My flight to Nairobi was something on its own to note because, well, it’s just surprising. People on your flight: American missionaries, American college kids doing research on AIDS/HIV or education (or the typical developing-world-issues, you pick one), nuns, families going on safaris, and ‘volun-tourists,’ or a type of tourism where you also ‘volunteer’ to make yourself feel better, and lots of Europeans who are going on similar purposes. The flight from Brussels included an American priest who decided it was his job to loudly recite prayers before takeoff and during landing. The general voice level is excitement, of ‘going to Africa’ and ‘saving the world.’ From my other posts on this blog it should be clear that I have an issue with this whole ‘saving the world’ mantra that travelers from the West has continued to feel obliged to do, especially those who can also afford to go to this very, very large continent.
The passengers on religious missions was a bit surprising because I did not know that still took place so actively. The volunteer tourism is a bit more problematic. While the purpose of it has been marketed to promote responsible visitors and allow people to engage in sustainable tourism, it is still tourism in which people, mostly affluent families from the US, are enforced the feeling of 1) false superiority, direct of indirect, 2) the assumption that the location of their volunteer tourism is in a dire state, 3) still expect to be treated as a superior and have all the amenities of a vacation, and especially nice things since it is a developing country. All of this might sound extreme but I feel that this new volun-tourism is just perpetuating socioeconomic divides, and more controversially, racial divides (I use the word controversial because people still feel queasy pointing to the elephant in the room, but yes, this is a racial issue).
Such volun-tourism is more about boosting the ego of the tourists who are landing at the airport and being escorted by nice cars to their nice hotels (all of which are not only expected from the tourists but also surprises them because they thought they were coming to a developing country and people are supposed to be poor, an obvious double standard). Also, not all locals want to be reminded that they need help, or asked for help, or even actually need help in the first place (living standards and what is deemed as ‘approprate’ and not are objective, after all).
Of course this is not to push down intentions or to say all volunteer tourists are ignorant, but an element of ignorance is there. Bangladesh has recently started to jump on this whole volunteer tourism thing, where marketing companies are hired by travel agency to make fancy websites and charge unbelievable amounts for packages to do things that locals usually laugh at, and locals are always better at. I remember talking to someone who worked at such travel agency and he told me how it’s usually something like letting the tourist teach a class at a school, clean fish freshly caught from pollutants, and other tasks that are not dangerous (because if something happens to the tourist, well, that would ruin the whole purpose, and this also assures that the demands of safety are met by these tourists), meager, and, just funny and costs next to nothing for the agency to arrange. What does help is that the amounts paid by these tourists to do what locals would deem as odd activities to actually help trigger employment in the area.
Lets not forget that these tourists are not going to be given some cultural background or education on the way people usually live in the area so again, they are coming in with the idea that their society and living standards is automatically better than the host country.
I am not sure that there is a solution other than asking people to go read some books. Tourism is a great cash cow and a way to boost a region’s economy, and even help local employment and small businesses to an extent. Exploitation of perception, and increased conviction of ‘developing world poverty’ after such visits are a social issue, which goes beyond reading books.