What young travellers bring to the global community

This article was originally published in the UN World Tourism Organization’s report The Power of Youth Travel, released in September 2011. It was written to help explain to political decision makers why they should orientate their destinations more towards younger travellers. In the end it landed on the desks of tourism ministers around the world…

Over the past year, news headlines have been occupied with the efforts of young people around the world to bring about social, political and economic change in their respective countries. Social networks and smartphones have proven powerful tools in these efforts, as well as the desire to participate, the capacity to face challenges and put personal differences aside in pursuit of a greater cause. It is therefore unsurprising that young people worldwide have applied similar principles in organising and carrying out their travel plans.

At a first glance, demographics do not appear to favour the growth of youth tourism in the West because of an increasingly ageing population. While this may be so, the age range for youth travel has in fact expanded considerably. With the increasing affordability and accessibility of educational travel programmes, children as young as eight or nine years old are gaining close-up experience of other countries, languages and ways of living. At the other end of the scale, young adults in these countries are continuing to live a ‘younger’ lifestyle for longer, putting off the responsibilities of adulthood such as raising children or buying property until later and continuing to travel as a youth traveller for longer.

Besides, the recovery of world tourism from the recent years of economic crisis has mainly been driven by an increase in departures from the emerging economies such as Brazil, Russia and China. Statistics from these UNWTO Member States suggest that young people represent a considerable proportion of these new departures.

 ‘Tourism is not just another sector of the economy. It is a human phenomenon that has social implications.’

Those working in the field of youth tourism will be aware of the long-held view by destinations worldwide that young travellers are at best an added extra to more lucrative high-end visitors and at worst, an irritation. Given the encouraging trends described above then, surely now is the time to seriously consider not just the increasingly profound economic impact of young visitors but the importance of youth travel for the global community too, so that destinations can learn how to extend a warm welcome to those who could well make repeat visits in the future.

For many hundreds of years young people have been encouraged to explore other cultures and increase their knowledge of the world, whether through pilgrimages, visits to places of learning or pure colonialism. The foundations for the modern concept of youth travel however can be traced very firmly to the postwar initiative of many European nations to send their young abroad in the hope that this would build peace through tolerance, trust and understanding. Many of the government agencies and ministries set up to fund this endeavour survive to this day and can be counted among the Members of UNWTO and WYSE Travel Confederation. Look at the mission statements of these institutions and the objectives of ‘promoting mutual understanding’ and ‘knowledge of other cultures’ figure strongly.

So, whether through official encouragement or through personal initiative, it is the way in which young people travel that can best help to illustrate the benefits youth travel brings to the global community.

Firstly, having to gain the means to travel for themselves means that young people will aim to experience and appreciate their journey as much as possible. Seeking new, unique experiences means trying new ways of living, eating and sleeping, discovering unfamiliar cultures or joining other young people en-masse at large-scale events. This desire to gather, share intense experiences and learn creates the conditions for young people to develop tolerance, cultural awareness and a better understanding of international relations. Many businesses are starting to realise the value of study and work-abroad programmes, recognising that if these are structured properly, they can produce capable, resourceful and globally-aware future employees, ready to work in an ever-more globalised and interconnected world.

This, for example, is one of the objectives of the ERASMUS programme which for the past 20 years has enabled university exchanges within the European Economic Area for nearly 3 million students.

So while the benefits for travellers themselves are increasingly being recognised by educational institutions, parents and future employers, what positive impact can young travellers make on host communities?

There is still much research to be conducted in this area, however a number of direct and indirect impacts can be observed. Firstly, there are now more opportunities than ever before for young people to engage directly in development assistance, some examples of which have been presented in the various case studies in this report. When this is well structured and young people go properly trained and with realistic expectations of what they can do, the benefits for the host community and individual can be numerous.

Secondly, the intrepid nature of experienced young travellers leads them to visit parts of the world that are ‘off the beaten track’ or even unstable and dangerous. As we have seen, they are the most likely group to buy goods and services from local, independent vendors. In this way, young travellers help maintain a vital contact with the outside world, and more importantly, a source of income for local communities.

Thirdly, facing their expeditions with an open mind, and without prejudice is what leads young people to continue travelling at a time of crisis (whether man-made or natural). Consider, for example, the well documented case of young travellers who continued to travel in the aftermath of 9/11, including young travellers from the US who in most cases changed their travel plans, rather than cancelled them all together. While not all-together crisis-proof, the determination shown by young people to depart once the basic costs of travelling are covered should be a source of hope and encouragement for many destinations.

 The effect of the Internet

The power of the internet to facilitate all of the above must not be underestimated. Budget airlines, long tried and trusted by young travellers, were among the first major players to exploit the innovative methods of planning and booking travel that the internet presented. Hotels, budget accommodation, travel agents and other providers have seen their sales models revolutionised in a similar way. Aside from the providers, the internet has also multiplied the opportunities for social interaction through travel. Consulting friends’ photos of past trips on Facebook, seeking ‘hidden gems’ on TripAdvisor, arranging to stay with locals through Couchsurfing or getting insider tips on countless local blogs helps young travellers to connect before, during and after their trip to local people and their knowledge to make informed decisions that enhance their travel experience.

As we have seen, the reasons for promoting youth travel in terms of the benefits it can bring to the individual and to the host community are quite clear. However, it is too simplistic to assume that young peoples’ experience of travel is always positive and that the process of self-enhancement is automatic.

Unfortunately, all too often young travellers are subject to stereotyping, suspicion and poor service. With their power to mobilise contacts, expose scams and poor service and ultimately vote with their wallets, young travellers can no longer be considered as passive consumers. Providers in the tourism and travel industry should recognise that investing in quality services and well-trained staff is not just essential because it is profitable. It is also essential because of the social importance of providing young visitors with positive travel experiences. The travel industry as a whole has the responsibility to provide the right conditions for this transformation to take place. This means the public and private sectors working together to provide quality services that are well adapted to the needs, means and expectations of young travellers. Joining promotion efforts, sharing information about visitor profiles and training staff to a high level are among some of the efforts that will help destinations to ensure that their development will be truly sustainable and the young travellers of today will continue to visit long into the future.