In many countries, turning 18 marks the transition into adulthood. With it comes the delights and difficulties of all new rights and responsibilities, from voting to drinking alcohol. Now, there’s talk that it could also be the beginning of an international adventure.
Last year, members of the European Parliament debated whether young Europeans should be given a free Interrail pass on their 18th birthday. The initiative was welcomed by representatives from across the political spectrum, and attracted grassroots support from over 33,000 petitioners. Although the idea has yet to become an official policy, the European Commission has shown interest.
Since Interrail launched in 1972, it has given young Europeans the opportunity to travel at low cost across most of the continent, including countries that don’t belong to the European Economic Community or the European Union. At the moment, a monthly Interrail pass costs between €43 and €493, depending on how far and how frequently one travels. Around 300,000 young Europeans use this programme each year, but if the free Interrail pass initiative is successful, it could attract a sizeable proportion of the 5.4m 18-year-old Europeans annually.
The argument goes that underwriting Interrail passes for young adults is good value for money, because it helps the next generation of European residents to experience and understand other cultures. In theory, meeting and making friends with people from other European countries will strengthen cultural and political ties across the continent. Yet this optimistic outlook deserves closer scrutiny: we shouldn’t simply assume that young Europeans will take up the offer, or that travel will build a common European identity.
Destination: Europe and beyond
This is not the first time that travel has been touted as a way of fostering good relations across Europe. From the ashes of World War II, diverse initiatives sprung up to promote reconciliation through youth tourism. For example, the International Youth Hostel Federation successfully persuaded European governments to ease restrictions on youth travel by changing or getting rid of passport, visa and currency requirements.
Such initiatives proved attractive, and young people increasingly engaged in cross-border travel. By the 1960s, the majority of people aged 20 to 24 in West Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands had visited two or more “foreign” countries. This trend continued in the following decades: in Germany, at the beginning of the 1990s, 17 to 19-year-olds had visited seven to eight countries on average, both within and outside of Europe.
But since then, the financial crisis in several European countries, together with high youth unemployment rates, have apparently taken their toll. Recent market research has shown that the number of foreign trips by young Europeans has fallen by around 10% over the decade to 2015. Based on these observations, it seems that initiatives which make travel cheaper and easier can encourage young Europeans to venture across the continent – and that the time is ripe to introduce another such policy.
Ever closer union?
The question remains, whether travelling would strengthen cultural or political ties across Europe. There is some basis for such a claim: young supporters of European unification in 1950 asserted that “our passport is the European flag”. It was not just youngsters who were already pro-European, that travelled across the continent. According to a study by Ronald Inglehart in the 1960s, the younger people were, and the more they travelled, the more likely they were to subscribe to the idea of an ever closer political union in Europe – though this did not necessarily mean that they approved of the existing European institutions.
Yet, historically, youth tourism has brought about frictions as well as friendships. For example, my own research shows moments of cultural misunderstanding in youth hostels as far back as the mid-1960s, when staff at one West German youth hostel bemoaned that many French guests drank too much alcohol. Other scholars have investigated why local men in Greece in the 1980s sought out women from Northern Europe, including young ones, in tourist resorts to have sex with. Those men saw themselves as part of a poorer society, and sought to “sexually conquer” women tourists from richer countries, in order to take “revenge”.
These experiences show that youth tourism has the potential to deepen divides in Europe by playing on some negative stereotypes.
Leaving the station
A free Interrail pass could increase the number of young people travelling across the continent. But if the European Commission is looking to build stronger ties across Europe, this scheme won’t necessarily be enough to challenge negative stereotypes, let alone save the European idea. The commission will need to seek out other ways to maximise the impact of the scheme.
Getting young tourists to narrate their Interrail experiences on social media could help achieve that. It wouldn’t be difficult: those who take up the pass could be asked to contribute to a blog, Instagram page or Facebook group. This would create a place for young travellers to describe how they feel about the people of different nationalities, ethnicities (including migrants) and genders they encounter on their travels, and where residents are given the chance to respond.
This would present an opportunity for all to honestly reflect on moments they shared together – both enjoyable and uncomfortable. Ideally, the commission would encourage all to think critically about the prejudices against one another that circulate throughout the media. Travel and the use of social media won’t eliminate racism. But they could well help people from across the continent to empathise with one another – and that is certainly a goal worth funding.