Why do people travel ?
Analysis by the sociologist Jean-Didier Urbain
In your book L’Envie du Monde, you describe the four different reasons people have for travelling. What are they and what category do family holidays fall into?
This four-way typology, which I also used in my book Une histoire érotique du voyage, refers, in turn, to the following four desires. The call of the desert: the yearning for emptiness (uninhabited, open spaces), solitude either individual or, at a pinch, shared with one other person. Cenobitism: the yearning for emptiness, for collective solitude (in small groups or with the family, as in holiday camps or second homes). Social appeal: the desire to live life to the full, to be among the crowd, a like-minded, open, large community (at festivals or the beach). And, lastly, the altruistic dream: the yearning for the Other, not the unknown, but something strange and exotic. Family travel is a form of cenobitism in motion which may, depending on circumstance and mood, blend into like-minded communities, crowds or otherness. But it may also remain isolated, in the desert, solitary or autarkic.
Why do people travel with the family?
Family travel was once a form of family reunification. Historically, this type of travel was governed by one’s roots and attachments: going on holiday meant returning to one’s place of birth, to one’s origins. Economic reasons also played a role: going home to one’s family implied being given help and accommodation. We are now witnessing the reinvention of this strategy. Multigenerational travel including children, parents and grandparents is thriving. Family solidarity is coming into play. Travel costs are shared and, in a way, “sponsored” by grandparents. For example, young people may provide transport for older members of the family, while grandparents can help out, offer guidance and financial support.
Has the idea of travelling with the family for pleasure always existed?
No. The very idea of family travel is not something to be taken for granted. In the late 19th century, Freud jotted down notes on the journeys he made. At the time, he travelled without his wife. Travelling did not really involve being with the family. As for the idea of travelling for pleasure, well, that’s quite recent. The aestheticisation of landscape came late. People only began to find the mountains beautiful from the 17th century onwards… After World War II, travelling with the family became more popular largely as a result of the introduction of paid holidays for workers. The summer rush to the coast only really developed in the 1960s. French holidaymakers headed to the sun, to Spain, to the seaside. These were holidays where the family stayed in one resort, not exploratory or discovery trips. There were no alternatives for employees in the 1950s. When they were able to go away, they went with the family once a year. It was known as the “French model”. Ninety-five per cent of the time, people went on holiday for as long as possible in July or August. Nowadays, family holidays are a different thing altogether. Leisure trips have mushroomed. The number of trips people make to big cities is thought to average between five and six per year. Short breaks have triumphed over long stays. People prefer to enjoy several short getaways than to travel just once for much longer – except when it’s a case of a long-term family trip to a distant country. Leisure trips are far less conventional than before. People no longer feel obliged to go away on holiday at the same time as everyone else. Some even prefer not to go away for several years so
Tourism is one of French sociologist and ethnologist Jean-Didier Urbain’s preferred subjects. Interview.
that they can eventually make THE trip-of-a-lifetime. This is a trend greatly influenced by the Internet. One can now act as one’s own travel agent and plan a journey without the help of a professional.
True. We’ve met parents who plan real expeditions across the globe with their children. Is this new?
Where exploratory or discovery trips are concerned, people certainly travel with the family more frequently. While some trips simply involve relocating one’s sedentary lifestyle, exchanging one place for another for the space of a holiday, as a rule in the countryside or by the sea, the phenomenon of globetrotters travelling with their children has also emerged. This does, however, remain an exception. Parents going to Peru with their young children are not legion. It’s a question of means, culture, and probably also one of generation. Young executives with high purchasing power want to keep on travelling even with their children; they don’t want to stop moving around when they become parents. There are also families who spend a whole year on a boat, sometimes sailing to the unlikeliest of places, but this type of initiative remains relatively marginal.
Travelling with the family, planning an itinerary and embarking on an ambitious project seems to be a challenge that resonates with these modern families…
It’s also a form of compensation. One should not forget that family life is no longer what it used to be. Men and women both go out to work, often have different schedules; children go to school… When all is said and done, families don’t have that much time to spend together. The space of a family holiday thus becomes a privileged moment to rebuild the family unity that is hard to maintain during the rest of the year. A family holiday is the equivalent of a honeymoon for a couple: an antisocial act of emancipation, of separation, a means of gaining autonomy, if not independence, for a specific period of time.
How do you explain that some people always go back to the same place?
It’s an old tradition, often linked to the child’s age. A young child is generally a factor in a sedentary lifestyle. If one goes away, one goes to a holiday resort rather than roaming about to see the sights. The philosopher Gaston Bachelard spoke of “topophilia”, a term that describes the love of a place, the pleasure of returning to a place one loves.
Stories about families setting off on an adventure for several weeks in a camping car circulate on social media. How do you explain the return to this type of journey?
This type of journey is the legacy of counter-cultures that left a deep impression on us and that today are being rediscovered, and are possibly overestimated, idolised at any rate. Like the hippy movement which conveyed the idea of inventing an alternative world and advocated communal living, on the fringes of society. It’s the pleasure of being together with one’s own kin, of being independent and self-reliant. Some have even termed it “travel therapy”, which is said to heal urban malaise, a life torn apart by day-to-day city rhythms that fragment everyone’s time and make demands that may vary from one person to another.
A family holiday is the equivalent of a honeymoon for a couple: an antisocial act of emancipation, of separation, a means of gaining autonomy, if not independence, for a specific period of time.
“Participative” travel – responsible, humanitarian and eco-friendly trips – has recently emerged. Do you think that this a good way of making children aware of the world around them?
These practices are still elitist. One of the first things to do is to get to know one’s own family. One should turn towards one’s own kith and kin, before turning towards other people. Family trips also serve this purpose. In my book Une histoire érotique du voyage, I explain how travel is associated with pleasure, and how it has become a means of discovering pleasure. Family travel first and foremost implies the pleasure of being together. People will almost certainly open themselves to others once they’ve opened themselves to their loved ones. There’s a dual mechanism at play: taking the time to be with one’s loved ones means not only taking time for oneself, but sharing it. The family is a sort of initiatory unit.
What do children or teens who go on holiday without their parents gain from the experience?
This is an interesting question for since the mid1990s, summer camps have lost much of their appeal. Nowadays, we have a very possessive relationship with our children. We are far less attached to the idea of children going away on their own. Basically, a child’s first summer camp is with his or her family. Travel strategy should initially be understood as a strategy of reunification, empowerment and isolation. Our world is made up of islands. Not only in the geographical sense but also in the sense of isolated enclosed places. Whether it concerns holiday resorts, hotel retreats, cruises, residences or apartments purchased in the mountains or countryside. Holidays are increasingly seen as a time for disengaging or withdrawal. Sending a child on holiday without his or her parents, thus fulfilling the rite of separation, seems to happen later and later. Symbolically, perhaps the new summer camps are these courses and study trips abroad, when adolescence is over.
Travelling alone together with a child seems increasingly attractive to parents. How do you explain these privileged “rendezvous”?
Some people are indeed taking this initiative. The writer Philippe Dossal published a beautiful travel book, Derrière la montagne. It tells the story of a father who decides to keep a promise he made long ago to his son: to travel together to what they considered to be the farthest place on Earth. They took the Trans-Siberian railway to China. Basically it’s a shared initiation ritual, between oneself and one’s double, a play of mirrors lived through unfamiliar experiences that thus create a sense of distance one would never have otherwise. In general, the experience gained from travelling cannot be found at home, or on Skype or social media: discovering how others see one as well as taking a look at oneself outside the world one usually lives in. Books by Jean-Didier Urbain in French: L’Envie du monde (Bréal), Une histoire érotique du voyage (Payot) and Le Voyage était presque parfait: Essai sur les voyages ratés (Payot). One of his books has been published in English: At the Beach (2003, University of Minnesota Press).