Mobility, Modernity, and Abroad




travel Australia mobilities networks

How to Cite

Harris, A. (2016). Mobility, Modernity, and Abroad. M/C Journal, 19(5).
Vol. 19 No. 5 (2016): abroad
Published 2016-10-13


What does it mean to be abroad in the modern Australian context? Australia has developed as a country where people increasingly travel both domestically and abroad. Tourism Research Australia reports that 9.6 million resident departures are forecast for 2015-16 and that this will increase to 13.2 million in 2024–25 (Tourism Forecast). This article will identify the development of the Australian culture of travel abroad, the changes that have taken place in Australian society and the conceptual shift of what it means to travel abroad in modern Australia.

The traditions of abroad stem from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Grand Tour notion where Europeans and Britons travelled on or to the continent to expand their knowledge and experience. While travel at this time focused on history, culture and science, it was very much the domain of the upper classes (Cooper). The concept of the tourist is often credited with Thomas Cook’s first package tour in 1841, which used railways to facilitate trips for pleasure (Cooper). Other advances at the time popularised the trip abroad. Steamships, expanded rail and road networks all contributed to an age of emerging mobility which saw the development of travel to a multi-dimensional experience open to a great many more people than ever before. This article explores three main waves of influence on the Australian concept of abroad and how each has shifted the experience and meaning of what it is to travel abroad.

Australians Abroad 

The post-war period saw significant changes to Australian society, particularly advances in transport, which shaped the way Australians travelled in the 1950s and 1960s. On the domestic front, Australia began manufacturing Holden cars with Prime Minister Ben Chifley unveiling the first Holden “FX” on 29 November 1948. Such was its success that over 500,000 Holden cars were produced by the end of the next decade (Holden). Throughout the 1950s and 1960s the government established a program to standardise railway gauges around the country, making direct travel between Melbourne and Sydney possible for the first time. Australians became more mobile and their enthusiasm for interstate travel flowed on to international transport (Lee).

Also, during the 1950s, Australia experienced an influx of migrants from Southern Europe, followed by the Assisted Passage Scheme to attract Britons in the late 1950s and through the 1960s (“The Changing Face of Modern Australia”). With large numbers of new Australians arriving in Australia by ship, these ships could be filled for their return journey to Britain and Europe with Australian tourists. Travel by ship, usually to the “mother country,” took up to two months time, and communication with those “back home” was limited. By the 1960s travelling by ship started to give way to travel by air. The 1950s saw Qantas operate Royal flights for Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh for their Australian tour, and in 1956 the airline fleet of 34 propeller drive aircraft carried a record number of passengers to the Melbourne Olympics. On 14 January 1958 Qantas launched the first world service from Melbourne flying the Kangaroo Route (via India) and the Southern Cross Route (via the United States) and before long, there were eight such services operating weekly (Qantas). This developing network of international air services connected Australia to the world in a way it had not been previously (Lee).

Such developments in Australian aviation were significant on two fronts. Firstly, air travel was a much faster, easier, and more glamorous means of travel (Bednarek) despite the cost, comfort, safety, and capacity issues. The increase in air travel resulted in a steady decline of international travel by boat. Secondly, air travel abroad offered Australians from all walks of life the opportunity to experience other cultures, ideas, fashions, and fads from abroad. These ideas were fed into a transforming Australian society more quickly than they had been in the past.

Social change during the late 1950s and into the 1960s connected Australia more closely to the world. The Royal Tour attracted the attention of the British Empire, and the Melbourne Olympics drew international attention. It was the start of television in Australia (1956) which gave Australians connectivity in a way not experienced previously. Concurrent with these advances, Australian society enjoyed rising standards of living, increased incomes, a rise in private motorcar ownership, along with greater leisure time. Three weeks paid holiday was introduced in NSW in 1958 and long service leave soon followed (Piesse). The confluence of these factors resulted in increased domestic travel and arguably altered the allure of abroad. Australians had the resources to travel in a way that they had not before.

The social desire for travel abroad extended to the policy level with the Australian government’s 1975 introduction of the Working Holiday Programme (WHP). With a particular focus on young people, its aim was to foster closer ties and cultural exchange between Australia and partner countries (Department of Immigration and Boarder Protection). With cost and time commitments lessened in the 1960s and bilateral arrangements for the WHP in the 1970s, travel abroad became much more widespread and, at least in part, reduced the tyranny of distance. It is against the backdrop of increasingly connected transport networks, modernised communication, and rapid social change that the foundation for a culture of mobility among Australians was further cemented.

Social Interactions Abroad

Distance significantly shapes the experience of abroad. Proximity has a long association with the volume and frequency of communication exchange. Libai et al. observed that the geographic, temporal, and social distance may be much more important than individual characteristics in communication exchange. Close proximity fosters interpersonal interaction where discussion of experiences can lead to decision-making and social arrangements whilst travelling. Social interaction abroad has been grounded in similarity, social niceties, a desire to belong to a social group of particular travellers, and the need for information (Harris and Prideaux). At the same time, these interactions also contribute to the individual’s abroad experience. White and White noted, “the role of social interaction in the active construction of self as tourist and the tourist experience draws attention to how tourists self-identify social worlds in which they participate while touring” (43). Similarly, Holloway observed of social interaction that it is “a process of meaning making where individuals and groups shape understandings and attitudes through shared talk within their own communities of critique” (237).

The unique combination of social interaction and place forms the experiences one has abroad. Cresswell observed that the geographical location and travellers’ sense of place combine to produce a destination in the tourism context. It is against this backdrop of material and immaterial, mobile and immobile, fixed and fluid intersections where social relations between travellers take place. These points of social meeting, connectivity and interaction are linked by way of networks within the destination or during travel (Mavric and Urry) and contribute to its production of unique experiences abroad.

Communicating Abroad 

Communication whilst abroad, has changed significantly since the turn of the century. The merging of the corporeal and technological domains during travel has impacted the entire experience of travel. Those who travelled to faraway lands by ship in the 1950s were limited to letter writing and the use of telegrams for urgent or special communication. In the space of less than 60 years, the communication landscape could not look more different.

Mobile phones, tablets, and laptops are all carried alongside the passport as the necessities of travel. Further, Wi-Fi connectivity at airports, on transport, at accommodation and in public spaces allows the traveller to continue “living” at home—at least in the technological sense—whilst physically being abroad. This is not just true of Australians. Global Internet use has grown by 826.9% from 361 million users in 2000 to 3.3 billion users in 2015. In addition, there were 7.1 billion global SIM connections and 243 million machine-to-machine connections by the end of 2014 (GSMA Intelligence). The World Bank also reported a global growth in mobile telephone subscriptions, per 100 people, from 33.9 in 2005 to 96.3 in 2014. This also means that travellers can be socially present while physically away, which changes the way we see the world.

This adoption of modern communication has changed the discourse of “abroad” in a number of ways. The 24-hour nature of the Internet allows constant connectivity. Channels that are always open means that information about a travel experience can be communicated as it is occurring. Real time communication means that ideas can be expressed synchronously on a one-to-one or one-to-many basis (Litvin et al.) through hits, clicks, messages, on-line ratings, comments and the like. Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, WhatsApp, Viber, Twitter, TripAdvisor, blogs, e-mails and a growing number of channels allow for multifaceted, real time communication during travel.

Tied to this, the content of communicating the travel experience has also diversified from the traditional written word. The adage that “a picture tells a thousand words” is poignantly relevant here. The imagery contributes to the message and brings with it a degree of tone and perspective and, at the same time, adds to the volume being communicated. Beyond the written word and connected with images, modern communication allows for maps and tracking during the trip. How a traveller might be feeling can be captured with emojis, what they think of an experience can be assessed and rated and, importantly, this can be “liked” or commented on from those “at home.”

Technologically-enhanced communication has changed the traveller’s experience in terms of time, interaction with place, and with people. Prior to modern communication, the traveller would reflect and reconstruct travel tales to be recounted upon their return. Stories of adventure and travels could be malleable, tailored to audience, and embellished—an individual’s recount of their individual abroad experience. However, this has shifted so that the modern traveller can capture the aspects of the experience abroad on screen, upload, share and receive immediate feedback in real time, during travel. It raises the question of whether a traveller is actually experiencing or simply recording events. This could be seen as a need for validation from those at home during travel as each interaction and experience is recorded, shared and held up for scrutiny by others. It also raises the question of motivation. Is the traveller travelling for self or for others?

With maps, photos and images at each point, comments back and forth, preferences, ratings, records of social interactions with newfound friends “friended” or “tagged” on Facebook, it could be argued that the travel is simply a chronological series of events influenced from afar; shaped by those who are geographically distanced.

Liquid Modernity and Abroad 

Cresswell considered tourist places as systems of mobile and material objects, technologies, and social relations that are produced, imagined, recalled, and anticipated. Increasingly, developments in communication and closeness of electronic proximity have closed the gap of being away. There is now an unbroken link to home during travel abroad, as there is a constant and real time exchange of events and experiences, where those who are travelling and those who are at home are overlapping rather than discrete networks. Sociologists refer to this as “mobility” and it provides a paradigm that underpins the modern concept of abroad. Mobility thinking accepts the movement of individuals and the resulting dynamism of social groups and argues that actual, virtual, and imagined mobility is critical to all aspects of modern life. Premised on “liquid modernity,” it asserts that people, objects, images, and information are all moving and that there is an interdependence between these movements. The paradigm asserts a network approach of the mobile (travellers, stories, experiences) and the fixed (infrastructure, accommodation, devices). Furthermore, it asserts that there is not a single network but complex intersections of flow, moving at different speed, scale and viscosity (Sheller and Urry). This is a useful way of viewing the modern concept of abroad as it accepts a level of maintained connectivity during travel. The technological interconnectivity within these networks, along with the mobile and material objects, contributes to overlapping experiences of home and abroad.


From the Australian perspective, the development of a transport network, social change and the advent of technology have all impacted the experience abroad. What once was the realm of a select few and a trip to the mother country, has expanded to a “golden age” of glamour and excitement (Bednarek). Travel abroad has become part of the norm for individuals and for businesses in an increasingly global society.

Over time, the experience of “abroad” has also changed. Travel and non-travel now overlap. The modern traveller can be both at home and abroad. Modernity and mobility have influenced the practice of the overseas where the traveller’s experience can be influenced by home and vice-versa simultaneously. Revisiting the modern version of the “grand tour” could mean standing in a crowded gallery space of The Louvre with a mobile phone recording and sharing the Mona Lisa experience with friends and family at home. It could mean exploring the finest detail and intricacies of the work from home using Google Art Project (Ambroise).

While the lure of the unique and different provides an impetus for travel, it is undeniable that the meaning of abroad has changed. In some respects it could be argued that abroad is only physical distance. Conversely overseas travel has now melded into Australian social life in such a way that it cannot be easily unpicked from other aspects. The traditions that have seen Australians travel and experience abroad have, in any case, provided a tradition of travel which has impacted modern, social and cultural life and will continue to do so.


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Author Biography

Alana Harris, Southern Cross University

Manager, Academic Programs The Hotel School Melbourne Southern Cross University