I've just returned from my first ever vacation in Africa—in Kenya. It was the first time I've ever visited the continent and not been working. (After seven years, it was about time!) The trip got me thinking about something that I hear from friends and colleagues all the time—that they prefer not to vacation anywhere in close proximity to poverty. If you're going to go to relax, it doesn't feel right to do it a few minutes drive from the world's largest slum, Kibera, for example. I get it: the contradictions can feel startling and guilt-inducing, even perhaps so much that your relaxation becomes less so.
But I think there is a strong case for vacationing in places that are “troubled”. Tourism is one of the lowest-cost industries to develop, one of the fastest ways for countries to transcend image problems and build a reputation for business, and among the best ways to employ large numbers of people in productive services.
A few years back, I learned a bit about this during my visit to Colombia, a country that most people more closely associate with the drug war than with its immaculate beaches and rainforest. The country's "branding" office told me an incredible story: not long ago, one of the country's major national parks was overrun by guerrilla fighters. Since it had been liberated, many of those former fighters (some of whom had been forcefully recruited) had given up their guns—and were suddenly unemployed. Victims of the guerrilla war were also looking for jobs.
Eager to get these men off the streets and into something more productive than fighting, the park hired them as tour guides. These weren't the hardened big-fish guerrillas mind you; these were rank-and-file guys who probably had few other options than joining the war on one side or another. Now employed in the national park, the area had seen a social transformation—and had become a major attraction for Colombian tourists. Now, more and more foreigners are showing up too.
The appeal of tourism is pretty simple: there's a lot of relatively low-skilled jobs because it's a labor intensive industry. But there is also a lot of room for building "added value"—things like luxury services or specialty sports. Attracting international tourists is particularly useful, since it can encourage language-skills development (English!) and also bring in more revenue, not to mention some foreign currency. (Yes, that's me endorsing a bit of price discrimination!) In 2011, tourism was one of Kenya’s most important industries, along with agricultural exports. Nearly 1.3 million visitors brought in about $1.2 billion—a solid 3 to 4 percent of GDP.
If you're a tourist like me, the added appeal of these places is also that they aren't overrun by tourists, so it's actually easier to get an "authentic" experience. And if you’re going to spend money on a nice hotel, there will still be poor people in the world—even if you don't see them. Why not support an industry that can help provide jobs in a place they’re most needed?
Photo Credit: genvessel