, and think about why they may be doing that. Then travel.

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