When Barack Obama reflects on his favorite travels, he thinks of his first pilgrimage to Kenya, the home of his father, Barack Obama Sr. Raised by a single mother in Hawaii, the former U.S. president visited the country in his mid-20s to connect to the dad he never knew, after the elder Obama died of a car accident there in 1982.
“I wanted to understand him and understand the land he was from,” Obama explained to a crowd of travel and tourism professionals, business leaders and government officials at the World Travel & Tourism Council’s 2019 Global Summit in Seville, Spain, April 3 during an intimate discussion with Christopher J. Nassetta, WTTC chairman and president/CEO of Hilton.
But before his month in Kenya, Obama stopped in Europe for the first time. “I wasn’t staying at the Hilton because I didn’t have any money,” he joked. “I’d basically buy a baguette and cheese and eat that every day.”
In Europe, he took an overnight bus from Madrid. “We arrived in Barcelona and it was just daybreak, and I remember walking towards Las Ramblas, towards town, and the sun was coming up. Those kinds of trips are memorable because they are part of you as a young person trying to discover what your place in the world is.”
Of course, many of his most unforgettable journeys were with other young people, his daughters. “There’s something spectacular about seeing a new place, experiencing a different culture, being exposed to new ideas, travel makes you grow. But as a parent, when you are able to watch that sense of discovery in your children’s eyes, that is more special than anything else,” he said. “Some of them have been spectacular—us walking through the Kremlin as president. And Sasha was about seven years old and she had a trench coat on and looked like an international spy.”
Read on for edited snippets of Obama’s proudest presidential achievements, his views on the challenges facing the world and what’s left on his travel bucket list.
Facing World Challenges
“The thing that we are seeing most is the degree in which the disruptions that are occurring from technology, from globalization, from this constant stream of information make people feel insecure. It makes them feel uncertain about the world around them. Some of them are very concrete: the changes that are taking place economically mean that particularly in advanced economies, but even in middle-income countries, people who felt fairly comfortable suddenly are finding that they have to run very fast just to stay in place.
Some of it has to do with identity and culture, so whether it’s Brexit in the U.K. or the political upheavals that have happened in the United States or some of the surge in populism in continental Europe. All of those are not just reactions to economic changes but also reaction to people feeling as if their status is being revoked or their sense of what their country is being undermined, and they either want to put up genuine walls or metaphorical walls to preserve what they think they have.
So you see this sort of nationalism, negativism, xenophobia. Those are dangerous. Because it’s not isolated to one particular country. It’s a global phenomenon.
One of the benefits of travel, obviously, is it reminds people both of the incredible value of our diversity on this planet and the differences we have, because that’s what makes food in Sevilla different than food from Bangkok — and they are both really good. Travel also reminds us of what we share, of what we have in common. The ability to recognize ourselves in each other.
I’m also worried about the destabilization of our environment. Climate change is not something off in the future. It is demonstrably happening right now. And we are seeing it in some of the most beautiful places on this planet.
The good news is that there are things we can do to make a difference. The bad news is that right now our politics is not designed to tackle those things as quickly.”
Fixing These Problems
“The generations behind us are more sophisticated, more worldly, more cosmopolitan, more appreciative of other cultures. When I look at Malia and Sasha, in part because they have been able to consume the entire world on [their mobile devices], they are not afraid of difference, they are not afraid of change, they are not afraid of things that are unusual or unfamiliar and that’s the world they grew up in.
As a consequence, I think the politics of erecting walls, certainly in the United States, does not appeal to young people. It’s one they fundamentally reject. There’s a fairly strong correlation in the United States between progressive attitudes about different cultures, different ethnicities, different sexual orientations and age.
The end of the baby boom helped to solidify a belief in the United States with civil rights, women’s rights and a lot of those values. The young people behind us feel in those things even more strongly. They’ve grown up with them.
The bad news is that old people don’t like to let go of power. And old people tend to vote more than young people.
Part of what I think is the key is to get young people engaged and involved in rebuilding institutions that are responsive to their needs to make sure that their concerns are represented.”
How Growing Up In Hawaii And Indonesia Shaped His Presidential Perspective
“One obvious way in which it shaped me was recognizing that in this big world of ours, there are great differences and great commonalities. I was less fearful of different cultures, and my capacity to make a connection and find common ground and higher ground.
It probably created a certain amount of humility for me, in the sense that one of the great things of spending time outside of the United States when you’re young, is it makes you love your country in many ways that much more. You appreciate the incredible privilege that someone growing up in the United States has about a country of plenty, a country of opportunity, a country that, for all its flaws, abides by certain principles, ideals, rule of law, human rights and freedoms that are in our Constitution.
But it also made me recognize that there are a lot of wonderful countries with wonderful people who are proud of their stuff, too.
And I think I brought to the office the perspective that says the thing that has made the United States such an outstanding country is not when we force or bully our way into the international order, but when we lead by example, and persuasion and cultural influence.
When I was president, I made it a point of visiting cultural sites, and sometimes I would get into trouble back home because the conservative or opposition media [would say], “Oh, Obama’s on vacation.”
Part of diplomacy is letting other people know that you recognize them, that you recognize and appreciate their cultures, their stories and their history, and their memories. When people feel as if they are known, they’re understood and seen, then they are more open to your perspectives as well. That’s true in individuals and that’s true in nations. And I think maybe I understood that a little bit more by virtue of the experiences I had as a child.”
The Obama Foundation’s Efforts In Africa
“When I was prepared to leave office, I asked myself, what am I going to do with myself and what will be most useful? The thing that I thought I was uniquely able to do along with Michelle is inspire young people to get involved and engage so that they can take the baton and move things forward. So what we decided was essentially to make the Obama Foundation really a training ground, a university in some ways, for leadership and social change for young people who want to be difference makers around the world.
And part of the genesis of this was when I was president, I very early on I started a habit of having town halls with young people in every country I visited. I’d have an assembly of 100, 500 young people. I would just call on them, they’d ask me questions and we’d have a discussion.
We started the Young African Leaders Program, where we were going bring 500 young leaders across the continent to the United States to study, learn, come up with a plan for development that they would take back to their home countries. For 500 spots, we got 50,000 applications. So it was easier to get into Stanford or Harvard than it was to get into this thing. Long story short: the foundation now is partnering with universities and nonprofit groups in Africa, Asia and Europe.”
The New Mindset Of Young Travelers
“Young travelers have a different attitude. Malia and Sasha, they want experiences. You know, pampering is nice, when they’re traveling with their mom and their dad, they like room service and spa stuff sometimes, but what really excites them is being able to feel as if they are interacting with a new culture, learning and meeting people, music, the food.
We also have to be environmentally conscious. If they feel as if the nature of an attraction or a site in the city is not conservation conscious, I think they’ll be less interested.
I think travel for [young women] poses some specific interesting issues around safety and security and the attitudes of men in places. So if you are part of a tourism council in a city or a nation where women feel uncomfortable when they are traveling, that will potentially reduce your market.
They’ve got a tougher attitude. They are smarter about it. They aren’t going to put up with it. They don’t need to be harassed or feel unsafe when traveling.”
His Proudest Presidential Moments
“People take for granted that we helped save the world economy — that was a big deal. Part of the reason people understandably overlook it is because we prevented a Great Depression, but we did not fix all of the trends that I think have concerned people about growing inequality, stagnant wages, youth unemployment.
I’m very proud of providing health care to people didn’t have it in the United States. Internationally, I’m very proud of the Paris Accord [an ambitious effort by nations to combat climate change], even though right now the new president isn’t sticking to it. It provided a framework for all nations to recognize their responsibilities in addressing what will be the defining issue of our time.
And Michelle and I talk about this sometimes, we’re proud that we came out of eight years in a challenging situation intact. Meaning, we had no scandals, we maintained a high level of integrity. People say absolute power corrupts absolutely, but what I found is that power reveals more than anything else.”
What’s On His Bucket List
“Angkor Wat. I was in Cambodia for an [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] meeting. I was two hours away and could not get there because there was a crisis back home.
I still haven’t seen the Taj Mahal. I was scheduled to go and then King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia passed away, and we decided to stop in Riyadh.
I love Latin America, and I’ve been to Rio and Sao Paulo, but there are parts like Bahia I want to go check out. Going further south, Argentina — a spectacular country. Chile. Patagonia — that’s on the bucket list.
We’re thinking of jumping off to Antarctica. Secret Service wasn’t that thrilled about the logistics of that because if the weather turned, we might not be able to get in communications for several weeks. But now that I’m no longer president, I may have to go make that trip.”