Ex-President Barack Obama feels travel broadens the heart and the mind. At the World Travel and Tourism Global Summit in Seville, Spain last week he spoke to Hilton CEO, Christopher Nassetta, about travels ability to change people’s worldviews and break down geopolitical barriers. Obama praised travel's ability to remind people of the value of diversity amid growing xenophobia and nationalism and gave us insight into his favourite travel destinations and what’s on his wish list.
On how travel transformed him “There's something quite special about being a young person travelling. For my first trip to Kenya I was in my mid-20s when I had graduated from college. My father had passed away at that point and I wanted to understand him, and understand the land that he was from. So I went there for a month.” His most cherished travel memories are with family “There's something spectacular about seeing a new place and being exposed to new ideas; travel makes you grow. As a parent, when you are able to watch that sense of discovery in your children, that's more special than anything else. The most memorable trips I've taken have been the ones with my girls. Some of them have been spectacular. We were walking through the Kremlin. Sasha was seven years old and she was wearing a trenchcoat – she looked like an international spy. What it was like traveling as president? "When I was travelling as president I visited a lot of cultural sights, and sometimes I'd get into trouble back home because – particularly in the conservative opposition media – they'd say 'Obama's on Vacation'! What I understood was that part of diplomacy is letting other people know that you recognise and appreciate their culture, their history and their stories. When people feel as if they are not understood and that they are not seen, then they won't be open to your perspectives either.” How his daughters travel “Malia and Sasha – they want experiences. Pampering is nice when you're travelling with your mum and your dad – they like room services and spas and stuff, sometimes. But what really excites them is being able to feel like they're interacting with a new culture. They're learning, meeting people. For this industry, it's about trying to figure out how to capture the energy and vibrancy of young people. “If they feel as though the nature of an attraction or a sight or a city is not conservation conscious, they'll be less interested.” “In some ways travelling with them [now they are 20 and 17] is more precious. If you can tempt them with a really nice trip it's a good way to spend more time with them, because they can't afford it.” On Europe “I came to Europe [as a young man] , and I had never travelled to Europe before. That trip was memorable. I was not staying at the Hilton because I didn't have enough money – I was staying at pensiones. I'd buy a baguette and some cheese and eat that every day. And some wine, occasionally”. How travel has changed now he’s not president any more "I miss Air Force One but I also miss that they'd clear out the air space for you. I was on a plane, a private plane not a commercial one, and I noticed we were just sitting there. And I was like, 'Why aren't we moving?' and he said 'Because there's other planes in front of us." What's on his bucket list? "There are a couple of the bucket list. There are times where I was in a spot, was planning to go and then something happened. When you're close, but don't quite get there. Angkor Wat – I was two hours away but somehow I didn't get there because some crisis was happening at home. "I still haven't seen the Taj Mahal. I was scheduled to go, but then King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia passed away and we decided to stop off at Riyadh, and as a consequence I didn't get there. Antarctica. Secret service wouldn't let me go there because of the logistics of that. If the weather turned I might be stuck or be away from communications for a couple of weeks."
On travel bringing people together “Travel helps us to value the diversity of this planet and the differences we have. But travelling also reminds us of what we share – what we have in common. It helps us to recognise ourselves in each other. If you go to some small village in Kenya and you see a mother and child playing and laughing, you realise it's not different to the mother and child playing in Virginia or Hawaii." “I believe in bringing people together instead of separating them out as us and them. If we try to reassert hard, fixed borders at a time when technology and information are borderless, not only will we fail but will see greater conflict and clashes between peoples.” On travel’s influence on the young “Young people are innovative, smart, creative, idealistic, and ready to go. They understand, instinctively, that this is one world. National boundaries and ethnic and religious differences don’t prevent them from learning from and collaborating with other people; the politics of looking backwards and erecting walls is a politics that is not going to appeal to them. They fundamentally reject it. On ease of travel Obama urged destinations to make travel visas more widely available. Obama said, putting up borders cannot solve the economic and cultural issues parts of the world face. “If we try to reassert these very hard fixed borders at a time when technology and information are borderless, not only will we fail, but I think we are going to see greater and greater conflict and greater and greater clashes between peoples,” he said. On women travellers “Because I have daughters, I know travel for women poses some specific dangers around safety and security when it comes to the attitudes of men in these places. If you’re part of a tourism council in a city or nation where young women feel uncomfortable where they’re traveling, that will potentially reduce your market”. On how climate change will affect travel “Climate change is not something far off in the future. It is demonstrably happening right now and we are seeing the impacts right now. Some of the most beautiful places on this planet, the places we all want to visit and spend time at, are at risk by these changes. Some of the most spectacular parts of our civilisation are built along coastlines that won't survive if we have an extra four feet of ocean”.
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