We all recognise the “gap yah” stereotype. Rich, middle-class, privately educated teenager, jetting off to exotic locations for a hedonistic rite of passage. Harmless fun, for those who can afford it. But is there something more sinister behind the banter and the booze? Travel is supposed to broaden the mind, allowing us to empathise and appreciate to a greater degree. Yet, travel, and especially writing surrounding it, has recently begun to be seen in a new Orientalist light, the perceptions of the traveller subverted by their inherent prejudice. Gap years invariably involve denizens of the developed world exploring less affluent regions, often former colonies of the traveller’s homeland. The local population are attractively exotic, but somehow less than equal. Interaction is imbalanced. Many gap years take young adults on deeply enriching journeys, frequently helping communities through charity work or developing civil society. This does not prevent the convention having many aspects that can be seen as neo-colonialist. The interpersonal interaction; the exploitation of cheap labour and living costs; the dehumanisation of those perceived, however subconsciously, as socially and perhaps racially inferior. However, the systematic control that colonialism relies upon is absent.
Rather, it resembles another historical phenomenon: the Grand Tour. From the seventeenth to the nineteenth century, Europe’s aristocrats travelled around the continent, seeking to imbibe classical culture and learning, create networks of patrons and friends and establish oneself as a person of note. Russian Tsar Peter the Great travelled incognito to Western Europe to learn ship-building skills and enjoy the culture of the continent, but his visit became notorious for its debauchery. Behind the refined ideals, the Grand Tour was about the perpetuation of power. Whilst Classical culture may have helped to define this, the decadence and logistics of the expeditions created a naturally limited constituency. The gentry may have played at being poor whilst travelling, but failed to see the genuine problems that the Europe they saw faced.
The problem we face now is remarkably similar: those embarking on gap years may do so with open minds and good intentions, but the fundamental disconnect remains. We do not truly recognise our privileged situation, in being able to travel where we like, both affording to do so and being accepted where we go. There is a sense of entitlement behind even the most well-intentioned trip. We accept the possibility of charity work in Africa, or parties in Thailand, as a social norm for the young people of the West. The reverse would be considered most unusual. Travel, the romance of poverty and the dehumanisation of those less fortunate than ourselves are tightly linked. The sense of entitlement with which we exploit the exotic is imperialistic. But this is not imperialism through systems of government or even cultural hegemony, although that undoubtedly exists. Rather, it is symptomatic of the wider dispossession and atomisation of society in the West. Few working class teenagers take gap years; moreover, they are often perceived similarly to the people of the developing world. Debates about “scroungers” and the idea of a “chav” underclass are typical of the lack of empathy for the poor, an emotion that is then applied on a global level when one embarks on travel with little regard for the lives of those one visits.
To dismiss travel would be petty and counter-productive. What is needed is a deeper understanding of the places one visits and the people one meets. I didn’t take a gap year; if I had, I would most likely have been guilty of the attitudes I’m criticising. Yet much travel seems to be shallow, failing to understand the places visited in a sympathetic way. This involves taking a nuanced view: poverty does not define a place, but it should not be ignored. Customs may be different, but they should be respected as a valid expression of culture and identity. By recognising our advantages, and attempting to understand those we encounter, we can enrich both ourselves and create genuine cultural exchange. Charity is a somewhat different issue – and many gap years support it – with its own advantages and flaws. Indeed, it would be easy to portray elements of the institution as neo-colonialist. However, it does provide vital support for many people in dire need. Rather, it is the travel of the elite – the “gap yah” stereotype, if you like – that needs to alter. At the moment, it is, in modern parlance, the pursuit of the one per cent. The gap year may not be colonialist, but it has become the new Grand Tour, where those who can treat those who can’t as a novelty, exotic background for their hedonistic, pseudo-cultural pursuits.