'Why travel to look at poor people?'

17:00, Jul 18 2012
A boy in the slums of Sao Paulo
TOURISM OR EXPLOITATION: Travelling in third-world countries gives you a close-up view of poverty. A boy in the slums of Sao Paulo.

There's a common refrain from people who don't think about these things the same way I do. It's something like this: "Why would you travel all that way just to look at poor people?"

On the face of it, it's not a bad question. Why would you? Why would you leave a place like Australia that's perfectly safe and well-off for a country like India, where there's poverty on a mass scale shoved in your face, sometimes literally?

Why tour through impoverished towns in Laos when you could be sitting on a beach somewhere in Hawaii? Why stay in some rundown hole in Bolivia when you could be living it up in Switzerland?

For this post, I'm going to ignore the argument of attractions. Let's forget, for a second, things like the Taj Mahal and Luang Prabang and the Andes and think about why so many people from rich countries think it's OK to go live like a king in a poor country and call it a holiday.

Because doesn't it get you down? Or at least make you feel guilty? Swanning around with fistfuls of the laughable local currency, dining at the best restaurants and leaving half your food, haggling market sellers out of a few measly cents, drinking cheap booze like it's Mad Monday, roaring around in tuk-tuks that you've paid to have a race?

Most travellers would have to sit back at some point and wonder whether all of this is all right, whether this is really tourism or exploitation, whether we're welcome guests here or just a necessary evil.


Me, I like travelling through developing countries, or countries that are worse off than Australia (which, face it, there's a fair few of).

It's not because it makes me feel like a king or because I can finally afford to stay in a nice room – it's not even because I get some sort of swelling of satisfaction at helping out the impoverished locals with my mighty Aussie dollar.

I like travelling to those countries because they're different, and that's the appeal of travel for me: seeing something different. Interacting with people who are different.

Give me a street market in China any day over its equivalent in England, or the US. You see things there that you'll never forget.

So you also see poverty. You get a close-up view. Some would argue, however, that what you're actually seeing is reality. (I challenge anyone to spend time in a Third World country and still think about the "threat" of boat people in the same way.)

There are, however, some things that I find plain weird. Travelling through a developing country is one thing, but going on a tour that's specifically designed to view the poor people in their natural habitat is just bizarre.

That'll be the township tours and favela tours and the like, the ones that put you in a bus and take you through the mean streets behind a protective pane of glass, maybe introducing you to one or two "safe" members of society to give you a real feel for the area.

That's strange. Looking at poverty for poverty's sake isn't something I'm interested in.

However, existing in a poor country, albeit in the travellers' bubble, is something else. You can get a lot more out of a trip to a seemingly crazy developing nation than you ever would going to a well-off and relatively sanitised country like our own.

I don't go around specifically looking for downtrodden places – just as I don't go around looking for rich places. I go looking for interesting places.

And if that means travelling all that way just to look at poor people, well, so be it.

- Ben Groundwater is Fairfax's globetrotter on a shoe-string

Sydney Morning Herald