A conversation with Robert Schrader

“I hope that entitled residents of cities like Venice, Kyoto and Cartagena will now realize how stupid they were complaining all these years.”

Robert Schrader runs the popular travel blog Leave Your Daily Hell, as well as several successful bespoke itinerary services. He was doing very well with both until COVID-19 hit. I talk with Robert about his business, his anger at the global response to the virus, the touristic quest for authenticity, and the term “overtourism” — which he finds repulsive.

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First off, how have you experienced the coronavirus crisis, both as an industry expert and as a traveler? Has it changed your ideas about the future of tourism?

Covid-19 — or at least the response of global governments to the pandemic — has destroyed my life and my business. I have had essentially zero income, and about an 80% drop in web traffic, since February/March. Frankly, the only reason I haven’t had to “quit” and do something else is that I was very responsible during the “good times.” I have enough savings to last until early 2022; I hope there is some kind of rebound before then.

However, I think it’s important to make a distinction here, because much of the media is too lazy or ignorant to do so. Covid-19 — the virus, this is — is not responsible for the continued, stunted state of the travel industry, as it was for the initial shock. Rather, it is government policies — about 80% of the world’s borders, including every single one in Asia-Pacific, are totally closed to tourists — that have suppressed “demand” and destroyed lives. I suppose you could extrapolate this out to the superfluous lockdown policies within countries.

Unfortunately, while many governments have accepted the futility of these lockdowns, they seem convinced that they need to keep borders closed “until there’s a vaccine” — and unaware, apparently, that the discovery and even the global deployment of a vaccine is not going to flip some magic switch. However, I don’t buy into the idea that travel or tourism will — or should — change dramatically in the future. Eventually, governments will reopen their borders, and people will feel safe to travel across them again, be it because of vaccines/therapeutics, or the reality that Covid-19 only presents a mortal danger to around 0.3% of people, mostly very old and sick ones. Living in Taiwan, where there never was a major outbreak, I’ve watched the return to “normal” from the front row. Travel will snap back as soon as a critical mass of people know — or, I guess, believe — the threat has passed. I imagine the airports of 2022 will look a lot like the airports of 2019, even if passenger numbers aren’t quite as high.

Some have suggested we should take the crisis as an opportunity to revamp the tourism industry, especially its responsibility for “overtourism”. What is your view on these issues of sustainability as more and more people gain access to the world?

The term “overtourism” actually disgusts me, especially now that we’re in a time of no tourism at all. It’s elitist at best, and at worst classicism or racism in the vein of “overpopulation.” Similarly, I find proponents of using the term often cloak their opposition to the accessibility of travel in a virtuous green. Again, this is especially pervasive as thought leaders — or charlatans who consider themselves thought leader — try and create the post-Covid travel future. I’ve heard many, many people suggest, implicitly and explicitly, that travel should go back to being “luxury for the rich.” This was common before the virus — it’s more “green,” by design — but people are more brazen now, since culling the herd of global travelers would also naturally control infection.

However, as is the case with the overpopulation canard, the solution is not to approach this with a “lack” mentality, but one of abundance. The history of humanity — the good part of it, anyway — has been about engineering ways for the largest number of people to live the best life possible. We should be encouraging more people to travel, not fewer; we should be mitigating their environmental impact with more efficient aircraft, more conscious accommodations, more environmentally friendly cultivation and preparation of food, and perhaps, by distributing them more evenly throughout countries, instead of just in tourism hubs.

But no, we should not use the term “overtourism,” because it implies that only a certain level of tourist is acceptable, that only certain humans should be able to experience the wonder of travel. That is simply not acceptable to me. No human being should be denied the opportunity to have the joy that I do in their lives. Travel — the freedom of movement, certainly — is something approaching a human right.

Do you believe tourism will simply return to business as usual?

I think, if anything, people will be craving a return to normalcy after months (or, more likely, years) of being told death is around every corner. I do think you might have more disease control measures in place as a matter of practice: rapid Covid tests in the next few months and electronic vaccine certificates after that; mask vending machines in the next few months and permanent temperatures checks after that. But I just don’t see a long-term paradigm shift in tourism and travel that “elite” publications — largely staffed by New York/London intelligentsia who haven’t taken “real” trips in years— are foretelling.

I think people will also push back against the idea of overtourism, aided by low-cost airlines and budget hotels eager to recoup their Covid-era losses. I hope that entitled residents of cities like Venice, Kyoto and Cartagena will now realize how stupid they were complaining all these years and, even if tourists to spread out to other places — as I think they can, will, and should — will be more grateful for what they now know is a golden goose.

I guess when it comes to travel I’m a libertarian. I don’t think travelers need to be super conscious of being “responsible,” apart from big-ticket items like minimize plastic use, not exploiting animals or children, using public transport instead of cars, and other things that educated 21st-century people do in their home countries.

So what would you say to an angry Venetian (or Amsterdammer or barceloní) who comes up to you and says: “I have lived in one place all my life; I have seen it transform to a place in which seasonal tourists outnumber the locals, most local restaurants and services have been replaced by tourist traps, and any sense of ownership I felt over this town is now gone”?

I guess I would tell them that it is selfish, entitled and unrealistic to think you can live in one of the most beautiful, unique places on the planet and keep it to yourself for the rest of eternity. The place I come from doesn’t have any tourists at all because it is utterly ordinary. If you want to live without being bothered, move someplace people don’t want to bother with. Otherwise, stop bitching and moaning, particular since your own livelihood is likely tied to tourism, at least tangentially. Get off the cross; we need the wood.

“We are all doing the same thing, albeit for different reasons.”

You are clearly upset at the elitism inherent to certain forms of tourism. You have written in the past about the tenuous difference between ’tourists’ and ’travelers’, for instance. Do you think the difference is useless, or perhaps even counterproductive?

I think it’s completely counterproductive. It facilitates a sense of elitism among certain travelers — I like to call them the “AFAR Crowd” — and causes people who really are tourists to try and travel in a way that, ironically, is not authentic to what they actually want. I think this especially attracts Millennial and Gen Z travelers, who don’t want to be seen as “tourists.”

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The manifestation of this is especially obnoxious in the ecotourism/outdoor travel space. For example, I hike a lot; but I generally wear stylish city clothes while doing so. This elicits scorn and even contempt from what I call the “REI Contingent,” who somehow feel that wearing hiking boots and cargo-pants-that-zip-off-into-cargo-shorts gives them more street… er, trail cred. We are all tourists; we are all travelers. We are all doing the same thing, albeit for different reasons.

I’ve seen those pictures. What is it about the paradox of wearing stylish city clothes when on a hike that appeals to you?

I don’t see wearing stylish clothes in nature as a paradox, actually.

How important do you think “authenticity” is to current-day tourists?

I would say authenticity is important to most travelers today, though the reasons differ based on age. For older travelers (maybe 40+), I think there truly is the desire to see something authentic of a place, often the cuisine, but also the culture and the scenery. These are people for whom the idea of today’s “normal” vacations would’ve seemed inconceivable when they were younger; they don’t want to fly all the way to Portugal or Thailand without seeing something real about the place. For younger travelers, however, I find it’s more superficial: They want to be able to show an “authentic” image on social media, and reap the validation therein.

That said, I would push back a bit against the idea that people are looking for wholly “authentic” vacations. They might want to spend a day or two off the beaten path, but I would say most travelers want to focus at least a plurality of their time on “must-see” attractions, especially if it’s their first or second visit to a particular country.

How do you view the relationship between the focus on “authentic trips” to the wide use of digital technology to plan, increasingly, every aspect of our trips? Has it become easier to guide ourselves, or are we just increasingly being guided?

Well, as someone whose income is largely comprised of service fees from my bespoke itinerary planning service (I also have a Japan-specific one), I think the idea is to acquire a baseline of need-to-know information (namely, to have your lodging/dining/transport squared away, and at least some semblance of top things to do each day), and then go your own way from there. The way I market my service to would-be customers is that with the document I prepare for them in hand, they can feel like they’re winging it, even though they’re not.

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I would argue this ties back to authenticity: If you consult the services of a proverbial guide before you depart, you’re not really on a tour. With few exceptions, I find tour guides to be obnoxious and authoritarian. They often believe they know far more than they do, and that their services are more needed than they are. Just as the best way to teach a baby to swim is to throw it in the water, I find you can’t ever travel if you’re following someone holding a flag.

That idea of “feel like they’re winging it, even though they’re not” is interesting. It connects, to my mind, to a central tension in tourism: going “off the beaten track” without fear of getting lost in the jungle, so to say. I feel this must be a tension you have to navigate all the time when arranging trips for people. How do you do it?

Part of my strategy is the golden rule: I think about the tension in my own travels, the fact that I tend to crave something “easy” and enjoyable after really going for that, be it a luxury hotel after hiking to Everest Base Camp, or a night on the town in Tokyo after a long trip through the underrated Tohoku region. To tie this back to my response to question one, it’s really about balance. People don’t need to feel like Indiana Jones or Anthony Bourdain (who I’ve always felt, God rest his soul, was incredibly overrated), particularly those who haven’t traveled all that wildly. Sometimes it’s a matter of just doing or two “weird” things per trip — think breaking up two weeks in Brazil spent mostly in Rio and São Paulo with a jaunt up north to the Lençois Maranhenses, or even a day trip into the Palestinian territories from Tel Aviv or Jerusalem.

What role do you see for yourself in that economy of images, as a professional blogger selling your expertise of knowing “how to travel”? Beyond obviously attaining a wide readership, making money and so on, do you see any pedagogical goals for yourself in teaching people how to be a better tourist/traveler?

This is a difficult question to answer, right now, as I wait for the situation to settle down such that I can rebuild the foundations of my business. Until I have re-established the former revenue mechanisms, I can’t really be concerned with self-actualization — my self, or anyone else’s.

In general, however, I would say that I don’t believe in lecturing or preaching to people. I’m of the belief that if you do something with the right intention and a certain level of knowledge or wisdom, most of the rest will fall into place.

“The most authentic experiences are ones you can’t foresee and often can’t even write about in a way that will make others care.”

Perhaps more personally then: have you encountered authenticity? Do you have a significant memory or anecdote attached to the feeling of its presence — in the world, or in yourself?

I have frequently discovered authenticity, but it often manifests itself in unseemly forms. Getting pickpocketed in Brazil, for example; getting sick (from food poisoning) near to the point of death in Myanmar (in 2010, before it really opened to the world); sexual encounters around the world — especially where it’s illegal to be gay — spring to mind. On the less dramatic side, I also find that the most authentic experiences are ones you can’t foresee and often can’t even write about in a way that will make others care. I find these often take place when I leave the hotel or Airbnb I’m staying at to walk, somewhat aimlessly, without my phone or camera or any agenda.

Finally: you must have gotten a lot of responses to your blog name in the years. I feel it’s deliberately contentious: you’re not just saying, “go on a holiday once a year” but “you don’t have to live like people say you do” (you’ve written as much in some of your posts). What is your conception of the opposite of a“daily hell”?

My blog title references an obscure later-career single by a singer who was only marginally famous at the peak of her fame, which is at once frustrating (no one gets the reference) and liberating, since people think I came up with it by myself. But of course, I chose it because of what it means to me. And while not everyone can follow the path I took — fleeing the wreckage of the post-Great Recession US to Shanghai (where I set myself on a travel blogging career path while I taught English during the day) — I do think there is something to be said about what happens when you physically leave any place behind, even if it’s just on a two weeks holiday. Which is to say that eliminating something physical also usually results in mental, emotional and even spiritual resolution. It’s interesting to think of this in the context of the Covid madness, wherein travel has all but ceased. It’ll be six months next week since my last international flight, and even longer since my most recent long-haul one. I look forward to my next opportunity to leave my emotional and spiritual baggage behind as my body hurtles off toward a distant horizon.

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I think of the pictures I saw on your blog in the Brazilian desert, or at the Danakil Depression in Ethiopia, and so on. This is not simply going to a Starbucks in Paris. I’m guessing you went to and took pictures of these places because they are beautiful, or spectacular, or otherwise meaningful in a way that most of our daily lives aren’t. They’re not the personally authentic moments you mentioned, but they are valuable for other reasons. What, in the end, is it that drives you to all these places, to see the world?

I suppose I ventured to those surreal places primarily for creative fulfillment, and to see if they lived up to the hype. That was sort of a phase for me; I haven’t deliberately gone anywhere like that in many years. As far as what drives me to see the world, I guess, it’s the idea that I need to keep the proverbial wheel spinning. My experience — again, before the geniuses in charge of the world decided to shut it down indefinitely over a virus 99.7% of those infected survive — was that if I continued putting work and effort out into the world, the world would keep putting sustenance back into my life. I’m not a spiritual, religious or “woo woo” person, but I generally found this system to work before March in the year of our lord 2020.

I got the Tori Amos reference in the blog name, if she’s the one you’re referring to. If it is, Amos has said that this particular song was about leaving your life to be with the one you love. That’s an interesting link, then: if the world itself is your love, where does the trip end? I can’t help but feel that your comment about “leaving luggage behind” is relevant here. One criticism that traveling folks often seem to get is: “you must be running away from something.” Is that true for you?

I really picked that line out of context; the title wasn’t a reference to the entire song, per se. As far as what I’m running from, again I think it ties back to the idea I mentioned before, keeping the creative wheel spinning. I don’t want to stop. I don’t want to get stuck. I don’t want to be satisfied, not yet, because there’s still trail to climb. In stylish city clothes, of course.

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