If you’ve ever scrolled through travel photos on Instagram you’ve probably seen the #passionpassport tag. This community of travelers, storytellers and creatives is almost 800,000 strong on social media and the ultimate source for wanderlust-fueling digital content. But Passion Passport wants to do more than just connect people online. The company offers a quarterly travel grant called “The Bucket List Initiative” and plans immersive travel experiences like their 2015 train trip Passport Express.
This month, they’ve launched a new project targeting the would-be traveler who doesn’t even have a passport yet.
The Passport Project invites you to pick a stigmatized destination you’d like to visit (someplace people talk smack about) and nominate a travel partner who is currently without a passport. The winners will “embark on a journey of understanding and compassion, and will share their experiences before, during, and after their trip with the rest of our community.” While the travel grant is open to people from anywhere in the world, the project’s “Building Bridges, Not Walls” message is a clear call to action for Americans to come together.
In a time when “fear of the other” is at an all-time high and 64% of Americans don’t have a passport, the company believes more than ever in the power of travel to unify. In the words of their founder Zach Houghton, “Having a passport is powerful. We want more people to have them and the experiences they can bring.”
This week we connected with Zach about Passion Passport’s new project and his own experiences as an avid traveler.
Why do you think so many Americans do not have a passport and how does this project remove those obstacles?
Going through the process of obtaining a passport can be overwhelming, especially if it’s not common practice for your family members or others in your community. Some people may not know where to go for a passport photo, how to fill out the paperwork correctly, or how easy it is to get a passport.
The Passport Project will not only fund a passport for the nominated applicant, but we will also walk them through the entire process — from assisting them with getting passport photos and other key items, to filling out paperwork with them over video chat. Once they’ve become more informed about the whole process, our hope is that they will be empowered to help others in their community obtain passports, too.
Why did you choose 10 days for the Passion Project trip?
The length of the trip will ultimately vary depending on the winner’s chosen destination and personal parameters but ten days provides ample time to explore various aspects of a city or region and is the length of a typical vacation. We wanted to keep in mind that those applying for this program have families, careers, or other things that will limit their travel time. We also wanted to acknowledge the fact that this will be the first trip out of the country for at least one of the participants and we don’t want to overwhelm them with a very lengthy trip.
Love that the Passport Project requests applicants select a stigmatized destination. What is a negatively stereotyped place that you have visited?
While I was in Beijing, I had the opportunity to visit China’s rural Northwest, a place whose Uyghur people are, to this day, specifically targeted and victimized by the government. I was told the region was unsafe and the local people were sour and would be closed off to visitors, but I was intensely curious about the people, food, and landscapes.
By traveling to the region, I was able to gain a better understanding of the issues the Uyghur people were facing. I spoke to individuals and learned about how they were trying to preserve their culture. I understood why the stereotypes I’d heard about had come to be, and also why residents in other parts of China didn’t have an accurate understanding of what was really going on there (for a variety of reasons, including state-run media). The time I spent in this region gave me a perspective I couldn’t have gained by looking at photos or reading reports, and sparked a fascination in the area and its conflicts I still have to this day.
Do you think visiting a stigmatized place can also help you have a more authentic local experience?
In stigmatized places, there are often fewer travelers, and those visitors are often embraced by local communities in ways that wouldn’t be as easy in busier, more popular cities. One of our community members just submitted a piece reflecting on his travels through Yemen, Sudan, and Somalia. He wrote about walking down the street and getting invited into people’s homes for coffee, or going to restaurants and having waiters sit with him so he wouldn’t have to eat alone. These are the types of personal interactions that can make a trip more meaningful.
This isn’t necessarily to say that one experience is more “authentic” than another. There are misconceptions about every place around the world, but it takes getting to know the community to really get a feel for a location. That’s one of the reasons we created The Passport Project. We wanted to empower people to experience a new location in a way that would break down barriers they might have had before their journey.
What are your favorite ways to experience a place in an authentic non-touristy way and how does this demonstrate the value of travel?
Interacting with people of all ages and walks of life is a surefire way to authentically experience a location. Meeting a friend of a friend who lives in the city, sharing a cup of coffee or a meal, or simply chatting with your waiter can make you feel more connected to the place you’re visiting. Learning a local language, or even just a couple of important phrases, is what makes me feel most connected to the places I visit.
These kinds of interactions ground us to a place, show us character, and allow us to invest emotion in local communities. We encourage members of our travel community to travel with a specific purpose in mind: a community or organization they would like to connect with, or a project or creative endeavor through which they would like to experience the place.
How have you personally learned to better understand the world through travel?
When I was a junior in college, I lived in Beijing for a summer as part of a university language program. It was my first time traveling to Asia and I was so scared that I cried on the plane ride over. I had my own fears and misconceptions about Beijing and worried that people would be closed or unfriendly. I was told the streets would be covered in feces, that I would be sick for the entire summer. But over the course of that period, I came to understand the importance of trying to relate with people from different backgrounds, and language’s special ability to forge connections. And I only got sick once.
Travel grants like the Passport Project can feel intimidating to apply to when there are so many fantastic travel photographers out there, many who have attracted thousands of followers on social media (case in point). Do you think the travel community can sometimes seem like an exclusive club that is intimidating to join, especially for those who have not traveled extensively?
We hope those in our community don’t feel that way! Passion Passport’s goal isn’t to try to get a lot of people with huge social media followings in the same place. Instead, we’re trying to create a conversation between people who share our same motivation and values, despite being from different backgrounds. In this way, our mission is to focus on meaningful travel and you don’t need to have thousands of followers to create meaningful work. Plenty of participants in our biggest programs (especially the Passport Express) had only a few hundred followers on social media, but wrote powerful applications that granted them a spot on that journey.
Our goal has always been to give people — from college students studying abroad, to travelers and creatives of all ages, to professionals in the travel industry — the opportunity to engage in a meaningful dialogue about the transformative nature of travel. The content on our website is written and contributed by people with a variety of perspectives, and that variety is something we strive for in everything we do.
More images from the #passionpassport community