When you travel to the developing world, it’s not the poverty that takes you by surprise. It’s the wealth.
I was about 13 years old the first time I left the United States, visiting a village in southern Mexico with my dad and a group of other students and chaperones. Before we left, the trip leaders did a lot to prepare us for what we would see there. Standards of living would be different. There would be no hot water (we would take showers out of buckets, in fact), and some homes would have dirt floors. The people would be poor, we were told, but their joy would be contagious.
Everything the leaders told us turned out to be true: In rural Mexico, I saw poverty I had never known existed. And yet, those poor people were some of the happiest I had ever met. Thanks to their friendliness and generosity, I adjusted quickly to my surroundings and thoroughly enjoyed the week of living in simplicity.
I had been prepared for the poverty I would see. But nobody had told me I would also see wealth. In my mind, Mexico was poor — all of it. I hadn’t realized that some of the poorest people in the country lived within a stone’s throw of ritzy hotels and gated neighborhoods. The poverty in Mexico was extreme, but so were the displays of wealth. My young mind found this juxtaposition almost inconceivable.
That trip turned out to be the first of many adventures I would take into the developing world. I went on to spend an entire semester in Mexico during college, and since then, my career as a travel journalist has taken me to fascinating destinations on six continents. I have seen many of the wonders of the world, and I have also seen the poverty in many of the communities that surround them.
To this day, my mind can make sense of the poverty I see when I travel. But outposts of luxury in those same destinations always seem out of place to me. I have stayed in some of the world’s finest hotels while visiting some of the world’s poorest countries. To this day, that contrast still leaves me feeling somewhat unsettled.
Don’t misunderstand — luxury hotels and deluxe tour operators play important roles in the developing world, and the people employed by those businesses are grateful for them. But when tourists stay at a marquee hotel property in a developing country, the revenue doesn’t stay there; it usually goes offshore to the wealthy international investors who built the hotel.
Thankfully, there’s a movement afoot to begin making change on this front, harnessing the power of travel to make a lasting impact in poor communities. It goes by several names — sustainable tourism, responsible tourism, social enterprise tourism — but the goal is always the same: to facilitate meaningful interactions between travelers and their hosts that direct funds into the hands of locals. The process creates opportunities for economic growth throughout the destination.
I spent a week immersed in the burgeoning responsible-tourism scene in Jordan this winter. You can find my special report on the trip, “Can Travel Change Lives?” on page 16. I hope it inspires you to explore the developing world with your groups and to find ways to make a positive difference while you’re there.