Tuesday, 23 November 2004

The Amazing Race 6, Episode 2

Grindavik (Iceland) - Oslo (Norway) - Holmenkollen (Norway) - Brandbu (Norway) - Honefoss (Norway) - Voss (Norway)

Is this reality, or is this television?” That’s the question everyone seems to be asking after the first couple of episodes of the new season of The Amazing Race , the reality-television show about Americans travelling around the world. At first glance, it seems like the least “realistic” cast in the six seasons of the race to date.

The appeal of the show has been that we could identify with the real travellers, not actors, who were selected for the cast. We imagine ourselves in their place, living out our travel fantasies (and, sometimes, travel nightmares).

That’s harder this season when 6 of the 22 contestants are, in “real” life, actors or models, 2 more are professional performers and athletes (professional wrestlers), and yet another two are pro athletes (personal trainers). But are they unrepresentative of reality in more ways than this?

To answer that, we need to compare what we know about the racers with the actual characteristics of people from the USA who travel around the world. All we know about the racers is what CBS-TV has chosen to tell us, since they aren’t allowed to talk to me or any other reporters until after they are eliminated from the televised race. But it’s almost equally hard to get precise statistics on this type of travel and the people who do it, despite its growing popularity.

In the USA, there’s relatively little academic research on travel and tourism, and almost none on travel as anything other than an “industry”. Elsewhere, the social (not just economic) phenomenon of travel is getting more attention from anthropologists and sociologists. If you’re curious, the resource guide in The Practical Nomad: How to Travel Around the World includes some of these references in the section on, “The Ecology of Travel and Tourism”, pages 510-514 in the latest (3rd) edition.

In Australia, by comparison, the government helps fund tourism research from its budget for economic development and tourism promotion, and has targeted backpackers as one of the most lucrative categories of international visitors. On average, people who stay in hostels stay so much longer in the country that they spend more money per person than tourists who stay in luxury resorts or who take cruises or package tours. The result is some of the best work in this genre, such as Klaus Westerhausen’s Beyond the Beach: An Ethnography of Modern Travellers in Asia .

But Westerhausen, like most other observers, conflates the longest-term with the lowest-budget travellers. And he pays little attention to the relatively few Americans in his sample. There’s nothing in print or online that gives a realistic picture of the demographics of the “typical” American who takes a trip around the world.

But I can draw some comparisons from what I’ve found in my research for my books and for my job at Airtreks.com . The most important difference between the reality and the assumptions most people make — including, apparently, the casting directors for “The Amazing Race” — is how much more diverse real American around-the-world travellers are than the people who have been cast as travellers for this season of “reality” television.

The median age of this season’s travel racers is between 29 and 30 years old, and the mean between 33 and 34. Those are only slightly younger than the averages for Airtreks.com customers. (Typical long-term travellers from the USA are a bit older than those from other parts of the world, probably because the lack of government support for higher education means that people in the USA are still paying off their student loans at ages when people leaving school or college in other countries can be off and travelling, in part as a way to complete a well-rounded global education.) But while this season’s cast, like each of the previous ones, includes a couple of token senior citizens, middle-aged people and those in long-term romantic and life partnerships are otherwise under-represented: only 2 of the 22 contestants are between 40 and 65, and only 3 between 35 and 65.

That’s not real: middle-aged, mid-career people, mostly in established couples but also some singles, represent a much larger, and growing, proportion of actual long-term travellers. That’s a function of the growth of “contingent” work arrangements (freelancing, contracting, etc.) and the decline in job continuity (making job changes and checkered resumes the norm rather than the exception), as well as growing openness to unpaid leaves and sabbaticals (even with employers without formal policies for them) and the growing recognition of the lifelong value of international experience as a career asset. More and more parents are taking young children with them around the world, even taking them out of school to give them the gift of international experience and education early in life.

The cast of The Amazing Race 6 also mirrors the equally false, equally common assumption that only people from the more urban and “cosmopolitan” parts of the country would think of such a trip: 12 of 22 contestants are from greater Los Angeles or New York City. Those may be the largest television markets in the USA, but people from those places are far from a majority of long-term international travellers from the USA, as measured by Department of Commerce survey data I’ve had analyzed for Airtreks.com.

After more than a dozen years selling around-the-world airline tickets, working with and giving seminars for around-the-world travellers, and researching my books about around-the-world travel, I’m no longer surprised by almost any sort of person, from almost anywhere, taking such a trip. If you think that someone like you couldn’t get the time or the money for a trip around the world, you’re wrong. I’ve seen it all, even from people in the most constraining- seeming careers and jobs and the least likely-seeming places.

That shouldn’t really be a surprise. The dream of a trip around the world may seem “exotic” and out of reach, but it’s neither, and it isn’t limited to young people and retirees, to people in big cities, or to people on the coasts. In a poll last month, two thirds of the readers of National Geographic Traveller — not exactly a backpacker magazine — said their top travel fantasy was a trip around the world. More and more people from all over the country are finding ways to make it real. If you make it a priority, you can too.

Outside the USA, the question everyone watching “The Amazing Race” is asking — and the one that dominates my e-mail and the comments in my blog — is, “Why do the producers of “The Amazing Race” have this, “No foreigners need apply”, rule? But that’s another story. I don’t produce the show, and I don’t make the rules. As radio newscaster and commentator Scoop Nisker always says, “If you don’t like the news, then go out and make some of your own.” In this case, what I’d say is, “If you don’t like the television show, or they won’t let you on, then go out and take your own trip.”

Bon voyage!

Link | Posted by Edward on Tuesday, 23 November 2004, 23:59 (11:59 PM)
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