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Responsible tourism Awards

Interview with Paul Theroux

Paul TherouxWhen Paul Theroux’s travelogue 'The Great Railway Bazaar' came out in 1975, he managed to tickle the itchy feet of travellers inspired by his commitment to making the journey, not the destination, the focus of his travels, and to inspire us with his engaged approach to seeing the world and meeting its peoples. Even now, this particular book is a classic for those eschewing the disconnectedness of air travel for the sustainability and adventure of a good train ride!

Now over thirty years later, Theroux has continued to inspire the restless tourist with his prolific explorations and reflections on his journeys. To mark the 6th year of the Virgin Holidays Responsible Tourism Awards, we asked him to share his thoughts on his experiences, from 'Dark Star Safari', volunteering in Malawi, and living in Hawaii, to his opinions on the emergent ideals of responsible tourism.

Photo courtesy of William Furniss 2007.


1. Dark Star Safari was the best travel book ever written about Africa because you caught buses, walked etc and connected with local people. Do you think there is something rather superficial and thus irresponsible about the way we all travel now - flying first class to stay in luxury hotels?

There's a good reason why people fly First Class and stay in luxury hotels: it's an awful lot of fun. But I do think that if a traveler wishes to know how people live, and wishes to gain a little insight in a country, it helps to travel on the ground and stay in simpler places that might not have a big wall around them. Overland travel is obviously more difficult and time consuming - a lot of it is like Gap Year hassle - but it is much more revealing. I could have hopped from capital to capital in traveling through Africa for Dark Star Safari, but African capitals - new buildings surrounded by preposterous slums - are places to avoid. And you can't say that you have traveled anywhere unless you have crossed a frontier - in a literal and also figurative sense.

2. How did your early experience volunteering in Malawi shape your attitude towards local people and poverty issues while travelling?

Becoming a volunteer teacher in Africa with the Peace Corps changed my life. I was in a bush school, with wonderful students, absolutely cut off - no telephone, no computer. And because I was cut off I had to make friends, learn the language (Chichewa) and get to know the area. I realized that Malawians had dreams of transformation just like mine. I assumed that the Africans I knew would become teachers and volunteers, following the example of foreign volunteer teachers and doctors. This did not happen, as I saw to my dismay almost 40 years later.

3. We hear a great deal about how train travel is greener than flying, but aside from any environmental benefits, what is it about train travel that you have always really loved...? And what is it you dislike about flying?

Apart from the speed of it, air travel is hideous - but everyone knows that it is stressful, germ-laden, and uncomfortable. I have always liked the elbow-room on a train, and that fact that you can read, write, walk around, chat to strangers, look out the window, loiter in the vestibule and on the better trains, even have a good night's sleep. I took an overnight train from Berlin to Paris recently and had an actual bedroom and a shower stall. Last year I took a long train trip from Calcutta to Assam - not a posh train but a trip full of excitements and discoveries. If this sounds like travel snobbery, let me add that I have the happiest memories of taking the train from Waterloo to Crewkerne on the Exeter line for almost 20 years.

4. Of all the places you have been, which places (in your books) stand out for you as having maintained a strong 'sense of place' – a distinctive local character as opposed to an identity assigned to them for tourism purposes?

This is a hard question; all places change - because of politics, modernization, conversion to another religion, or simple corruptions. But I would single out Bali, the people of the Trobriand Islands, many of the villages in Vanuatu (New Hebrides) and indeed the remoter parts of Scotland. The lobstering communities on the coast of Maine. People who are proud of their traditions, who have faith, and who have retained their language and their special skills - agricultural or nautical, or artistic skills, survive as happy people and tend not to envy what others possess. I would say also that these people tend to be the most responsible in environmental terms.

5. Do you think it's possible as a traveller to ever truly connect with a place? Indeed, should we even aim for this as travellers? Where have you felt most and least 'connected' to during your travels? I felt the most connected in Malawi because I was completely unconnected to the wider world. I have felt unconnected in Japan because of the language barrier and what seemed to me a somewhat impenetrable culture. But I have also felt utterly alien on a rainy Sunday afternoon in Macclesfield.

6. Do you believe that tourism can play an important part in conservation efforts within destinations?

Yes, of course, especially if the tourist goes armed with a little information. But the hotels and the local infrastructure bear the most responsibility. The tourist is merely visiting: here today, gone tomorrow.

7. What are your reasons for rarely taking a camera on your travels?

I am no good at taking pictures, or even keeping them straight after I've taken them. Cameras need maintenaince, They get stolen. They are clobber. And they are a major distraction to someone who wishes to concentrate on a scene and make notes.

8. UK companies such as (founder of the Awards) are seeing a large increase in British citizens travelling closer to home here in the UK. Do you have fond memories of specific places in the UK from your time spent living here?

The British countryside always beckoned. When I got restless in London, I used to take the overnight train to Inverness with my bicycle, and then would get off in the morning in the Highlands and set off cycling along the lochs, sometimes detouring to the islands, or heading southerly towards Glasgow, and the train home. At other times I hiked in the Cotswolds with my wife, or alone. There was a kayak center near St Davids in S W Wales where I would go for three or four days, paddling - near Ramsay island. The happiest memories I have are of staying in country house hotels in Scotland and Yorkshire with my wife and two children and spending the days walking and talking. Even then I thought how I wanted it all to last, and reflected, "Look thy last on all things lovely, every hour..."

9. You live in Hawaii. Do you spend much time exploring / holidaying closer to home?

I live in a countrified place, with beehives and bamboo and geese. I ride a bike on back roads when the surf is too high to swim or paddle in; when the sea is fairly calm I paddle a kayak. Pretty much my routine when I lived in Britain. I think it is clear that i am not a city-slicker.

10. Do you have any tips for travelling responsibly?

Always bear in mind that no matter how hard a time you're having, the people you are traveling among have it much worse.

11. Why are you supporting The Virgin Holidays Responsible Tourism Awards?

In the past, awards were given for Best Meal, Best View, Most Grovelling Staff, Biggest Ballroom, or whatever. It's encouraging that tourism organisations and individuals are being rewarded for doing something that is ethically right or supporting a position that will help the planet. That's the greatest lesson of travel: it is a very small and easily bruised planet.

This interview appeared exclusively in The Daily Telegraph on Saturday 4 April 2009

Check out our other celebrity supporters.
Read about our winners
Claude Graves, Nihiwatu, overall winner 2010