Table Mountain, Cape Town, South Africa
South Africa Thailand

Ethical travel, and that time I was robbed at gunpoint…

This is a post I have been thinking about writing for a long time. Since 2003. Since before I even had a blog to write on! In 2003 I was travelling in South Africa when I was held up by a man with a gun and robbed of my camera.

The location for the robbery was the vast Cape Flats Township that spreads out to the south-east of Cape Town. The reason I became a robbery target on that day in 2003 is because I was on a Cape Flats Township Tour.

Ever since this incident, from the moment I got up from my knees clutching the red graze on my neck where the camera strap had been dragged from me, I have been thinking about whether I should have gone on that tour. Whether anyone should go such a tour or participate in what some dub “poverty tourism”.

My understanding of ethical travel has evolved since those naïve, early backpacking days. Since then I have cringed with shame every time I read an article about patting (doped) tigers in Kanchanaburi or riding (abused) elephants in the north of Thailand because I unthinkingly took part in both those activities back in 2003.

There, I’ve admitted it. I even have photographic evidence. Needless to say I have no photos of that township tour, or many of Cape Town at all!

Kanchanaburi tiger temple

My reason for booking onto the township tour in South Africa was because, having spent over a month enjoying the spectacular wonders of the country I felt it necessary to see the other side of the coin, how the majority of the population live in that country. I thought that was ethical travel.

The township tour was very interesting up to the point when our group was waved down at gunpoint while stopping on an overbridge to take photos. The tiny houses (the dormitories of apartheid); the history of poverty and oppression; and most of all the people, none of which I would have seen or met without going on that tour.

I hate travelling in a destination just seeing the sights and never getting to interact with real people. That’s why I hired guides in Nepal – not to show me the way but to enjoy the cultural interaction with wonderful Nepali people.

I also visited the prison where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated on Robben Island in Cape Town, and have been to former torture prisons like S-21 in Cambodia and war sites like the Cu Chi tunnels in Vietnam. I even paid to shoot automatic weapons in Cambodia. It’s all coming out now! These places help me understand the history of a place but are they voyeuristic?

Interrogation cell S-21 Cambodia

There’s no doubt the voyeuristic element of poverty tourism is nothing short of disturbing and there is often little or no benefit for the people who are the “attractions” of such tours.

In fact the most educational part of my township tour day was the three hours I spent in the waiting room of the Cape Flats police station watching the people and officers come and go in various states of distress. I have never felt so insignificant in the world or ashamed of taking up valuable police time.

Prior to my awful experience in the township I had travelled independently throughout South and southern Africa for three months. I would never let this incident, just days before my departure, colour my views of what is in fact a magnificent, if troubled, country.

For a long time I avoided tours altogether, not just because they make you a crime target but also because they just seemed like a supremely depressing if efficient way of seeing the world.

I now think there’s no point in doing any kind of travel unless it directly benefits the local people of a country and unless you make every effort to reduce your impact on the environment. How to travel as much as I do and uphold this ideal of ethical travel is an ongoing challenge.

Grasshopper Adventures guide Mandalay

I now look for small tours that support local employment and development, like the ones in which I recently participated in Myanmar with Grasshopper Adventures.

As with my Nepali experience, I will remember my time with my Myanmar guides for the rest of my life. They gave me insight into the beautiful landscape and rich culture of the country. I don’t remember my Cape Town guide at all.

By Natasha von Geldern

How do you define ethical travel? Have you ever been the target of crime while travelling?

Ethical travel

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  1. Hi Natasha!

    This is a good post!

    I’m sorry to hear about what happened to you. 🙁

    I’m South African and believe that any form of ethical tourism and tourism in general should directly benefit the local community and indigenous wildlife first and foremost. The problem is it’s not often apparent how much of the revenue hits the ground.

    It’s great that people like you are looking closer and finding tours that are actually making a difference.

    Thanks for sharing this!

  2. I remember you mentioning getting robbed at gunpoint in CT and I’m glad you wrote about it Natasha.

    Wow. They robbed the whole group? Oh boy. They do these tours partly to help these poor communities and it must have been a total embarrassment to authorities organizing this. I’m sure it doesn’t happen often but to have it happen even once is devastating.

    We were in Cape Town for 3 months early last year and nothing happened, although we were careful when the sun went down. We considered doing a township tour (it’s promoted heavily by the hop on/hop off CapeTown CitySightseeing) but decided not to, the reason being that we didn’t feel comfortable being gawking tourists taking photos of poor locals (Spanky, who grew up poor in the South Bronx, is particularly sensitive to it and totally opposed to the idea). Others say its a way of giving back through these tours. So I guess it’s whatever you’re comfortable with. But we’re not.

    We loved South Africa and have some incredible memories. People were fantastic. I’m sorry this happened to you but really impressed that it didn’t ruin your memories or opinion of the country. What a shame.

    Frank (bbqboy)

    • Thanks Frank, yeah the tour group was held up and to be honest the organiser and authorities didn’t seem that concerned about it. The police sort of pretended to be concerned but it was clear there wasn’t much they could do. I went on the tour because I wanted to see the reality of Cape Town and to put something back. But I’ve reassessed my view since then and agree with you guys about not wanting to be a gawking tourist taking photos of poverty. I never had any other problems in South Africa or the whole three months in southern Africa. It’s a tricky one!

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