The Value of Tourism

Starting this blog has got me thinking about the compulsion to travel as the entire tourism industry is based on this very common human desire.  For me the travel bug hit early and I was lucky enough to have my first big adventure in Greece at the age of 18.  At 21 I set off with a backpack into Asia,and my family didn’t see me for 18 months. This was way before the age of email, Skype, Instagram and all the other amazing ways we now have of staying connected across the globe.  We kept in touch by letter, a very rare phone call and by my dad checking his credit card statement for the odd emergency purchase that I might have made.  Now almost 30 years later I still have incredible and vivid memories of places and people, the historical sites and geographical wonders that I saw, but the most deeply imprinted memories are of the people I met and the feelings of awe,wonder, trepidation, sometimes even fear, and joy that I experienced along the way.

In a fit of craziness, my travelling buddy and I had gone to Tibet in December (this was 1988) with a view to trying to trek to Mount Everest base camp.  We were two 21 year old girls who didn’t see limits and boundaries, but just wanted to do what we wanted to do and of course we wanted to do it as cheaply as possible. We bused our way into Tibet, having got a Chinese student to buy our tickets at the bus station in China. Strictly speaking we should not have been allowed on the bus, but we crouched down and kept quiet and no one noticed us until it was too late.  After a week of acclimatising to the altitude we set out from the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, hitch-hiking and getting local buses on the way.  We dropped off at a truck stop and started walking to a local village 14 km away.  At this point it started going horribly wrong, as the altitude was now 4,500 metres, which is really no joke,especially when you have a tummy upset. We managed to make it to the village (I will spare you the sticky details) to find it was just a collection of 3 homes and some outbuildings.  What must those people have thought of us!!  We were clearly unwell, wearing strange clothes and turned up on our own with no real plan as to what we were doing.   There was not one word of shared language but by signs and mime we asked for some hot water to make tea.  One family decided to take us in, and took us into their house.  We drank yak butter tea, which is tea, brewed with rancid butter made from yak’s milk and plenty of salt.  It was disgusting, but it was hot and warming and it was all they could offer. We slept that night in one room with the whole family, their yaks, their dogs and I’m sure lots of other critters I don’t want to know about, in a heap of straw to keep us warm (remember we are in December in the Northern hemisphere at 4,500 metres).

The following morning, with the help of the family’s donkey to carry our back packs, we trekked back the 14 km to the truck stop we had set out from the previous day.  We had to wait a week to hitch a lift back to the nearest town, some 80 km away.

It was a crazy adventure and could have gone badly wrong but for the kindness of this family,in a tiny hamlet, in the middle of nowhere, in the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains in Tibet.  Thirty years later, I remember the incredible mountain views, crystal blue skies, icy frozen rivers that cracked like gunfire as the sun warmed them up, and refroze again every night.  But mostly I remember the warmth and care from people whose names I never knew. They made me feel welcomed, cared for and accepted.

These people had never heard about tourism or travel.  You traveled to another village to buy something. You rarely went further unless you needed something extra special or may be a doctor.  They understood only that we were from very far away and that we were very different.  Nevertheless they understood the concept of hospitality at its finest and for me they were part of a travelling adventure that I will never forget.

The point in my rambling story is this – tourism is an important industry in Zambia and we need to work hard to make it even more important. As I said last week, a lot of our potential remains untapped.  In order to achieve this we need to recognise that we are all in the tourism industry. Whether you work in a shop, in immigration, in a hospital, at a police check point, for a bus company, in a market, in a factory, on a farm, or selling clothes on the street.  Every interaction becomes part of someone else’s experience and memories and that will form either a positive or a negative experience.  In fact, that is true of life in general, but if we want to build our tourism industry into something more significant and compete with the bigger and more mature markets, then we need to harness the best of ourselves to do so.

Nothing makes me happier than a client leaving having had an unforgettable experience.  For me to part of that, to be part of a memory that someone will treasure for the rest of their lives, is a huge privilege.


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