Keynote speaker TV documentary maker Louis Theroux reflected on the value of cultural interactions in the final event of World Travel Market 2023. In a packed Q&A session, he told the audience there was a mentally freeing aspect to immersion in a different setting or way of life.
Born in Singapore to a British producer for the BBC World Service and American travel writer Paul Theroux, he grew up in the UK.
Within his liberal household he said his mother encouraged him “to question aspects of our culturalisation,” while his father mocked British accents and norms. He then attended a private school he described as “nostalgic for the Empire,” where he was both a conscientious student and keen to fit in with miscreants.
“The Ying and Yang of being naughty but also hardworking… disruptive but also diligent and focused,” he said had since bled into his career. He added the sweet spot was finding something that made you feel creative but that you could deliver with care and restraint. “Be respectful but also cheeky,” he advised.
Expected to pursue a writing career, he said he was drawn instead to broadcasting as he feared being compared to his father.
His work has since led him into often into difficult situations, such as interacting with cult leaders and neo-Nazis. But he said he latches onto what is curious about a person, recognising, “even if they have hateful views, they are [often] confused people trying to reach out.”
He gave the example of the neo-Nazi filmed enthusing about his favourite British sitcoms. “I sometimes say, the weirdest thing about weird people is how normal they are,” he added.
Of interactions with different cultures, he advised. “Be prepared, be respectful and listen. Be aware of the red flags in terms of what is going to cause offence.”
Recognising the trends for both experiential and sustainable travel, he pointed out excitement often comes from “meeting extraordinary people, as opposed to travelling extraordinary distances.”
He recommended: “Have experiences that mean you get deep quickly, rather than places that are giving you a buffet and an Elvis show… not that I’m not partial to an Elvis show.”
He said North Korea would be on his wishlist for future travel because it is the country he considers to be closest to a cult.
Although his favourite US city is New York, he also admitted a fondness for San Jose, a place often lampooned as bland. He said he felt freed by the sharp contrast to the “almost Dickensian” atmosphere of the historic London streets around his home.
He explained: “When you are decontextualised it can declutter your head in some way. You’re so out of context everything is possible. Like an existential reboot.”