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21 Jan 2019


Travelling overseas as a tourist has been completely transformed by the advent of smart phones and mobile devices.

When I first ventured outside Australia on my own, reverse-charge telephone calls and aerograms were the means of communicating with home. Maps were used for navigation. Music was delivered via a Walkman. Today, the mobile telephone has become the essential travel item. It certainly delivers myriad benefits – the internet, email, texting, Facebook, Instagram, music, Google Maps and a camera.

However, the mobile phone may be doing something else – creating antisocial, rude and annoying tourists.

Every year my wife and I travel overseas, often to less developed nations or places of historical and geographic significance. We do not take our phones with us. Actually, we do sometimes take them as an emergency, but we never switch them on. Friends question how we can be away for up to five weeks without a phone. The answer is that it improves your mental health by letting you switch off, in every way, from home, work and stress, and to immerse yourself in the places you’re visiting. People have travelled for millennia without mobile phones and being on Facebook or email.

The more I travel, the more I witness how mobile phones can be bad for people’s mental health.

No matter where I’ve been, or how exotic and transfixing the location, I see couples and families with their heads glued to their phones. Dining times are the worst: no conversation, no one looking at their surrounds, or engaging in conversation with locals. Instead of talking to each other about what they’ve seen, heard or eaten, tourists converse with their mobiles, seemingly sharing their experiences online rather than in person.

It is dispiriting to see families on holiday sit together barely uttering a word as they play with their phones. If taking children overseas is supposed to show them the world and how other people live, then they could start with limiting their phones and digital device usage. What is the point of being in another country if your time is spent glued to you phone? I wonder about the mental health of children who are so obsessed with their online presence that the great wonders of the world, or the rich and rewarding cultures of Asia, Europe or Africa, hold less interest than Facebook or texting.

Walking through popular tourist attractions can be a nightmare, as tourists focused on their phones amble about unaware of their surroundings while they text or whatever. The art of map reading has gone, replaced by a phone. Yet maps tell you so much more. They can provide context and a picture of where you are in relation to everything else. And what’s wrong with getting lost and asking local people for help?

And don’t get me started on tourists who adopt silly poses in front of significant sites, then Instagram them while blocking others from looking. It is possible to visit truly wonderful places and have amazing experiences that you remember all your life without always having to share them instantaneously.  

Mobiles can bring out the worst in tourists. At the Tuol Sleng prison in Cambodia, an American tourist was googling Wikipedia every time the guide provided an explanation. Yes, that’s right, she exclaimed when her internet search agreed with the qualified tour guide. “No, you’re wrong – Pol Pot was murdered!” she yelled out. Your mental health isn’t improved if you’re arrested. Perhaps this tourist should have googled ‘etiquette for a communist country trying to bury its genocidal history’.

I do take an electronic device when traveling – an iPad and bluetooth speaker. After a day out, in the quiet of my room, I can play music and check the internet (mostly for football and cricket scores). Every two or three days, I look at (non-work) emails to see if the pets are okay, the house still standing, the family well. Smart Traveler knows where I am, and I leave my itinerary with family, so if there’s an emergency, I can be found.

Although my wife and I are on Facebook and Instagram, we wait until after our trip to share some of our experiences. My view – and one that I accept is not going to be shared by all – is that travel is about absorbing new surrounds and experiences. We travel to be somewhere else, to experience other, to eat and drink different foods in different places.

Leaving your phone off, or not taking it with you, can be incredibly liberating and mentally healthy. It changes the way you think about the places you are visiting and gives you time to talk, think and enjoy your surroundings. Experiences are not validated by online posts and likes by friends. Researchers are looking into the mental health problems of living one's life through social media. There are ways to travel, stay in touch, yet disconnect from work and daily issues; which is what a ‘holiday’ is meant to be about.



Published: 21 Jan 2019