Why do we travel? For too long, we took this question for granted. Travel can make our large world small, and we forgot what a gift this is until it all got taken away from us not too long ago. Today, we’re returning to the skies in record numbers, but with a more appreciative mindset. It’s a perfect moment to take stock.

The contributors to the “Y WE TRAVEL” series are accomplished writers from all walks of life. Over the length of this series, they will explore the diversity of purpose in our journeys—not just where or how, but why. On behalf of Toronto Pearson Airport and the Canadian Airports Council, please enjoy.

Pico Iyer is the author, most recently, of The Half Known Life, chronicling his search for paradise everywhere from Jerusalem to inner Australia. His next book, Aflame, comes out in January 2025.

I n the Age of Information, it’s easy to forget that all the images in the world never add up to real life. Take North Korea, for example. Little goes unscripted in that reclusive nation’s showpiece capital. But on returning to Pyongyang a few years ago, I was intrigued to hear a local person curse The Sound of Music. Why? He’d been forced to watch the old movie “a hundred times” to improve his English. Separately, it was eye-opening to watch a North Korean movie in the company of its earnest director, who didn’t find humour in the parts I did. None of this made me think differently about the inhuman dictatorship, but it did give me a sense of the nation’s humanity, and its complexity, that I could never have gotten at a distance.

Upon coming back from my trip, I was reminded that everything I lazily expound about—such as “universal values” or “human life”—doesn’t begin to apply to the people I’d just met. And it hit me that as soon as I hear the words “North Korea,” I think of one face and not of 26 million others. Which is just what that one tyrannical face wants. The same is true in reverse, of course: simply by visiting, I could remind everyone I encountered in North Korea that a typical American today is not, as their propaganda suggests, an old white guy in an old White House.


“Travel is less a fact of geography than an act of imagination.”


It’s an extreme example, I know, but it speaks to the reasons why travel—a luxury—seems to be more and more of a necessity. We live in a global neighbourhood and it’s folly not to get to know our neighbours. Our destinies depend on them because the consequences of a sneeze in Wuhan are felt in Manitoba. Of course, I could have wandered around the Potemkin sights of North Korea online. But the screen quite literally robs every place of its texture, its humanity, its three dimensions. And although North Koreans may have an excuse for not knowing much about us, we in North America have little excuse for not knowing about them.

Eleven months before my most recent trip to Pyongyang, I flew from California, via Istanbul, to Mashhad in northern Iran. The local guide who greeted me at the airport spoke better English than I did; he’d been educated at a boarding school near London in the 1970s. As we pulled up at our sumptuous hotel, he excitedly kept telling me about a recent episode of Jon Stewart’s show. A small room in one corner of the huge lobby served as a mosque—nearly all the guests in the hotel were Iranian— but right next to it were two shiny boutiques offering the latest beauty products from Paris and glittery jewellery from Swarovski.

Where We Travel

“I travel across North America for a living, but I save my family flights for mountain skiing’s slopes and glades – especially in Western Canada. Fresh air, fresh powder, fresh me. Canada has some of the world’s best deep powder skiing in Revelstoke, B.C.. We fly into Calgary (YYC) or Kelowna (YLW), then drive the rest of the way through epic mountain scenery.”

– Monette Pasher
President, Canadian Airports Council

“Most Canadians are just happy to be travelling again, with masking, testing and the pandemic restart finally behind us. But travel isn’t just back – it’s entered a new normal. Corporate jet-setting has been reshaped by remote work and the digital meeting room.

Meanwhile, the pent-up desire for leisure and adventure has unleashed a wave of enthusiasm for meaningful experiences and new destinations – more sun, more fun, fewer short-hop, narrow-body business flights. New in-demand destinations like Cancun, Punta Cana, Paris and Las Vegas make up 50% of our airport’s international capacity. We’re reimagining infrastructure and pushing our partners to help accommodate these new realities.”

– Karen Mazurkewich
Vice-president, stakeholder relations and communications, Toronto Pearson

I had been reading about Iran for thirty years; I’d even set part of a novel there, based on four years of intensive research. But within four hours of setting foot in the country, I realized I didn’t know a thing.

In both Iran and North Korea, as in so many of the places I visit— from Myanmar to Cuba and Tibet to Ethiopia—most of the people I meet would give anything to come and see us in San Francisco or Montreal. But I doubt whether they’ll ever have the means or freedom to do so. It’s up to us, the lucky few who live in relative comfort and mobility, to go see them and start the conversation. In the absence of foreign visitors, many of our global neighbours are condemned to a kind of solitary confinement.

But travel need not mean crossing the world; it can simply mean crossing the street, especially at a time when all the cultures of the world can be found in Toronto or Vancouver. Travel is less a fact of geography than an act of imagination.

Yes, it can awaken wonder, excitement, romance, but the greater benefit I get from travel is humility. It not only expands my field of knowledge; it reminds me how little I know and how provincial I can be. At a time when Silicon Valley began remaking the world, I was incalculably glad to travel to Haiti, Yemen, and Laos and be reminded that in those days, the majority of the people alive had never used a telephone and would never board a plane.

I will never forget stepping inside a state-of-the-art virtual reality booth at the TED annual conference in Vancouver. It was astonishing. Instantly, I was surrounded by the pulsing greens of the Amazon rainforest. I could hear tropical birds chattering; I could almost feel precipitation on my face. But when I stepped out again, I realized that having the experience virtually robbed me of everything essential about such an encounter: the sense of surprise; the silence between the chatter; the sweat on my brow showing I’d earned the epiphany. In the age of artificial intelligence, reality—as experienced in flesh—enjoys a greater premium than it’s ever had before. And in the age of small screens, it’s only by seeing the world in the round, in all its subtlety and confusion, that we can begin to grasp the larger picture.

Pico Iyer
Pico Iyer (@PicoIyer) is the author, most recently, of The Half Known Life, chronicling his search for paradise everywhere from Jerusalem to inner Australia. His next book, Aflame, comes out in January 2025.