Women Who Travel

Women Who Travel Podcast: What Is Passport Privilege?

Host Lale Arikoglu sits down with author Shahnaz Habib to answer this question, debunk wanderlust, and more.
Women Who Travel Podcast What Is Passport Privilege

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We dive into the thorny issue of passport privilege thanks this week’s guest, Shahnaz Habib, author of the new book Airplane Mode: An Irreverent History of Travel. Why do some travelers gain more visa-free access than others? Who determines how a place is seen through the lens of its guidebooks? And what does the word “wanderlust” mean, exactly? Shahnaz seeks to answer all that and more, and shares some of her own travel stories.

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Lale Arikoglu: Hello, I'm Lale Arikoglu. And welcome to an episode of Women Who Travel, where we set out to challenge what it means to be a tourist. Are bucket lists and guidebooks a good thing or a bad thing? Should we actually be using the word "wanderlust"? And why do some passports gain more visa-free access to countries than others?

Shahnaz Habib: I started getting interested in all these conditions that came about as a result of Colonialism, as a result of the way our passports are structures, as a, sort of the way guidebooks prioritize certain perspectives, and how that history then shapes modern tourism.

LA: Asking all these questions and more is my guest Shahnaz Habib, who grew up in a small town in Kerala in South India, went to Delhi for college, and now lives in Brooklyn. When her father travels from India to visit her, he thoroughly enjoys exploring just a few streets around her apartment. He finds it "perfectly fulfilling," he says. It's a perspective that's reshaping her own outlook on travel. And it's the genesis of her book Airplane Mode: An Irreverent History of Travel.

SH: I am really interested in how travel is a really consumerist activity at the heart of it. Um, we have all these noble aspirations around travel. And, you know, we're often told you're not a buying a thing, you're experiencing the world. But, there is a lot of consumerism involved in that, within that experience. And the global tourism industry is so clever at dressing this consumerist activity as this sort of educational or self-care activity.

LA: At the start of the book, Shahnaz is in a hostel in Istanbul, questioning the wisdom of seeing a place through the prism of a guidebook. And perhaps surprisingly, she calls herself a bad traveler.

SH: I had this image of a good traveler is someone who just gets up in the morning, gets to a place, walks out of the door, you know, is able to go to the palace and all the monuments, and then find, like, some cozy restaurant that nobody else has eaten in. And then manages to write this beautiful essay about that whole experience, and neatly package it. That was my idea of travel, because that's the kind of travel writing we're so often fed, right, in magazines and in books. And travel guidebooks also s- suggest that this is the kind of day that you should be having.

LA: Which I also, like, is the busiest day I've heard.

SH: [laughs]

LA: And I say this is a travel editor, and someone who writes those sorts of stories. And like-

SH: Right.

LA: ... oh, my God. I mean, there aren't enough hours in the day to do everything you just described. [laughs]

SH: No, there aren't. I mean, it is, uh, a workaholic's day. I think the way guidebooks are structured, can make a lot of us feel that we are really bad travelers if we just do, you know, one quarter of what is suggested that, um, we do. In fact, now that is my modus operandi. I look at a guidebook, and then I look at what a suggested day is. And then I, you know, split into like one tenth, or one fourth, and then that's a perfect day for me. I just don't have the energy to do the whole day.

LA: I take a similar approach. Packing a day with so many things in these guidebooks. They're outlining, like, everything you need to cram in when you're there. You know, it's obviously very serviceable and very helpful, but it's also like quite a Western, Capitalist mindset to the entire idea or going somewhere is to kind of take, take, take, take, take.

SH: And that's why I was so happy to read about, um, Karl Baedeker, the man who popularized guidebooks and how he actually died of overwork. And I can totally picture that, because the way he systematized guidebooks as these, you know, series of travel days where you go from one monument to another, and then this is where you eat and this is where you sleep. You know, Karl Baedeker was a total workaholic. It's impossible for a normal tourist to replicate those days.

LA: Karl Baedeker began publishing what he called Handbooks to Europe in the 1820s. He was actually the first person to give ratings to monuments, hotels, and views. He believed that travelers could be freed from using paid guides and move around solo. But as the books became popular, sheer peer pressure meant that his readers felt they had to follow his advice, to compare notes and compete. And that still exacerbated today. Think of Yelp, or consider the bucket list.

SH: I kind of love looking through them and looking at a list of all the things that I probably will not do, but can then feel guilty about not doing. That's also part of my travel experience. I cannot imagine not looking at a guidebook. I've tried to do that, but I always feel a little restless. I always feel like, you know, I've just been shaped by modern tourism, right? Earlier generations of travelers, for instance, medieval travelers or travelers before the rise of modern tourism had to think of travel in terms of hospitality, in terms of asking for something from the place they went to.

Whereas, modern travelers, modern tourists tend to think of tourism as something that they are bringing to the places that they go to. The way we think of travel has become much more linked with this commercial transaction. You know, we review restaurants and monuments and cultural experiences. We are very aware of getting our money's worth out of these places. There's also a sense of competition, because we want that dramatic sunset moment, and we want to do it before other tourists get there. We need to get the best experience. We need to get the first experience.

LA: It's funny when you're talking about sort of r- reviews, people will review anything and everything at this point. And one thing I always think is really funny is if you go and look at some incredible ancient site on Yelp, for example, the Acropolis, I don't know.

SH: [laughs]

LA: You'll see people give it one star.

SH: Right. This magnificent place that-

LA: [laughs]

SH: ... has existed for thousands of years, and someone will be like, "Bit shit."

LA: [laughs]

SH: "Wasn't impressed."

LA: No. Bunch of stones, [inaudible 00:06:04].

SH: There's really not much to see, skip it. [laughs]

LA: [laughs] I'm not even sure if it was the Acropolis, but, so I, uh, apologize to the Acropolis if it didn't get one star, but.

SH: [laughs] Well there's that great book of, uh, National Park reviews.

LA: Yes. Yes. And, you know, we have our Readers' Choice Awards every year. And readers get to submit-

SH: Yes.

LA: ... their, you know, they vote for their favorite places in the world. Their favorite hotels and cities, countries, islands, all that. And, um, they also have, there's an option to leave a note and say why you loved a place. And I do have to reveal that the traveler editors love to look through the negative notes.

SH: Fascinating.

LA: And some of them are amazing. There was someone who said, like, you know, one of the most beautiful beaches in the world was too sandy.

SH: [laughs]

LA: I, like, it's just, it's amazing. It's amazing. I can't, I can't get over it.

SH: [laughs]

LA: [laughs] Up next, Shahnaz on where she grew up and how it shaped her.

Tell me a little bit about where you grew up.

SH: I grew up in a very small town called Ernakulam, in Kerala, which is a state in southern India. The road I grew up on runs parallel to the railway station. And so, there would always be like these little streets from which, like, people going to the station and people coming from the station would be running to catch the trains, or, uh, you know, coming out of the station. Um, and there was just this random assortment of businesses. Um, there'd be like, uh, uh, like, th- this time that I went back, I saw, uh, there was like this cluster of leather shops. Like all these people who are making school bags and shoes.

Um, and I've always been fascinated by how certain, you know, uh, vendors kind of cluster together. Um, so I feel like this road is sort of like remaking itself as like a sort of like road of leather vendors. Uh, there is a little f- flour mill, and, um, as a child, I used to often to the flour mill, when my mother's grains, my parents would send me to the flour mill to get an, get all the grains, uh, milled. And I still do it now, because, uh, I loved the idea of going to a mill to get something ground. We buy so much flour now from the supermarket, and still, this little mill is still running. And there's this one man who still will grind your poultices and grains.

There's a lot of development on both sides of the street, especially now when I go, you know, what used to be all these houses, are rapidly giving way to apartment buildings. And there are lots of little bakeries where, um, I used to stop after school to get, you know, little snacks, like a little samosa or an egg puff.

LA: God, I bet they smell so good there.

SH: [laughs]

LA: [laughs]

SH: Yeah. Exactly. And, yeah, luckily the bakeries are still there. And somehow they seem to be expanding. There seem to be more bakeries. At some point, I said the people on this road will keep these bakeries alive.

LA: You're from a country that is a huge tourist destination.

SH: Yes.

LA: When you were in Kerala, and I guess, sort of also just moving around other parts of the country, how aware were you of tourists? And what did you think of them?

SH: I loved the tourists. As a child, I really enjoyed seeing them. They just seem so weird.

LA: Were you aware of what countries those tourists were coming from? I'm interested to know if it was dominated by certain parts of the world.

SH: It was mostly white Europeans and Americans. I mean, Kerala, it's such a tourist paradise in so many ways. And the tagline for Kerala, the tourism department's tagline for Kerala is "God's own country." And Kerala has promoted itself as a, uh, tourist destination. So of course we get so many tourists. Um, and, you know, just over the course of my own lifetime, I feel like I've seen the beaches of Kerala go from really these like benign, charming places where, you know, residents like me and my friends and, y- local families would go for walks and hang out, and, you know, eat some peanuts and watch the waves in the evenings. To these places that look like they come out of these glossy magazines like yours, right, where people are just sunning themselves.

And it means that it's no longer, many of these beaches are no longer accessible to local people any more. It means that many of the beaches, uh, have become private property in ways that they were not before.

LA: I mean, I'm British and move around the world as a British tourist-

SH: Yes.

LA: ... um, European tourist. I work for an American travel magazine. How do you think, sort of, of this dominance of Europe and America in the travel space has shaped how we do it? And why we do it? And our expectations of it?

SH: So, the dominance of British and now, uh, American travelers, is not an accident, right? There's a reason why the British became the first modern tourists. It's because British colonial activity around the globe was taking them to places, and it made it easier for the British to travel to all these places in Asia and Africa and the Middle East. Colonial history has kind of also shaped the way the world is put on a platter for tourists. The way the world is arrayed as these places and these experiences that you can pick and choose and buy and take home a little bit of. And you can turn away from your own complicity in what made these places so poor, or so desperately in need of tourism.

We often talk about how, you know, tourism brings so much good to the people. But when we do that, we rarely think about why these places are so dependent on tourist dollars. We don't think about how, for instance, all the other forms of travel that happen, like migration, are sort of like the other shadow underside of this kind of colonial power exchange.

LA: There's an underlying assumption in a lot of Western travel writing, that roaming freely and exploring at will, is only a good thing. There's even a word for that burning desire to see the world: Wanderlust. And that's where things get complicated.

SH: I have wanderlust. Um, so many of us do. But I also want us to critique wanderlust as this feeling that it has become so much easier for us to act on, because the world has been shaped by colonialism.

LA: What do you think of the word itself: Wanderlust?

SH: I'm very suspicious of the word now. I see it so often used. It's almost become like a little mantra, right? It's a hashtag. It's on Instagram. I mean so many travel magazines use it so freely. So I'm very suspicious.

LA: I have a rule that I delete it from any story that's filed to me. I will not-

SH: Oh, really?

LA: Yeah.

SH: [laughs]

LA: As an editor, I'm like, I can't see that word any more. [laughs]

SH: O-, i- is, why is that? I want to know more.

LA: I think it's, I mean it's incredibly overused. I think it's sort of a, an, and now I'm really talking from like an editor's brain. But, uh-

SH: Hm.

LA: ... a sort of lazy way-

SH: Yes.

LA: ... to describe why you want to travel.

SH: It's not this sort of like genuine, human emotion, just sort of like bubbling up from inside you. It's actually a commercial experience. And it's such a shortcut, because, you know, the reasons why we want to travel may often be more complicated than just wanderlust. And when I see people using that term, I suddenly have this impulse to [inaudible 00:14:08] them and say, "Did you know that wanderlust has been sold to us as something we, uh, have to have, because it makes the world a better place, and it makes you a better traveler?"

LA: We've been, sort of, so far, kind of talking about leisure travel. But, people travel for all sorts of reasons.

SH: Mm-hmm.

LA: Family, being one. And you have relatives all over the world.

SH: Yes.

LA: What's traveling for that been like? What's that experience been for you?

SH: Well, it's sort of a part of my life every year. Um, it's something I sort of have to kind of build into the rituals of the year, right? So, nowadays, I mostly travel to see my family during the summers, which is when I have a daughter, she goes to school, so this is the only time of the year that we can travel together as a family. The summer is when she has holidays. And for me, it's one of these rituals that really keeps me grounded. Um, I don't think I could ever... I mean the years that I've had to go without that ritual, like during the pandemic, or very early on, uh, after my, after I moved to the US, when, um, I did not have the, have an entry visa to come back. And I had to spend a few years without seeing family.

I mean, those years were really difficult for me. So, um, you know, th- for me this is part of like the seasons of the year, like, the, spending summer with my family. And it's really important. And it's also a way of just de-centering, e- the United States experience just knowing that, that my life here in Brooklyn is just a very small part of, uh, my own experience. I want to sort of, uh, be split into two. I want to feel the heartbreak of leaving my family at the end of every summer. And just feeling my heart splintering when I'm in the taxi going to the airport.

To me, that has become, you know, almost like a tradition. It feels very much like, you know the Sharia ritual of mourning? Like in a lot of cities, you will see these huge processions where, uh, young Muslim men and women are grieving the death of the prophet's grandson. And they're sort of like beating themselves on the chest and inflicting pain on themselves. This is kind of what leaving home every year feels like for me.

LA: Oh, God. That hits home for me. That's-

SH: Does it?

LA: Yeah. 100%.

SH: Yeah. Absolutely. Um, and I know it's coming every year. And I go towards it, because it's a pain that makes me feel human. And it is a pain that makes me feel loved. So, that heartbreak is both in my travels.

LA: In a minute, how me and Shahnaz have fathers who are not always enthralled by travel. And the power of the passport, how it can help and hinder the way we move around the world depending on where we're from.

There was a bit in your book-

SH: Mm-hmm.

LA: ... you know, your dad kind of crops up.

SH: Yes. Quite, quite a lot in it.

LA: And then there's something you said in your book about how your dad hates traveling, but he sort of is, has been cursed with children who've all moved to different countries.

SH: Yes.

LA: And it reminded me of my own dad, 'cause he also hates traveling, and I've-

SH: Really?

LA: ... moved all the way from the UK to New York.

SH: Yes.

LA: And I'm interested to know why your dad doesn't like to travel.

SH: Well, I think he never really saw the point of it. He just finds it annoying and difficult. And, you know, the m- more I grow older I can see his point, right? Travel is kind of painful. And those economy class seats are torture devices. And I think he never really understood travel as a global good. We are told often that travel is this wonderful thing to do, it expands your horizons, it makes the world a better place.

And he did not grow up with that conditioning. So, it never occurred to him to use, or think of travel as the way you make yourself a better person. Uh, but also, it was conditioned by the fact that, you know, as a man in India with a Third World passport, travel was not really an option, um, beyond a certain point. Uh, you could not dream of just carrying off to other places. You could not, no one in, um, India growing up when he did in like the 60s and 70s, dreamed of foreign travel as an accessible form of recreation. It was extremely inaccessible. Not just because of the money, but also because of the way certain passports do not open doors.

So, yeah. Um, partly I think it was just his natural inclination to just dislike travel, find it difficult, find it boring, find it annoying. Partly, I think it was also the lack of opportunities and, uh, not feeling entitled to travel. So it was a combination of both those things, I think.

LA: One word that you've been saying a lot is privilege.

SH: Mm-hmm.

LA: And I think we've been thinking about it in a financial context.

SH: Yeah.

LA: But it's also in terms of the passport you hold. And there's a lot of discussions about passport privilege and passport power. There's even a list that comes out every year-

SH: Mm-hmm.

LA: ... that ranks the most powerful passports.

SH: Yes.

LA: I actually looked up the world's most powerful passports right now.

SH: Okay.

LA: And the top five are: Singapore, Japan-

SH: Yes.

LA: ... Finland, France, Germany.

SH: Interesting.

LA: The UK has dropped down a bit after Brexit.

SH: Yeah.

LA: [laughs]

SH: [laughs]

LA: And the US, I think, just slides in, in the top 20.

SH: Oh, top 20? Okay.

LA: Yeah.

SH: Yeah. That is interesting. It's a really interesting carousel of international power, watching the passport rankings.

LA: I feel like I'm going to take us completely on this full circle to the start of this conversation. Which is, the power of your passport affords you that freedom of movement.

SH: Hm. I think passport privilege is one of those privileges that really gets taken for granted. We don't have the same kind of conversations around why some people have passports that will let them travel visa-free to any country in the world, while other people have to, you know, apply for a visa s- three months before and fill out forms and pay fees. I mean it's such blatant discrimination. So, that's why I, um, you know, I came across this term passportism, to talk about the discrimination of some passports, passports of certain colors.

Um, and you know, I tr- started traveling with an Indian passport, and I now have a US passport. And I forget it too. Sometimes it's so easy to travel with my US passport that I have to pinch myself sometimes and be like, and remind myself that I get to walk through this, you know, smart gate or this, you know, immigration counter so easily. I can go to this line so easily, because of my passport privilege now.

LA: What was your experience with your Indian passport?

SH: So, with my Indian passport, and I write about this in a chapter in which I talk about not going to Paris, because of all the [laughs] nesting doll of documents that just, I just couldn't muster together in time. Right? With my Indian passport, I would have to apply for a visa well in advance, uh, submit documentation, you know, ranging from what kind of job did I have, uh, fin-, you know, financial documents, like proof of income for like the last several y- years.

Um, and just basically, just kind of prove to the consulate that I am not in danger of becoming a burden to, uh, their country. Uh, and it's just this incredible suspicion of Third World passports. The Third World passport is guilty even before it has arrived on the shore of whatever country it is arriving in.

LA: What you're describing is very familiar to me, because while I have a British passport, my dad, until he became a British citizen about 10 years ago, and until then he had just his Turkish passport.

SH: Hm.

LA: And just to go on holiday, from the UK to Spain, a holiday that many, many, many people in Britain take every summer-

SH: Right.

LA: ... my dad would have to get a visa.

SH: Yeah.

LA: And it would take months.

SH: Yes.

LA: And I think that's one of the reasons why my dad hates to travel. Because the hassle of it, and I think the humiliation-

SH: Yes. Thank you.

LA: ... of having to go through that process, was something he simply wanted to avoid.

SH: Yeah. I mean, that is the word for it. It's not just a hassle, it's a humiliation. And this experience is sort of made humiliating deliberately in order to keep people with Third World passports from dreaming of travel. I don't think there's anything, and listen, I don't think it's just a random coincidence that there is this long list of bureaucratic hoops to jump through. I think it's very much about letting people from the Third World, letting people with like the wrong color passports know that you are not welcome. So, yeah. I absolutely think the word humiliation is right.

LA: From what I understand, you, in order to get a US passport, you have to renounce your Indian passport.

SH: I did.

LA: And that's something, you know, it's very different from country to country. And that's how it works if you're an Indian passport holder.

SH: Mm-hmm. Yeah.

LA: What was it like to give that up? I imagine it was quite emotional.

SH: Yeah. I mean, I held onto it for a while. But then, like with your father, it just made no sense because I was spending so much time applying for visas when I had to travel. It was painful, but yes, uh, I renounced my Indian passport.

LA: I think it's notable that you chose to say the words Third World.

SH: I tried not to use it, because of course it's a word that has fallen out of fashion. But, it is the w- the phrase that I use most of the time to describe a certain kind of experience. I've tried to use the global south. I tried to use developing countries. But I do feel those terms are, I mean I kind of hate developing countries. I have to actually use that term a lot at work. And I think it's such a lie. Because this idea that development is some kind of linear progress, and that the developing countries, if they do all the right things at the right time, they're going to reach this developed status. And then it's like this happily ever after ending.

That's so essentially false. And there's something so weird about this aspiration to be developed, when developed often means industrialized, highly carbon dependent. So, you know, the categorization of least developed countries, developing countries, and developed countries, to me it's a historical falsehood. I love the term Third World. I find it very poetic. And I think it's time to, you know, reclaim it the way a lot of other, like, like queer was reclaimed. I think it's often used derogatorily, but even within that derogatory use, the phrase has a certain attitude. The phrase has a certain, um...

It's sort of like response back to this categorization of, you know, First World and Third World, uh, it kind of transcends to me that sort of like categorization even though it is part of that categorization. I like how the Third World reminds me of like a third eye. It's kind of like a perspective, a vision that is, goes beyond like, you know, what you can see with two eyes, and what you can just sort of see and experience in this one dimension.

LA: The third eye is a really beautiful way of describing it. It's wonderful.

SH: It's definitely possible to still have fun on our travels. Um, and I don't think questioning our biases and questioning privilege is going to make it any less fun. I think the shape of trouble will change, because your thoughtfulness or your concentration of the history of travel will shape your understanding of the world. And that can only be a good thing. For me, travel is still, I still look for work to travel so much, I still find that, um, I learn so much on my travels and I cannot imagine not traveling. But, yeah, it's absolutely possible to find joy and have meaningful travel experiences even while knowing how much modern tourism has been shaped by all these, um, forces of consumerism and colonialism.

LA: Well, this has been a fantastic conversation. Thank you so much for chatting to me about it.

Next episode we take a deep dive into the party scene in Ukraine, where a burgeoning rave culture continues to emerge, even amid the war. We chat with guests who share stories of what it's like to rave when there's a curfew to factor in, find joy in connection amid such uncertainty, and DJs who double as volunteers to remove rubble and work at restoring damaged buildings.

I am Lale Arikoglu, and you can find me on Instagram @Lalehannah. Our engineers are Jake Lummus and Gabe Quiroga. The show's mixed by Amar Lal. Judith Kampfner, from Corporation for Independent Media is our producer. See you next week.