The moral dilemmas of travel

Many people would agree that there is an innate desire for human beings to put themselves in new, exciting, sometimes dangerous situations and places.  The urge to travel, to see and experience new people and landscapes is perhaps fuelled by a curiosity to see what is over the next fence, ridge or mountain.  Lots of people have the feeling of itchy feet and want to travel to ‘broaden the mind’ and maybe to find somewhere better to live.  There are others who just want to escape from their hum drum lives, from stress and go somewhere, anywhere, to chill out.

Now that nearly everyone in the developed world can afford to travel and go on holiday we see the effects this urge has on the planet as a whole.  Most notably the estimated effects of air travel on greenhouses gases and global warming.  Research suggests these effects are a huge driver to global warming and that we should be reducing air travel to absolutely essential journeys.  There can be little justification for flying hundreds of miles to sit in the sun by a swimming pool!  There are alternative ways of travelling such as by train, by coach and by boat (all much more climate friendly) and it is far easier to do in this Internet age and with the help of man-in-seat 61.  This way of travelling is slower, more expensive and somewhat limiting in where you can travel to.  The world of people seems to be mirroring the volatility of the climate as unrest spreads to many countries.  This makes travel overland to some countries very difficult if not impossible.

If the question of travel were simply about whether we, as responsible citizens of Earth, should fly the answer would of course be ‘no’.  However travelling does not just have its effects on the traveller and the climate.  The host countries are hugely affected by

Mass tourism hotel

Mass tourism hotel

tourism.  Often the tourism business creates a large number of very low wage jobs for local people, depletes local resources and the environment, increases the strain on local infrastructure and makes a great deal of money for multi-national corporations who are based outside the country.  This sort of tourism can bring lots of money into government coffers but leave local people in a poverty trap where the only work available is low paid.  This type of tourism is mass tourism and its main beneficiaries are shareholders of big companies.  Even the tourists themselves don’t have the experiences they were led to expect.  Often the standards of accommodation are below expectation, the food can be unimaginative mass catering, and they pay a lot for a mediocre experience.  While many people put up with this and believe the adverts about their holidays, they are missing out on a great deal.

Counter to this, there is a new sort of tourism called sustainable tourism or alex-6426responsible travel.  This is tourism for those with itchy feet, a desire to see more of the world, experience the rich cultures the world has to offer and to meet people in different countries.  For the inhabitants of responsible tourism destinations, there can be much greater benefits as money spent by tourists goes straight into the local economy through tourists staying in small locally owned hotels, using local taxi drivers, and eating in local restaurants.  Sustainable tourism is especially important in areas where there is little alternative employment and can be the most important source of income.

In the case of the Jebeliya Bedouin of south Sinai, Egypt, most gain an income either directly or indirectly from tourism.  Bedouin are usually barred from working in hotels but find work offering ‘an authentic Bedouin experience’.  As most of the tourism areas are on the coast this usually involves moving away from their homelands, to where they earn little but enough to afford some basic healthcare and schooling for their children.  Low-key sustainable tourism though, could and does bring in much greater rewards pound for pound.  These rewards are being able to live in their ancestral homes in the mountains, living traditional lifestyles and keeping their culture alive.  Strange as it may sound, without any alternative industry, these Bedouin need tourism to be able to live in a traditional way.  And traditional knowledge may become more important as climate change gathers pace as there is wisdom in how to live in challenging environments, the value of having a sense of place and connection, and the ability to adapt.

However the cost in environmental terms is high.  It is now extremely difficult to get to Egypt except by air.  The overland route via Syria is no longer passable.  The ferry from Italy to Alexandria has been suspended for the time being as it goes via Syria.  Travelling along the north coast of Africa via Libya is not really an option either.  So unless tourists fly there can be no tourism in South Sinai and little or no work for the Bedouin and therefore little or no money for health care or schools, or even to buy the now expensive food.  The mountain Bedouin can’t grow food easily because they don’t have much water due to a protracted drought and a falling water table.  Deserts aren’t great for food production except for grazing, so they have to buy food, so they need money, so they need work.  In the old days they made a living by keeping goats and camels that they herded over the deserts and mountains from one rain fed area to another.  Now there isn’t enough rain for grazing animals to raise enough stock to sell. There’s not much industry in South Sinai either.  They need the income from tourists to survive.  But more than this, they need tourists coming to the mountains to enable them to live in their ancestral homes, and to keep their culture alive.  Here there is a symbiosis between the indigenous population and the conscious tourist.

The Makhad Trust has been supporting the Jebilya Bedouin in mountains around St Katherine’s for about 10 years through a series of water projects.  Where the water table has dropped below the bottom of wells, funds have been made available for garden owners to employ a skilled man to deepen the well to the new water table level.  The Trust has also been taking out working parties to work alongside the Bedouin in the construction of small dams in side wadis above the Bedouin gardens.  These dams trap rainwater when it occasionally rains, and hold it back long enough to permeate the soil into the water table.  The Bedouin reckon that water in a dam lasts 3 months with an additional benefit to the water table after the dam is dry of several more weeks.  The dam water and deepened wells have enabled some Bedouin to restore their centuries old mountain gardens, most of which had fallen into disuse due to the shortage of water.  The orchard gardens grow apples, pears, peaches, pomegranates, quince, almonds, dates, walnuts, grapes and vegetables.  The gardens provide food and a source of income when the Bedouin sell the surplus.

Local Transport

Local Transport

In addition to the help the working parties provide, they also bring extra income that can be seen as expedition costs.  All food is bought, transported by camel and cooked by Bedouin in the local economy providing paid work.  Cement for the dams has to be carried by camel (there are no roads in the mountains) so paying for transport helps the camel owners.  The garden owners where the guests stay are paid for the use of the garden too.

As a result of the working journeys, there are now 14 dams bringing more water to more gardens – maybe 10 to 20 gardens per dam which is 140 to 280 gardens benefiting  – up to 280 extended families – maybe over 1000 Bedouin.  Each garden is more productive growing plants and trees especially.  This locks up more carbon and could be seen as a direct carbon offset.

Besides these costs and effects there is also the cross-cultural benefit for both the traveller and host.  The traveller sees and experiences a way of life they haven’t experienced before.  They experience different morals and values, ways of behaviour, different religions, different climates, food landscapes etc.  All of this allows the traveller to

Desert taxis

Desert taxis

compare their own lives with others and to get a different perspective on their place in the world. They can see the richness of a tight-knit community even though there is huge poverty. They can see the value of place and heritage.  While the Bedouin are the classic nomads, there is a new breed of nomadic people now because in the west people do have not a connection to the land they live on or to the people they live next to.  They move frequently and don’t put down roots like they used to.  People in the west often don’t have the same connection with nature and the seasons or to the night sky in the way that traditional people do.  Experiencing this nature-rich way of life can bring a new dimension to the lives of the travellers. Maybe they will wake up to the state the world is in and feel sufficiently motivated to do something about it.

In summary, the alternative to foreign travel of restricting holidays to one’s home country only, in order to avoid flying, has some negative consequences. There is no easy answer to the dilemma of conscious travel and flying versus environmental damage, and as with most things this is a more complicated debate than it might seem at first.  Maybe it is best for each traveller to evaluate their journey against its true costs and benefits in a very conscious way before deciding whether to go or not.  And maybe we should not judge each other for the resulting decisions.

About Helen Cranston

Helen's primary work takes her to Sinai, Egypt as Project Manager for the Makhad Trust. She continues to work as a Nutritonal Therapist on an occasional basis and has over 20 years experience.
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18 Responses to The moral dilemmas of travel

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