I touched on this issue briefly when I discussed my travel guilt after leaving Laos. Since then I’ve been thinking a lot about the issue and have read a couple of additional blog posts that have influenced my thinking.
The first was a blog post I highlighted in my picks of the week by Mina Sameh entitled “No, Not Everyone Can Travel – A Bubble Burster” in which he explains the difficulty involved with traveling the world from a perspective outside of the Western world. Even though Mina does well in Egypt and is educated, the money and the opportunities just aren’t there. This post placed some things in perspective. It showed me how incredibly lucky I am, even if I never were to leave the United States. Our standard of living is high, my partner and I are both well educated and we have access to whatever we want or need. Add to that we can go almost anywhere in the world whenever we want (well, given the budget) and you have some very pampered people. It showed me that I have no idea what most of the world goes through which made me ask the question how can I properly interpret it then when I see it first hand.
Walking around poor, very poor, areas of Laos I can talk with the people, I can take some pictures and share some statistics, but none of that really means much because I can’t relate. Not in any way. Which brings me to the second post I promised.
The post, Garbage City: The Side of Cairo No One Wants to See, written by a colleague Norbert who, while traveling in Cairo, decided to visit one of the worst slums in the city. Now Cairo isn’t exactly known for hiding its poverty, so I was surprised when I read that he had traveled to and heavily photographed the area. As he states in the piece his intention was to highlight the poverty, something I found (and find) odd. How can travelers to Cairo not know about the poverty? No, I think it’s something different, I think it’s poverty tourism.
I don’t fault Norbert for this and I certainly mean him no offense, I’ve done it as well and I’m sure neither of us realized what we were doing. I’ve traveled to poor areas around the planet, taken the requisite photos and left. But why, why did I feel the need to catalog them?
I think that a large part of it, at least from a Western perspective, is our inability to relate to the extreme poor. Sure, some of us may have less money than others, but if you live in the United States you are doing better than most people around the world. Same goes with France, Germany, England, etc. So when confronted with a village where they make a few dollars a month and live on the edge of life and death, I don’t think we know how to cope with it and instead turn into poverty tourists. I think it’s a coping mechanism or at the very least a way for our brains to begin the process of understanding what lies before us.
Is it right, is it wrong? I don’t know. I ultimately don’t think it’s a bad thing, it makes us better global citizens and as such maybe we’ll be more globally conscious in what we say and do. Maybe it means we’ll start looking at the tags on our shirts to see where they were made and maybe it means actively working to help impoverished communities around the world. That’s why I don’t fault Norbert or myself for our bouts of poverty tourism, I think it’s just part of a larger process of self-enrichment and that by sharing it with others, maybe a little good will have been done.
What do you think, is there such a thing as poverty tourism? Is it right or wrong to be a voyeur in some of the poorest regions of the world?