One Billion Travelers

By Scott Coates (

In just a century we’ve seen travel change from something people did to flee a country, head to work in a new land, or vacation – generally only for the elite, to something most middle class people are now doing semi-regularly. A century ago traveling from San Francisco to Hong Kong meant spending up to two weeks at sea by steamer ship, most of which were not particularly comfortable. Braving rough seas, passing the time and more importantly covering the bill was something most people simply couldn’t do. Nor was the notion of traveling for fun particularly in people’s vocabulary or something they did for a significant amount of time. Venturing much further than the local lake, mountain or river was a significant journey and undertaking that was typically only undertaken when moving or fleeing the law. Fast forward 100 years and it’s an entirely different world we’re living in.

A Swiss family meets an Ahka hilltribe woman in northern Thailand.

In December 2012, stories appeared in news agencies such as CNN announcing that for the first time in history more than one billion people undertook international journeys in 2012. In the last century work life has changed dramatically, the middle class has grown quickly, for millions basic food/lodging needs are easily met, leaving extra monies for travel and leisure. Add to this continually shrinking borders,coupled with affordable air travel, and a sizeable percentage of the world’s population is now making international travel a regular part of their yearly plans. So what does it mean for the global community?

With certainty there will be a litany of positives and negatives that increased international travel brings, but most will be overwhelming positive. Running a travel company based in SE Asia, Smiling Albino, I see how travel directly benefits many and while negatives could be covered, for this blog I’ll focus on some positives that seem likely:

Cost of Travel

The mere cost of travel is a huge plus. With more people traveling, lighter and more technically sophisticated aircraft coming online, the cost of air travel will only continue to drop. While many I know complain about the cost of airline tickets, it’s far and away the least expensive form of travel on the planet, short of walking. An average ticket from Vancouver to Bangkok costs about $1,500US. The trip is 11,800km one-way, which brings your return journey in at $0.06/km. Compare this to the cost of driving a Honda Civic (not taking into account the cost of the car, insurance, etc.) which gets about 14.5km/L, with gas at $1.30US/L, and the cost of the return journey (if you could drive it) would be $0.09/km. Nowadays you can pretty much travel from anywhere to anywhere on the planet within 24 hours, for less than the cost of driving = air travel is a steal and only getting better!

Increased Freedom

Whether travelers are from a democratic, communist, socialist or fascist state, travel will only broaden their horizons. Regardless the kind of brainwashing, slanted or biased information and education they may receive at home, travel can and will only broaden their horizons. Be it a major eureka moment experienced while abroad or simply seeing life outside home borders, over time this gets people talking and thinking, which leads to questions, and inevitably to increased levels of freedom. It may take time but it will happen.

A traveler shares his photos with kids in Cambodia.

Economic Opportunities

Travel and the tourists that come with it, greatly increases economic opportunities for those with low levels of education.Pick your country: Thailand, Ecuador or Morocco, people selling t-shirts, working in hotels, driving cars, selling street food, working at the airports, you name it, they’re often from poorer areas, with low levels of education and little opportunity for income. Travel typically opens up jobs across entire countries, empowers locals, at a minimum provides them with income, and often inspires them to grow, learn and take themselves to levels perhaps never before imagined or possible.

Greater Understanding

It’s easy to dislike, hate or work against that which you do not know, understand or have never seen. Geographic rivalries have been created, cultivated and encouraged based on misinformation for centuries. Most of the people who support and are rallied around such rivalries have never seen the ‘enemy’, been to their lands, eaten their food, shared a public space, or exchanged words. Travel brings reality to assumed and invented prejudices through physical encounters and exchanges. Breaking down ingrained hatred and prejudice unfortunately often takes a long time to erode but physical meetings and exchanges will lead to its eventual elimination.

Unprecedented Peace

While war seems to be historically in our nature, increased international travel and all that comes with it surely sets us on a long term course for world peace as never seen before. From the opportunity to meet face-to-face with the ‘enemy’, to having employment and income to support one’s family, the chance to see what’s out there and bring those experiences home, we’re surely headed down a better global path. As travelers experience, talk with one another, share with their countrymen, question where they’re from and where they’re going, so will borders soften, open up, cultural understanding and tolerance increase, and with it, the ingrained need to hate and take up arms lessen. Travel is our greatest tool for understanding, compassion and recognizing that billions of us are all here and in this together.