An Open Letter to Travelers
Dear traveler friends from the developed world:
Please stop treating poverty in developing countries as an attraction.
I have often met travelers from privileged nations refer to modern cities in developing countries as “too American/European” or “not the real country," implying they are too like their own countries (and also implying progress and innovation can only ever be American or European). I have also heard these same travelers complain their own countries are "too bland and everything is the same.” They, therefore, seek out places that differ radically from their home countries. They crave to sleep on a dirt floor in a home with no proper plumbing. They crave to get transport on a crammed bus with no heating. It would almost seem they crave to get seriously ill, just to tell the tale of surviving the food.
Visiting impoverished communities, though, is not visiting the "real Mexico," or the "real Thailand”; it is invading the privacy of millions of people who face the very serious problem of lack of resources, education, public services, and upward mobility. The chaos in many of these cities is often bred from corruption and/or mismanagement of public funds - not from some inherent desire in disorder. Whether as part of a volunteer group or on their own, these travelers crave to experience the poverty of their hosts, not realizing that for them, it is their daily lives, not a vacation.
I recently had the opportunity to visit Myanmar. We decided to go there because of the overwhelmingly good feedback from people that had recently been there. One of the most prevalent comments was, “go before it changes.” Before it changes into what? I wondered. Upon arrival, we found incredible kindness from most of the people we met, and a genuine curiosity in those they perceived as different. We also found a country that is opening up to the world after decades of military rule. This means a growing tourism industry, and with it, growing voluntourism. According to David Eimer from the Lonely Planet, "now that Myanmar (Burma) has emerged as the hottest destination in Southeast Asia, the phenomenon [orphanege tourism] has spread there too” (my brackets). People from all over the world cannot wait to spend their time and money visiting places and people they deem unlucky - allowing them to feel grateful for their own situations and proud to be doing what they consider a good deed. But spending a few hours reading to and playing with orphaned children won’t do much for them. According to founder of War Child Canada and USA, Dr. Samantha Nutt, some of these orphanages “have been accused of keeping conditions deliberately squalid, so that visitors will feel more compelled to give.” Read that again. In doing a good deed, the poverty and volunteer tourism industries are actually keeping people impoverished.
That’s when it hit me. That “go before it changes” people kept bringing up meant: go before it becomes more industrialized, before the population is able to climb out of poverty and adopt “Western” ideals, before it becomes too much like “us.” Already, one of the more “high-end" restaurants we went to was full of people dressed in western attire, where the women weren’t wearing the traditional thanaka, and one of the few places we found a western toilet. Although I would never advocate for the destruction of local cultures and traditions in favor of western ideals and lifestyle, I do advocate for allowing impoverished communities to climb out of that poverty. Having hundreds of privileged tourists visiting these communities as they would visit a museum or a zoo does not help. So if that is what “go before it changes" means, then let it change!
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