Why you should prioritize travel in developing countries.

Extreme poverty. Disease. Corruption. Crime. Civil War. These are just a few of the things people often associate with “the developing world”, which is usually just a euphemism for “thank God we don’t live there.” It’s not surprising, then, that a lot of people assume I’m either crazy or lying (or, hey, both!) when I say that travel in developing countries has offered me some of the most rewarding and inspiring experiences I’ve ever had. Nearly all of my most memorable cultural encounters have occurred in developing countries.

If you travel to simply escape your job and catch up on rest, then ignore my advice. There are definitely easier places to go. But if you travel to grow, learn, experience, explore, and have adventurous fun, then straying from the road well-traveled is highly recommended. Let me elaborate on some of the reasons I travel in developing countries:

1. Better opportunities to connect with locals 

“He who does not travel does not know the value of men.” – Moorish proverb

The hospitality I have experienced in low-income developing countries has rarely been matched in their wealthier counterparts. I’ve heard countless times that, as a visiting traveler, I was a “gift from God”. Many cultures may share this view of hospitality to guests, but I have noticed that the reality of that view diminishes as economic progress is made. By simply being somewhere and walking around, I have received innumerable genuine invitations to have tea, share a meal, or stay in someone’s home. This affords an opportunity to experience culture and cuisines far from what you are used to. I’ve enjoyed local nightlife that I’d never have been able to find on my own – or been brave enough to walk into – and had an amazing time as I received instant VIP status by simply being a guest in the community.

Giggling groups of teenagers requesting pictures with me, mothers handing me their babies for an impromptu photo-op, young kids coming up and poking my skin: yes, these situations are comical and can make you feel a like you are a character at Disney World, but they are just one facet of a constant – and often immediate – connection you are privileged to share with those around you.

In my experience, people in developing countries will instantly notice that you aren’t a local, and the overwhelming majority will respond with genuine hospitality, excitement, and curiosity.

2. Unique insights into the world

“The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.” – St. Augustine

The world is never like you imagine – and even less like what you hear on the news. It is also changing fast. Travel in developing countries provides much deeper insights into global trends.

Think that mobile phones and the internet transform lives? Go to developing countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America and your mind will be blown by how right you are: technologies that many of us already take for granted are helping to bring people out of extreme poverty in a variety of ways. Head to the Middle East, and see how people are gaining freedom of speech through social media that we mostly use in the West for liking cat videos.

Think China’s power and influence is spreading in the world? Go to East Africa, and see how many people will confuse Americans and Europeans for being Chinese because they have light skin. Or witness the four-lane paved highway paid for by China, right next to the half-built World Bank-funded road that is still waiting for the corruption to stop before the project can continue. The Chinese don’t care near as much about corruption. There are definitely both good and bad aspects to this, but the fact that remains that the Chinese road is open for business, and the World Bank’s isn’t.

Curious about peace in the Middle East? Spend some time with Palestinians in the West Bank and then go hang out with some Israelis, or drive around South Beirut and listen to a political rant about Hezbollah from a cabbie. Curious about the post-Cold War world? Go to Ukraine and listen to the pro-European Ukrainians in the western part of the country debate those in the east who favor deeper Russian ties.

Hearing these perspectives, realizing (and re-realizing, again and again) that one person’s enemy is almost always another person’s hero, has given me a much more well-rounded perspective – a foundation from which to build my own opinion, one that’s always up for revision. Most of the world recently mourned the passing of the great Nelson Mandela, and the universality of admiration for him makes it easy to forget that Mandela and his fellow ANC members were originally labeled as terrorists by much of the Western world. The same Western world that celebrates his legacy today.

Travel in developing countries also provides a much more modern sense of history. Revolutions and civil wars are not historical memories preserved in textbooks and national anthems. Instead, they are only recently resolved, or still ongoing. To experience these places in these moments of crisis is to understand that history – often so faded and abstract for Westerners – is nothing more than the interactions of people: their decisions, their enmities, their ideals, their struggles. The curious traveler who interacts with people, listens to their stories, and takes the time to observe his or her surroundings will learn far more than any student or professional studying the region from a distance. 

3. More memorable experiences

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” – Mark Twain

There are a lot fewer distractions that compete for your attention in developing countries than in more common tourist destinations. Instead of being inundated with excursions, packages, tours, and restaurants, travel in the developing world is more focused on people and your surroundings. I tend to slow down. Encounters with people and life become my entertainment. Basic parts of life, like finding something to eat, often become their own unique experiences and adventures.

I have also met some of the most interesting fellow travelers in these off-the-beaten-path destinations. I have been able to bond with other vagabonds while teaming up in our common quest to navigate public transportation across the country and find new destinations to explore. I have had fascinating conversations these fellow travelers, ranging from the burned-out war and conflict photographer who now rides a motorcycle around the world to take photos of happy people, to the English soccer (excuse me, futbal) fanatic who traveled on a personal mission trip to Uganda to deliver hundreds of jerseys throughout the country because “everyone who roots for England has a better life”. I’ve spent significant time with vagabonds in developing countries going on multiple years of full-time travel, philanthropists dedicating their lives to the poor, burned out executives seeking a life change, and some interesting and nontraditional entrepreneurs seeking opportunities where no one else will go.

Needless to say, there are a full range of folks you will meet on the road, but I rarely share beers (or vodka, or rum, or sake, or raki…) with such unique and interesting strangers when traveling through the typical tourism destinations of the developed world.

4. Personal growth

“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” – Henry Miller

I observe a much greater sense of community when I travel in developing countries. In large, bustling, first-world cities, people usually don’t even know their neighbor’s name. In the developing world, a whole village will often see itself as a family. If someone misbehaves or needs help, the entire community gets involved. This bond and responsibility to the community is something thing I leave inspired to bring back home.

It is humbling to witness how an entire family manages to survive off a year’s wages that are less than what I make in a week or month back home. Over 50 countries have an average annual income that ranges from $500 to $5,000 per year. I realize how blessed I am, and how few material things and comforts I actually need.

It is inspiring to meet people who have experienced some pretty unimaginable horrors and still manage to have a positive attitude and optimistic outlook on life. I’ve been to countries such as Rwanda and Bosnia & Herzegovina and talked to people who lived through the genocide. I’ve met dozens of people who were unlawfully imprisoned, or who survived recent conflicts and wars. It really drives home the term “First-World problems” when complaining about your phone company’s poor customer service or the latest office drama. These travels always provide me a welcome re-balancing of perspectives.

Visiting a country where you feel a little uncomfortable and confused naturally pulls you out of your comfort zone and makes you feel more alive. It’s not as easy as staying within the confines of a more traditional tourist itinerary. But if you are someone interested in seeing things you’ve never seen, knowing things that would otherwise be impossible for you to know, and meeting people that you would never ever get to meet… well, then it’s a dream come true.

I hope you have or will experience the many benefits from travel in developing countries. Please share this article with a traveling friend that you think could benefit from reading this. You can also follow me on Instagram or sign up for my free weekly digest about ways to travel the world, build a successful business or career, and make a difference at the same time:

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Benefits of Travel in Developing Countries