Don't tour with your eyes shut

There is a wonderful talmudic story that goes something like this: a father and son go for a walk, get lost and find themselves in a terrible area where the sick and dying and impoverished languish on the streets. The son sees the poverty and suffering around them and, with tears in his eyes, says: "Father, why doesn't God do something?" The father looks at his son's earnest face and replies: "My child, He did do something. He sent you!"

Last December, we booked a family holiday to Gambia. I had mixed feelings about the trip. Putting aside the vaccinations, malaria tablets and industrial-sized, nuclear-strength mosquito repellent that took up all the suitcase space, I was also conscious that Europe has, over the years, had an unhappy relationship with the continent.

Gambia is the smallest country in mainland Africa, ruled first by the Portuguese and then the British. From the 17th century on, as many as three million slaves were taken from the region during the centuries-long transatlantic slave trade. The country has been divided up, colonised, a victim of inter-tribal and civil unrest.

Now, it's economy is dominated by fishing and tourism. An estimated third of the population live on under £2 a day.

The hotels have dire poverty on the doorstep

Our hotel in the capital, Banjul, was a loveless enterprise, with an apparent business ethic that places profit at the expense of guests' safety and enjoyment and, more importantly, its country's image.

On the doorstep of the main hotels is poverty beyond imagining. And, by my observation, in our hotel the indigenous staff were paid and treated somewhat unkindly by the charmless management teams who wandered around like lords of the manor.

It was not a pleasant trip and, as I grew increasingly uncomfortable walking on the adjoining beach to see men, women and children face-down asleep in the sand with nowhere to go, it occurred to me this must have been what it was like to come to an 18th-century plantation.

Outraged, I let off steam to Mr O, complaining about the privileged class working at full profit, exploiting the land and workers and offering little to the wider community.

In this world of fair trade and corporate social responsibilty, a leaf must be taken from the good book of Dame Hilary Blume (a Jewish gal to be proud of) who has actively promoted the cause of an ethical hotel management.

Profit from Dame Hilary's southern Indian hotel goes back into the betterment of the Mysore locals. The children are given excellent schooling, the hotel workers taught meaningful and sustainable skills that they take back into the wider community.

This has to be the future of tourism. Travelling like the son in the talmudic story, arriving with generosity in your heart to want to make a change while hopefully having the beautiful holiday you deserve in the process.

    Last updated: 10:53am, January 20 2012