Luxury travel is important to the economy of most countries. High-end tourists are vitally important to the industry in the developing world. Not only are wealthy travelers willing to pay more for quality, they are not as affected by economic ebbs as mainstream tourists.
At the same time, in places like India, East Africa or the Caribbean, high-end travel can bring back sometimes-uncomfortable memories of a colonial past that local residents and tourists would both like to forget.
But local travel companies don’t seem too bothered by this. They go out of their way to romanticize the past, offering experiences that were common during colonial times. In India, the Palace on Wheels and the Maharaja Express both offer luxury train trips that hearken back to the time when Great Britain governed India. In Kenya and Tanzania, luxury tented safaris like those enjoyed prior to independence are more popular now than ever before.
Imagine what's for dinner in the opulent dining car of the Maharaja Express. (Photo: Simon Pielow/flickr)
On a practical level, the colonial past might have actually prepared these countries to offer premium travel experiences. They are not starting their industry from scratch, so it was never about developing a luxury travel industry. It was simply about maintaining the high standard that was already in place.
Any manager of a five-star hotel, no matter where it is located and no matter who owns it, will tell you that the main goal is to give people a kind of vacation fantasy. Waiters, concierges and even bartenders all play a role in guests’ travel dreams. Being able to “play their part,” much like actors would, is part of what brings value to luxury travel.
The unfailingly polite and always-prepared attendants on the Maharaja Express and the guides and cooks in Tanzania's safari camps understand this dynamic. This is one of the main reasons why these places remain so popular with luxury tourists.
Luxury brings added value
If you think about it, luxury travel is actually ideal for countries in the so-called developing world. Renovating old buildings or trains and then relying on people and their service skills to bring extra value can grow the high-end travel sector without a huge amount of international investment in new hotel and resort developments.
Nature and the environment can also benefit from luxury travel. Perhaps it’s not a very democratic dynamic, but many tourists are simply priced out of the picture. This means fewer people come to a destination, but those who do come are ready and willing to spend as much as several regular tourists.
Less tourist traffic means that the local nature (and also the local culture) can remain more intact.
Part of one company's luxury safari in Tanzania includes an overnight stay on a private island in Zanzibar. (Photo: /Elevate Destinations)
Being both charitable and luxurious
Another ethical qualm that people often level at the luxury tourism sector is that travelers are getting cheap thrills at the expense of the local communities. Critics claim that traveling in developing countries is not about gaining an understanding of a place or even about sightseeing, but about finding a sensation of adventure from traveling through someplace underdeveloped and poverty-stricken. It’s hard to generalize about people’s motivation, but as long as the money that they spend is going into the local economy, then how much do their motives matter?
A few companies make it possible for travelers to actually give back to their chosen destination in various ways. One firm, called Elevate Destinations, has a unique offering. Travelers actually buy two vacations, one for themselves and one for a child in the developing world who will get to enjoy a corresponding experience. The goal is to provide a vacation that a child would not otherwise have and to foster an understanding of what is attractive about their home country.
Some companies are actually using charity as a theme for their luxury travel packages. In places like Africa and Cambodia, guests are pampered in luxury hotels or palatial safari tents. However, their itineraries also include stops by local schools or orphanages or even a few hours helping out on a conservation project.
People who can afford luxury vacations are in a position to help even if they are not on a charity-themed trip. Classic rocker John Kay, of Steppenwolf fame, paid for a school to be built (and for teachers’ salaries) after a luxury tour to Cambodia made a lasting impression on him.
Luxury travel will remain an important source of income for developing countries. It’s up to the individual travelers who take these kind of trips to decide what their motivation is and if they want to get involved any further in the country.
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