One of the most moving and impressive responses to the brutal killings of the western tourists in Uganda last week was a letter in last week's Guardian. Bill Dalton lost his son a year ago when he was shot and killed in a "border incident in the Congo". Dalton's son was a newly qualified surgeon who was driving with his wife through southern Africa as "an adventure before settling down".
Dalton was not writing, as one might have expected, to condemn the Foreign Office or travel companies for failing to give warnings. On the contrary. "I would hate to think that, as a result of these tragedies, young travellers now retreated into the bland and mediocre." He didn't even argue that more precautions should be taken. His son and daughter-in-law were, he said, "experienced third world travellers" and they had taken Foreign Office advice. He had been aware that the holiday involved risks, but "that's the point; that's part of the attraction; that's what makes adventures so exciting".
It is admirable, and on his terms quite right, that Bill Dalton can maintain his support for what his son did. It was certainly a more rational defence of adventure holidays than some other people attempted. Sue Ockwell of the Association of Independent Tour Operators, interviewed in the Observer, said: "More people die on holiday by having too much to drink and falling off balconies or diving into pools at the shallow end than by going on adventure travel." True, but not surprising, since, according to the same article, 40,000 Britons a year take "adventure" holidays compared with 25 million who go on package holidays. You could equally claim that thousands of times more Britons die in the home each year than defusing bombs, but this isn't a good argument for never going home and spending all your time snipping wires on suspect devices instead.
However, I'd like to speak up for blandness and mediocrity. It may be that some people who spend their free time in places where they are not likely to blunder into a war zone or have a water parasite swim up their urethra are being lazy and stupid. It may also be that some people being led through the Amazon rainforest are treating nature as if it were a theme park. Dalton contemptuously contrasts people who go to "Disneyland or a Club Med holiday" with those young people who "continue to seek adventure, climb mountains, shoot the rapids and expose themselves to new experiences".
His examples are revealing. The problem is that there is now a large and growing number of young people with a large disposable income, an appetite for what they consider to be adventure and not much time. The example I happen to know a lot about is Himalayan mountaineering (knowledge gained, I hasten to add, from reading as research for a forthcoming novel rather than actually going there). Experts consider that the privilege of climbing a great mountain like Everest should be earned through years of apprenticeship. But unlike some of the mountains (K2 is a notable example), Everest is relatively easy to climb, given an experienced guide, porters, equipment and good weather. The result is that many inexperienced, well-heeled people climb it each year, a certain percentage die, and the mountain has become a leisure resort, albeit one dotted with corpses, turds and used oxygen cylinders, none of which decay at that altitude.
Obviously the publicity is caused by the tourists (or "travellers" as they like to be called) who get shot or kidnapped in areas where westerners are a tradeable resource, or a useful symbol, or just something that blunders into the line of fire. But the real problem is not what the outside world does to our tourists but what our tourists do to the outside world. Is there anything necessarily to be proud of in cruising around areas where people are picturesquely exotic, untouched, poor? There was a good line about it in the Sex Pistols' song "Holidays in the Sun": "Holidaying in other people's misery".
It's not just a matter of taste or morality, but of sustainability. At the moment, young Brits, Americans, Australians, Germans and few other groups like to go around Africa or the Far East before settling down to "real life". What will it be like when they are joined by young Indonesians, Chinese, Indians, who also want to experience "real life" and adventure?
One of those newspaper questionnaires asks celebrities: "What would you lay down your life for?" In my case, not for some "amazing experiences" which I meant to tell people at dinner parties throughout my middle age but unfortunately became a bit too amazing.