Why all travellers are selfish

We know that travel does damage but we still do it.

Think about it. Every time you travel, it's all about you. Whether you go somewhere for indulgence, for relaxation, for a cultural experience, for an adventure, for an insight into the world, or just to attempt to get away from it, it's all about you. 

The world is filled with selfish travellers. They're the ones – like me, maybe like you – spending crazy amounts of money on their voyeuristic addiction, their need to see the world and all it contains, the "haves" peering in on the lives of the "have-nots", and sometimes the "have-far-mores". 

It's a strange thing. We know that travel does damage, but still we do it. We know it harms the environment, with huge amounts of carbon being pumped into the atmosphere by the planes that carry us around the world. But still we do it. 

We know that travel harms the very things that we travel to see, that having millions of tourists crawling over Angkor Wat, or piling onto once-deserted beaches, or invading quaint medieval towns, will eventually ruin them for everyone, and are already changing what they are today. But still we do it.

It's a thrilling enough experience that you can forget all of those things that add up to selfishness and just concentrate on the joy of travel, on the chance it provides to meet new people, see new things, taste new flavours and learn more about the world.

But it's still inherently selfish, and a grossly unfair transaction when it comes, especially, to travel in the developing world. It's in those countries that are far less well off than our own that we get our kicks while giving back so little in return.

We float through countries filled with people struggling to eke out an existence and come home talking about how they seem so happy with so little. We marvel at the cheap food and beer and enjoy $10 massages. We shake our heads at the poverty and wonder why something isn't being done.

We enjoy hospitality and goodwill from people who could never even dream of hopping on a plane and visiting another country just for fun.

If there's one way to make yourself feel better about this uneven transaction it's that your tourist dollars are helping to support the local population. And that's true, to an extent. But it still doesn't quite seem fair. There's nothing altruistic going on here.

Travel is about taking, but not usually about giving. We take experiences and we give back a few bucks. That's just the way it is, and in the past I've always been comfortable with that. 

Lately, however, I've started to feel that the exchange is too heavily weighted towards the traveller, the voyeur, and that, despite the cliché, we travellers owe it to the world to start giving a little more in return.

How you do this is up to you. Maybe you can donate money to a cause that provides aid to developing countries – though that's fraught with uncertainty given the opaque nature of some money trails. You could also find yourself contributing to solutions that don't turn out to be solutions at all. But at least it's something.

You could choose to sponsor a child, though again this system isn't perfect. 

Or you could do down another path. The solution I've chosen is to follow the adage that "charity begins at home", and to volunteer some of my time in Australia. For the past few months I've been helping out with St Vincent de Paul's SPARK program, which partners up volunteers with recently-arrived children from refugee backgrounds – the idea being that once a week you go out to a school in western Sydney and spend an hour with one of the students, helping them with their homework, practicing English and playing games.

It's a great program, and, for the selfish traveller, it can at least make you feel like you're making a positive difference for people who might even come from some of those countries you've visited and enjoyed spending time in (one of the children I've been tutoring comes from Iran, a place I've used up my fair share of column inches banging on about). 

Unfortunately, of course, even volunteering at SPARK can come off sounding self-aggrandising – I mean, check me out helping the little kiddies. But I think it's a cause worthy of mentioning, and a great solution for anyone who's begun to feel that their travels are taking more from the world than they offer in return.  

Maybe it still sounds like a selfish pursuit. But it's more useful than cheap beer and a $10 massage.