I've just returned from a 14-day holiday in Kenya and Uganda, taking part with my daughter in a tour called 'Game Parks and Gorillas'. We began our camping tour at Acacia Camp in Karen, a suburb of Nairobi named after Karen Blixen of Out of Africa fame.
It was a wonderful opportunity, including even the 13 cramped nights in a smallish tent with my adult daughter. I was easily the oldest in our group. I'd recommend the whole experience to anyone who is adventurous.
You will be exhilarated by the extraordinary quantity and range of wildlife to be found in the many national parks and game reserves, like the Masai Mara in the Rift valley in Kenya: elephants, giraffes, lions, rhinos, hippos, zebras and remarkable birdlife. We had the privilege of trekking into the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in far south-west Uganda to see one family among the 700 remaining mountain gorillas.
But even though the prime focus is on the wildlife, no tourist can avoid thinking about the ethical issues raised by tourism in poor countries. The contrasts in circumstances between tourists and locals were clear, and would have been even clearer if we had been at the upper end of the tourism industry.
Everywhere you go, you are invited to help the local people in various ways, including financially and through volunteering. Tourism itself makes a significant contribution to their community well-being through employment and investment, as our guide kept telling us, even though some locals complained about the inequitable way tourism revenue was distributed between central and local government. Nevertheless local communities certainly seemed to benefit from tourist spending.
The ethical issues that we came to face are not new at all, and I have no answers other than to always try to conduct oneself with sensitivity and generosity. As our group talked among ourselves, different reactions emerged to the obvious poverty and need around us.
We also worried about the reliability, and even probity, of those we might help. How could the credentials of those seeking assistance be tested? What were the best options among the many possibilities on offer?
One set of issues is about the choices available to those who want to help and have the means to do so. I was struck simultaneously by the needs of threatened animal species and by needs of children in poverty.
All of us who trekked were convinced of the threats that economic developments posed to the remaining mountain gorillas and most of us wanted to do what we could to help. Yet just the next day at a local primary school near Kabale, called Little Angels, for orphaned and poor children several of our group also signed up for a $600 per year child sponsorship commitment.
Back in Nairobi on our last day we learned at the Dorothy Sheldrick Wildlife Trust that we could sponsor an orphaned elephant for $60 per year, as one young Canadian couple in our group had already done. These needs are not necessarily directly competing, though indirectly they are, as most people have to choose their commitments carefully.
A second set of issues, perhaps even more difficult, is about the personal interactions with those around you. There are lots of beggars, but no guidelines. Whatever you can give is never enough but you can't realistically respond to every request. There is also the matter of bargaining with traders, not to mention normal commercial interactions. The amounts are often small, and haggling is encouraged in the guidebooks and by our local assistants. Yet isn't there something mean about driving a price down from our positions of greater wealth and power or complaining because a barman seems to be trying to rip you off on the price of a beer?
There are no simple answers. In the end we all react differently and in many cases spontaneously to what we see in these situations. We have existing commitments and in many cases limited means. Perhaps that's all we can usefully say but the issues should still be talked about.
John Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and a Canberra Times columnist.