Travelling to poor countries may be incredibly rewarding, but it poses some uncomfortable ethical dilemmas.
A conference I recently attended in Accra, Ghana, was held in a plush resort. With spacious rooms, sea views and a swimming pool, the swanky surroundings were certainly comfortable – but I felt ill at ease.
The venue was probably chosen partly to enable the specialised junkies to withdraw from society and get high together on liberal and concentrated doses of the topic in question – African development. Nevertheless, this Ibiza of the intellect – laced with stimulating, mind-altering debate – troubled me. You could say I felt a little like Alice in Ponderland: abstractly debating a topic while people just down the road lived its harsh reality.
Not far from the hotel, families were living in run-down houses that looked about the size of my room and women were swaying along with heavy jerry-cans of water balanced almost magically on their heads. Then again, a little further still, in this most developed country in West Africa, there are Ghanaians living in middle-class comfort and upper-class splendour in housing developments sold in euros.
After the conference was over, I moved to a more modest hotel in Accra town centre. Although the furniture was tacky and the fittings rickety, it was clean and more comfortable for my conscience, not to mention my wallet. From my new base, I got a better opportunity to acquaint myself with a society which was both a major hub in the transatlantic slave trade and, thanks to its first president Kwameh Nkrumah, a central player in the pan-African movement. Incidentally, Ghana's first-ever first lady was an Egyptian.
I love travelling in order to savour the breadth and wealth of human culture and civilisation. But travelling to poor countries, in particular, poses certain ethical challenges. In my native Egypt, where people who can afford to travel abroad usually seek to flee poverty, people are often baffled by some of my travel choices. In Europe, many people travel to poorer countries, and those who don't are often motivated by a fear of the unknown. Some criticise such journeys as a kind of voyeurism. But surely all travel has an element of voyeurism. After all, tourists and travellers are, for the most part, spectators, although the more intrepid may seek occasionally to become part of the action.
Besides, it can be countered that those who refuse to spend time in poor countries are isolating themselves from the reality of the world and denying themselves much of humanity's cultural treasures. They are also robbing themselves of the incredibly warm hospitality of many poorer countries and the opportunity for cultural exchange, as well as depriving locals of their money, the pride that outsiders are interested in their country, and the chance to embark on the poor person's equivalent of overseas travel – meeting foreigners.
Indeed, some countries may be materially poor but possess some of the richest, most sophisticated cultures in the world. Perhaps the most extreme example is Ethiopia, which has been relegated from the premier league of civilisations and now has the unenviable distinction of being among the top 10 least-developed countries. Lalibela is a sad embodiment of this contrast: the ageless, immutable beauty of its rock-hewn churches, and the contemporary reality of the surrounding hungryside.
Despite this, the rich culture lives on and Ethiopians are proud – even arrogant in their aloofness towards other Africans – sophisticated people. Of course, most people are unaware of this and their idea of Ethiopia is informed by the Grand Wizard of charity pop Bob Geldof's description of it as a place “where nothing ever grows”.
To maximise the benefits for yourself and the country you are visiting, it is crucial to travel responsibly. My wife and I are sensitive to the local culture, respectful of the people and try, but don't always succeed, to deal with all the attention we receive with patience and good humour. We strive to maximise the impact of every penny by trying to make sure that as much of it goes directly to ordinary people as possible. We never book accommodation through tour operators or travel agents and try to stay in and eat at small, family-run establishments. We try to pay a fair price for whatever we buy – both for the locals and for us.
It's a tricky balancing act. In many countries, tourism has had a corrupting influence, and when sellers see tourists, they also see big dollar signs. We tend to walk away from merchants and taxi drivers who try to rip us off outrageously, and reward those who are fair. We are proficient hagglers but often choose to pay above the local rate as a friendly gesture. After all, some euros extra here or there mean nothing to us but could make a big difference for a local family. As someone who could not afford to travel until relatively late in life, I feel very privileged to have the freedom to roam. But I am also keenly aware that one should not assume that tourism is an unqualified benefit to people in the country being visited.