“At the start of the conversation with Donald Trump, I made it clear that Mexico will not pay for the wall,” Mexican President Peña Nieto declared after their meeting. We don’t know if a wall will really be built between the US and Mexico any time soon, assuming the rare case that the elections in November will be won by the American tycoon. What we do know is that no walls will be able to block the integration of a continent such as America, whose populations are destined to meet and cohabit as Europeans did, even if after centuries of divisions and wars. How, then, can we accompany and facilitate this process? How can we work for mutual understanding among the nations of America?
At the end of the 17th century, young wealthy people, mostly men from England and other Protestant Northern European nations, started a tradition called the “Grand Tour.” The idea was to visit Continental Europe, especially France and Italy, in an educational trip aimed to learn from the past and the cultural roots of Western civilization. Many of those aristocrats not only visited the ancient sites of Greco-Roman civilization but also visited the cradle of the Renaissance, Tuscany, containing my wonderful city of Florence. These young aristocrats on their tour were immersed in the local cultures, learning from the people how they were living, including learning some language skills, in a type of rite of passage to understand and experience the “European life”.
Those travels, we could say, represented the embryonic beginning of the creation of a European identity. Through an exchange among people of different cultures, meeting for the first time not through trade, war, or politics, as in the past, but through journeys of pleasure and learning, contributing to the social construction, not merely the economic or political construction, of a continent “united in diversity” as goes the present day EU’s motto. It is ironic and sad to see how today instead the UK is distancing herself from Europe. Unfortunately though, the Grand Tour was only for the elites, as poor people certainly could not afford such a journey of exploration; that’s why Thomas Cook’s founding of the first British travel agency in the middle of the 19th century enabled many more people to afford travel, and so began the era of mass tourism.
Today, almost four centuries after the Grand Tour tradition started, it is time to balance modern mass tourism with a new wave of cultural, historical, and ethical tourism. This should happen not only in Europe, but also in the Americas, helping the United States to do with Latin America the same that the UK did with Europe: facilitating the first social seeds of a unified American continent, that will be created in the centuries ahead, in one way or another.
This doesn’t mean that mass tourism should stop, as it is still useful for the economy and society in their entirety. However, it could be accompanied by a new form of travel: American travelers should start to go not only to hotels and tourist resorts that are often a false way of being exposed to a foreign country, but also to local communities, authentic villages, and family homes, in order to become (even if only for few days) part of the local life – learning from their different cultures, their indigenous civilizations – and why not even the Spanish language, that will become, probably one day soon, the second language of the US.
This would have many side effects besides the start of grassroots integration of the continent. First of all, racism towards Latinos that is starting to accompany the racism towards African-Americans in this country would start to decline when people travel to Latin America and see how people live there, often in humble conditions.
Second, avoiding brand-name chain hotels would allow money to flow directly to local people, helping grassroots development as well as being cheaper for the tourists.
Finally, this type of travel could also, indirectly, help to reduce drug production, drug trade, and drug consumption between the US and Latin America, with beneficial consequences for the economies and security of Latin American countries. A new form of ethical and cultural tourism will not only help the peasants to have an alternative source of income that reduces the need for drug cultivation, but it could also play a role in the reduction of demand for these drugs in the US too. By visiting the countries that produce drugs (such as Mexico), staying with local people, experiencing what is an authentic community life, a warm approach to relationships or a good simple meal, this could reduce the alienation that can make many US citizens prone to drug abuse in order to resist the daily stresses of life today. Coming back to their country these people will not only be authentically refreshed and recharged, but will have a new appreciation of the small things in life, helping them to fight the solitude and the consequent need for intoxicants.
Obviously, security issues should be taken into consideration when planning such travel. In particular, there is the risk of international terrorism, and otherwise it can be difficult to travel to non-tourist places or remote areas due to safety reasons. However, a little bit of risk has always been part of real travel – not mass tourism but the real exploration of foreign places – and today this would be less dangerous than in the past, and could even be less dangerous relative to mass tourism which often provides targets in the form of crowded tourist spots. Thus, travelers should not pay too much attention to exaggerated media reports, and even take the travel warnings of the US government with a pinch of salt, as they often don’t mean that one should not go to a country, but just exercise caution.
It is unclear if the new US President that will be elected in few months will build bridges or a wall at the southern frontier. One thing is sure, however: a wall will not block the migration and the natural encounters among different people. New bridges will allow people on different sides of the border to meet on more equal and open terms, like “individual ambassadors” for cultural exchange and grassroots diplomacy. This is the real foreign policy that the US should pursue to increase soft power and pursue a new American century. It is time to “make America open again” if we want to really live together and learn from each other in this continent. As in the words of Senator Tim Kaine, the probable next Vice President of the United States: “Bienvenidos a todos en nuestro país, porque somos Americanos todos.”