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Young people are travel-obsessed — but can they afford to be?

“I feel comfortable spending all my savings on travelling.”

by Vanmala Subramaniam
Aug 10 2017, 3:08pm

In a given year, 32-year-old Natalie Nanowski spends six to seven thousand dollars on travel. Perhaps more, she muses. Nanowski is a Toronto-based journalist — after seven years in the industry, she earns an above average income, one that gives her a comfortable, middle-class lifestyle. But, she admits, her savings are scarce.

“I take about three international trips a year, and maybe four local trips, like going to Montreal for the weekend. Right now, I would say I prioritize travelling over saving — I’m not too worried about retirement,” Nanowski says.

The situation is not much different for Anna Chen, a 30-year-old who lives in Toronto’s heavily-gentrified Queen West neighbourhood. Chen is a humanities graduate from the University of Toronto who spent her first few post-graduation years working in the non-profit industry, but eventually ended up in the well-paying tech sector.

“I won’t take on debt to travel, but I feel comfortable spending all my savings on travelling,” says Chen. “The way I see it is I’m only 30, I don’t have sick parents, and I’m not trying to buy a house — so I’m not really saving for anything in particular.”

Millennial travel is no joke — in 2010 alone, millennials generated US$165 billion in tourism revenue, making 187 million international visits around the world and accounting for 20 percent of total global travel, according to Destination Canada, a crown corporation dedicated to growing Canada’s tourism revenues. In fact, the United Nations estimates that global tourism revenue generated by millennials has increased by some 30 percent since 2007.

The millennial preoccupation with travel is in some sense correlated to the post-war global growth in wealth. Baby boomers (in the West) were the first group of children and teenagers with significant spending power — their kids, for the most part, experienced middle-class lives, devoid of any real financial responsibilities outside taking care of themselves. Travel, as such, started morphing into a necessity, rather than a luxury.

Saleha Haji, an accountant in Toronto, spends up to $10,000 a year on travel. Between last summer and this summer alone, she took four international trips. Haji is in a demanding, well-paying profession and frequently feels that she needs breaks from her job to recharge. “I need time off, but more importantly I want to see the world, so if an opportunity comes up to take a trip with someone, why not do that?”

The Boston Consulting Group reports that our generation is much more interested in travel than our parents were — by a 23-percentage point margin. In fact, we are now now the “fastest-growing age segment” in terms of the money we spend on travelling abroad, according to a report from American Express.

But there’s a flipside to that argument. In some sense, this same travel-obsessed generation is currently experiencing a reversal of fortune. Stagnant wages coupled with soaring rents, student debt, and the constant threat of job automation has left many millennials feeling pessimistic about their future, and eager to live in the moment. The growth of the travel industry (cheap flights, solo adventure packages, travel rewards cards etc.) has tapped into this “you-only-live-once” (YOLO) sentiment — why save for the future when you have the opportunity to spend it all seeing the world?

“Sometimes I’ll plan a trip and save for a while, but other times I’ll just be impulsive and book it,” Nanowski tells VICE Money. “I have incurred debt from traveling and it’s something I would like to change.”

A recent report from Airbnb unsurprisingly revealed that millennials, especially in the U.S., U.K., and China, prioritize travel over buying a home and paying off debt, and prioritize it much more than buying a car. Most millennials, it turns out, said that they would rather continue spending on travel than paying off debt.

Personal finance expert Rubina Ahmed-Haq doesn’t really blame young people for this short-term style of thinking. “Interest rates are still really low, so you don’t actually feel that financial pinch from borrowing. You could live quite comfortably and still afford to pay off some of your debt every month — it doesn’t eat much into your monthly budget.”

But millennial consumer debt is a real and present problem. 31 percent of millennials feel that it’s not a “big deal” if they carry a balance on their credit cards, said a November 2016 survey by Manulife Financial. A Bank of Canada assessment of household debt in Canada recently reported that consumer debt is driven by households under the age of 45 — it has doubled in the last 10 years.

Still, Ahmed-Haq is convinced that millennials won’t remain irresponsible forever. “Overspending is something that happens in your 20s, early 30s, but by the time you get to the stage of your life where you have kids and need to buy a house, I see a lot of young people smartening up,” she says.

For now though, Anna Chen says she wants to live “without regrets”. “I’m starting to think about an RRSP, but really, if I’m not learning and experiencing new things, new places, what’s the point of anything?”

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