Uganda is a traveller’s paradise, unspoilt by travellers. Four days in, I’m quite charmed with the place. When it comes to travelling in the developed world, there seems to be a certain virtue to getting off the beaten track.
In my experience, a large tourism industry turns tourists into a commodity. No one likes to be a commodity. As travellers, we want to feel special, unique, as emissaries, brave explorers who have gone beyond the borders of our own comfortable homelands. (Are we these things? At best, perhaps. More often, we’re carousing voyeurs, in search of “otherness,” poverty, the fantastic and exotic.)
Based on my anecdotal experience, less touristed places (in the developing world) tend to be more pleasant places to travel, in terms of opportunities to make genuine connections and freedom from hassle. Curious if the data on tourist visitation bears this out, I put together a simple chart, and calculated the number of annual tourist visits per thousand residents:
||Annual Visits Per Thousand Residents
||2013 Visits as % of Peak Visitation
I report 2013 visitation statistics, but have also included a column (2013 Visits as % of Peak Visitation) to indicate if the country’s tourist industry is experiencing a contraction. Egypt, for example, saw 14m visitors in 2010, but only 9m visitors in 2013.
India, with six visits per thousand people per year, happens to be my very favourite of countries I’ve visited, in terms of being a tourist. The Indians I met were as fascinated with me as I was with them. Hassle was non-existent, and every Indian I met was another opportunity for a genuine connection, person-to-person, and cultural.
Egypt’s score of 113 seems reasonable, until you consider that a few years ago Egypt received 14m visitors, and lately is receiving 5m fewer annual visitors than at its peak (one Egyptian operator I spoke with blamed President Obama and the Israel-loving western media for this turn of events, but I suspect it may be more related to Egypt’s recent revolution which, from the appearance of things in Cairgo, is not yet ancient history). In other words, competition in Egypt is fierce, the sector having been reduced by 33%, meaning that only the fierce of its tourist touts have survived the downturn.
Thailand, with its 26m visitors to its country of 69m residents (a score of almost 400), ranks high in my memory in terms of hassle, especially on the typical backpacker circuit.
With a mere 36 visits (per thousand residents, per year), Uganda ranks quite nicely on my simplistic ranking. Being here on the ground, the effect is obvious: Ugandans, from my experience here, take an interest in their visitors.
My tourist density proxy for pleasantness / hassle of being a tourist is obviously overly simplistic. Mexico ranks poorly (213 visitors per thousand residents per year), but I’d wager that 95% of those visits are limited to its resort towns and beaches. The interior of Mexico, I’d wager, is probably closer to 10 visits–a number much closer to my delightful experience of travelling through interior Mexico.
In Egypt, the first and most useful word of Arabic I learned was no (la). From the moment I hit the ground to the moment I departed, I was hounded by hungry touts, operators, guides, and beggars. Without fail, every time I was greeted by an Egyptian, it was a prelude to a hard sell, invariably on something I had no interest in). I learned quickly (though, perhaps, not quickly enough) to smile, say no thank you, and walk resolutely away any time when approached. I managed a few good conversations with Egyptians, but only those who I approached myself.
In Uganda, while en route to the South African-run compound where I was intending to sign up for a few days of kayaking on the Nile, I was greeted by several locals. Though initially quite leery, I hazarded a “yes” to their invitation to talk. As a result, to my complete delight, I had an opportunity to get to spend a couple days hanging out with really lovely and fascinating Ugandans, saved a bundle on my kayaking adventure, and got to spend my money with locals, instead of expats.
I am by nature, trusting, gullible, naïve. In Egypt, this made me an easy target. The gullible and naïve tourist in Egypt learns quick to be cynical, or gets eaten alive. I always mentally budget in some extra money the first few days I’m in a new country as I readjust to what things actually cost. Some of its a function of a culture of bargaining (without knowing the market value of a good or service, I find it hard to bargain effectively), and some of it is special msungu pricing (unlike in Sweden, no one here in East Africa mistakes me for anything other than a tourist from a rich, Western country).
In any case–I’m quite charmed with Uganda, and glad to be here.