It was Confucius who famously said, ‘In a country well governed, poverty is something to be ashamed of. In a country badly governed, wealth is something to be ashamed of.’ Many countries have extremes of poverty and wealth often nestling uncomfortably side by side.
For those of us tourists born in the Western World we are only encouraged to see the affluent areas. Guides and reps carefully chaperone the valuable money-wielding tourists to locations they want them to go and no further. Some of the poorer nations rely on the tourist trade and it’s important that the poverty ridden underbelly is kept hidden from sight. But some of us like to explore the regions we visit and see the ‘real’ country. Not always, however, enjoying the experience when we see a much darker side of these paradise destinations.
A safari trip to Kenya with the aim of seeing the ‘Big Five’ became an eye opener of a different kind. Accompanied by predominantly middle class tourists we encountered poverty stricken children whose plight still haunts me to this day. Instead of buying souvenirs for family back home I spent most of my holiday money on shoes and clothes for the kids. Back home I felt unreasonably annoyed at the very country that had pulled at my heart so much. How could this place that had such a well appointed resort allow such extremes of financial paucity to exist within its borders?
Sensitive readers may find some of the images distressing.
Nungwi, Unguja (Zanzibar)
Out on the Spice Islands off the East coast of Africa, tourism is one of the four major sources of income. The economy drives prosperity and investment.
It’s little wonder that otherwise poor countries have localised ‘hotspots’ of affluence.
Meanwhile… we see the other side of life where more than 50% of the population live below the poverty line. Annual income averages only £130.
In what is termed a more developed country, even the most prestigious of hotels are just a stone’s throw away from rampant poverty in the capital city.
Not to say that Paris is the only example of its kind, but one whose famous Le Royal Monceau hotel’s new owners drew mixed attention to themselves in 2008 with an elaborate complete refurbishment.
Meanwhile… Ooh la la.
Hardly the image Paris wants to be associated with! Nevertheless, 100,000 inhabitants of this great city have problems finding housing. 6.1% of Parisians are classed as poverty-stricken.
Bangkok is a beautiful city that words don’t seem to do justice. Massive skyscrapers sit comfortably among historic temples and culture oozes at every turn. Temperatures never falling below 19 degrees during the ‘harshest’ winter nights and average over 30 most days give Thailand a humid, often oppressive super reality. Luxury hotels abound but it takes a strong stomach to eat at the Banyan Tree’s famous 61st storey high ‘Vertigo Bar’.
Meanwhile at ground level…
Thailand has a population of 69 million, a massive 25% of whom live in slums. It’s a stark contrast with this ‘skylife’.
Bocas del Toro, Panama
This attractive archipelago off the coast of Panama is described as ‘an indescribable and overwhelming natural beauty, added to the great combination of races and ethnicities, living in harmony with indigenous… peoples. Bocas del Toro is an example of coexistence and multi-cultural respect for everyone’, according to the official tourist website.
The tourist spiel jars with real-life experienced by many inhabitants. A common sight is the luxury yachts sharing the archipelago’s waterways with roughly-hewn dugout canoes. That said, Panama has made significant progress in the last decade, reducing poverty by 4%. Maybe this city is an example of ‘tourism for the good’.
Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
This is the breathtaking coastal site of exclusive apartments that are rented out to wedding parties. Here, at the Garza Blanca, wedding dreams come true.
Specialised resorts are common place along the coast, with executive business parties and get togethers for well-to-do celebrities.
Meanwhile… despite the fact that 50% of the working economy comes from tourism, wages are low and 10% still have no easy access to clean drinking water.
Thanks to Danny Boyle’s film, Slumdog Millionaire, the poverty stricken underbelly that typifies many Indian’s lives was brought into sharp focus. Few tourists will visit Mumbai with the same naiveté. The 110 year old Taj Mahal hotel with its 285 exquisite rooms is at the pinnacle of the luxury lifestyle.
Meanwhile, just down the road in the slums, sights like this are sadly not rare. India is believed to be home to a third of the world’s most poorest people. About 60% of them living on about $3 a day.
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Here at the hottest spot north of Havana where music and passion are always in fashion lays one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. The Copacabana Palace was refurbished in 1995 to the tune of $35 million: money which could have been spent in a more socially conscious fashion on the slums.
Meanwhile… you get the idea. Rio has serious drug problems and it’s not rare to see a very visible police presence. Gun battles and violence are not something the Brazilian tourist board like to admit to. According to Oxfam, Brazil has lifted 28 million people out of poverty in the last 15 years, but inequality is threatening this process.
Finally, despite what we know about poverty in the places we visit, we must continue to explore the World. For in not doing so we would only exacerbate the very real problems facing these countries. Although income may trickle down to the poorest groups, it is an ongoing struggle to get wealth to the people that need it most. We are all in agreement that for the most part the people we meet along the way, however poor, are beautiful decent human beings who deserve better.