The half-blind tourist

Horatio Clare tries being an Adventurous Traveller in famine-stricken Ethiopia, but decides that he

''Do you think the package people will like it?" asks the overweight lady from Berkshire. "Not tours like ours, but the all-gather-round-the-pool-then-off-on-a-donkey sort?" The tour leader ignores the mule ride scheduled for day nine and the empty swimming pool ten yards away. "No," he assures her.

We are sitting on the terrace of a government hotel on a hill above the town of Gondar, in the highlands of Ethiopia. North, south and east of us, people are staring at death by starvation, but we will be eating again in a few minutes. After lunch, we will descend on the magnificent castle of Fasilides. Every person we will drive past knows the rains stopped a month early and the lowlands are turning to dust. We will take showers before dinner.

The clients' enjoyment, the tour leader's job, the travel company's profits and the Ethiopian government's grand scheme for a dollar harvest all rest on screaming contradictions.

The leader returns to his favourite theme. "But I do think tourism is going to boom in Ethiopia. It's an incredible country with so much to offer. The landscape, the history - absolutely amazing."

The lady agrees, smiling. She likes being ahead of the tourists, an Adventurous Traveller, as the tour literature puts it, roughing it in hotels with limited hot water, in a country that nobody she knows has visited, under a limitless sun.

The Adventurous Traveller is still an indomitable breed. Once, he would have been a driven young man, venturing into empty quarters to discover the savage lands. Now, she is a retired professional, packing a gardening hat and a universal bath plug, propelled by too much free time. She has been almost everywhere a Boeing 757 can take her, bouncing in Land Cruisers over the poorest, wildest, remotest parts of earth. The tour company's slogan is "the different holiday". It sure is.

Rumours of famine dog the trip like corpses on the back seat of the bus. We booked our places months ago, under the woolly impression, reinforced by the tour company, that the country was somehow OK to visit. It had rebuilt itself since the famines of the 1980s and the wars of the 1990s; it had even begun to export food. Then, in the week of departure, there came worrying reports about food gaps, suggesting our intrepid venture might turn out to be an insane faux pas.

Now we are here, the standard conversations about hotels, food, history, birdlife, scenery and local customs steer carefully clear of contemporary reality. One of our party has a radio and raises the BBC World Service. Is there any news?

"Oh, yes, but it was all about the famine, so we turned it off."

That's the spirit. Gazing at the rock churches of Lalibela, the stelae of Axum and other wonders of the country's distant past, ignoring the imploring palms of its population and their hand-to-mouth gestures, racing through the villages making jolly remarks ("They all look very fit and healthy here! They don't spend all their time eating burgers and watching TV") and marvelling at the sublime and terrifying landscape, we practise a crazed, Nelsonian tourism, closing one eye while blocking one ear.

The tour carefully reflects and encourages this contortion. The guide will smile and talk all day about the Axumite empire, give paragraphs on Haile Selassie and the Italians, reluctant lines on Mengistu and the Marxists, and only irritable and positive bullet points on the present regime.

And what about the famine? "One of the guide books says Ethiopia has an image problem," recalls the leader. "I think that puts it perfectly."

Image is the least of Ethiopia's problems, but the government is tipping money on it. Your first impression at Bole Airport, Addis Ababa, is a confusing double vision. On the left is an old concrete terminal, simple, serviceable, a little shabby. Not bad for one of the world's poorest countries. On the right, not yet open and apparently superfluous, is a gigantic glass monster of a terminal that would look over the top at Heathrow. More than $100m of loans blown on prestige and a longed-for boom in Adventurous Travellers.

Beyond it, before you reach the pitted chaos of Addis Ababa, is a new orbital motorway, another mortally expensive blow struck by the government in its struggle to justify the city's claim to be the capital of Africa, a claim concocted during the loopy excesses of Haile Selassie's reign, when he convinced the Organisation of African Unity to site its headquarters here.

"They want it because there is only one other ringway in Africa," says a bitter boy, one of several who spoke in murmurs, eyes scanning left and right for informers. "The government is bad."

In Ethiopia, you talk politics under your breath. During the senseless war with Eritrea, the army swept through the villages, press-ganging young men into the body count. The attitude to the lives and freedoms of its citizens has not changed with the peace.

Another village, another young man, who spent the war in hiding: "Foreigners came and asked the village what we thought of the government, of the elections. I said there was no democracy. The next day the police took me to prison."

The government of Meles Zenawi rules poverty by fear. Eighty-nine per cent of the population are subsistence farmers, and they are all known to their local kebele (village council), which tells them which way to vote. The kebeles are answerable to regional councils, which answer to provincial councils and so on up; the system is a hangover from the autocratic pyramid designed by Haile Selassie and perfected by the Marxist dictatorship that replaced him. Thanks to the charade of rigged elections, it has become acceptable to the west. And here we are, our presence the seal of industrialised approval.

"Why have you come to Ethiopia?" one of our party is asked by an incredulous villager. "The sunshine, the place, the people!" he replies, grinning encouragingly. The government would be proud of him, but the sunshine is flaying the place, and the government is putting tourists before people.

The argument is that tourism will bring dollars for schools and hospitals, but every cent spent on new hotels and refurbished airports is a cent denied to basic irrigation for fields, simple water cisterns for villages. Who can say where the hard currency goes? The biggest expenditure in recent years has been the purchase and use of weapons. Ethiopia is spending millions on its smile and its sword, while its stomach wails for food.

Like the rest of the group, I went to find out about the place, but I shall not be showing photographs to friends or boasting about my discoveries. Unlike my companions, I had never been on an adventure holiday, nor will I ever go on one again. It was a shameful experience.

In our anxiety to be different, to get one up on the Smythe-Joneses, to expand a world that has been shrunk by television and travel addiction, we take our custom to corrupt governments, over the heads of impoverished people.

If you want to help a country like Ethiopia, contribute to charity, preferably one of the small, practical outfits that will lose less of the cash in transit. If you decide to visit that strange, beautiful and desperate place, go as a genuinely adventurous traveller, stay in private hotels, eat in local restaurants and hire guides on the spot. Then you will at least be fulfilling your half of the tourist bargain and putting money into the local economy. Leave the tours to those who wish to travel half-blind, half-deaf.