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  • Writer's pictureNancy Arsenault

Building Empathy Through Tourism

It's Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) Mental Health Week from May 2-8, so let's #GetReal about mental health. This year mental health week has focused on the theme of empathy. The latest survey conducted by the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) and UBC researchers, Assessing the Impacts of COVID-19 on Mental Health, reports that empathy has decreased by 10% over the course of the pandemic, with only 13% of Canadians feeling empathetic. In addition, 37% of Canadians have experienced a decline in their mental health since the start of the pandemic.

“When someone is struggling, they don’t always need someone to swoop in and fix things for them. First, they need someone to understand where they’re coming from. During his time as president, Barack Obama suggested the biggest deficit in the world was an empathy deficit. He defined it as the ability to see the world through the eyes of those who are different from .”

So what can travel teach us about empathy?

Have you ever heard or thought, I can relate? Empathy is about the ability to understand the feelings or perspectives of another, walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, or see the world through another person's eyes. Being empathetic is about leaving judgements, fear, stereotypes and assumptions behind, and being open to new cultures, mindsets, perspectives, ways of living and experiencing the world.

Travel is the perfect medium where humans can build empathy. You don't have to travel far to build empathy, but you can find it right in your community, region, province or country. Have you ever participated in an Indigenous tourism experience or taken a cooking class with a new immigrant and walked away with a greater sense of understanding of their story, culture or history? According to researchers, empathy is a trait that can’t be taught (Davis, 1990), but it can be learned and facilitated through authentic experiences and travelling with an open mind and open heart.

“The journey changes you. It should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, your consciousness, your heart and on your body. You take something with you and, hopefully, you leave something good behind.”

- Anthony Bourdain

How can travel encourage and build empathy:

  • Takes you out of your everyday comfort zone

  • Helps you see other points of view and experience other cultures firsthand

  • Presents new ways to look at yourself and your place in the world

  • Builds awareness of the culture and history of the place you're visiting

  • Travellers can see the world through new eyes

  • Helps recognize your privilege. If you are travelling, no matter your budget, you are among the most privileged in the world!

  • Connects you with local people and communities.


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