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Arthur Frommer: $68,950 safari: An immoral indulgence?

  • Published Sunday, March 6, 2011, at 12:04 a.m.
  • Updated Sunday, March 6, 2011, at 12:33 a.m.

The 20-page booklet, which recently arrived in my home by mail, is a handsome production of stunning color photographs and elegant typography, all of it promoting a single 21-day tour of Africa leaving the U.S. Jan. 9, 2012, and costing $68,950 per person, double occupancy (not including round-trip airfare to London, from where the tour departs). In other words, a couple traveling tog ether will spend a total of $137,900 to buy the tour arrangements detailed in the booklet, plus airfare for two people round-trip to London. Single people traveling alone pay a surcharge of $9,450, for a total of $78,400, again not including round-trip airfare from the U.S. to London.

With a cover of cardboard stiffness, the 8 1/2-by-11-inch booklet is issued by the Columbia University Alumni Association, and was sent to my wife because she is a graduate of the Columbia University School of Social Work. What a mistake to include a former social worker in a list of those who would spend that amount of money on a self-indulgent, 21-day tour! It amounts to some $3,283 per person per day for the worst kind of conspicuous consumption, wallowing in luxury and privilege amid the poverty-stricken people of Africa. Though this is one of the most costly of the tours designed for ultra-wealthy Americans, it is no rarity.

Throughout the world of alumni and museum-associated travel are numerous other programs making use of private jets, accommodating passengers in large villas or suites, supplying them with butler-like attentions, serving them gourmet meals and maintaining open bars of premium liquors throughout the day.

I have marveled at the absurd costs of numerous alumni and museum tours, which always assume that college-educated Americans should see the world only in cushioned comfort, be waited upon around the clock, sleep on silk sheets and be totally isolated from the life of average residents of the countries they visit. The 21-day Columbia University tour ("Africa by Private Jet") for $68,950 per person is only a slightly exaggerated version of a much-too-typical industry product of ultra-deluxe, absurdly privileged travel.

Although the Columbia University booklet makes some passing references to the lessons of social consciousness that passengers occasionally will pick up in the course of its $68,950 trip (in Senegal, they will see demonstrations of programs that have "taught village elders how to install solar panels"), the overwhelming message of the booklet is a description of the wildlife and colorful native arts and clothing to be seen in a dozen African nations.

The tours are quite similar to those sold by standard tour operators to the public at large, but in this case enhanced by private jet transportation (in a Boeing 757 configured to accommodate only 78 travelers instead of the 233 seats normally found in a Boeing 757), by the provision of free liquor at all times, by the presence of an "expedition physician" who will accompany the group throughout, and every other type of rarified luxury.

The booklet makes it clear that the overwhelming emphasis of the tour is not on political or social matters, but on the standard attractions of African safaris and other tours. At the end of a letter to "Dear Fellow Columbian," Columbia's vice president for alumni relations urges that readers make their travel plans early, "as this journey is sure to fill quickly." Here, apparently, is proof that despite the recent financial crisis and relatively slow U.S. economy, there exists a large segment of ultra-wealthy people who have money to burn.

According to my own calculations, if all 78 seats of this trip are sold at the per-person, double-occupancy rate, the 78 participants will have spent a total of approximately $5.3 million in flaunting their wealth. The same $5.3 million could have saved the lives of thousands of ill-nourished African children. I abominate this immoral display of wealth, spending more on recreational travel than people are quite easily able to do.

For a fraction of $68,950, participants could have had a thoroughly comfortable and comprehensive 21-day tour of Africa, and could have dedicated the savings to helping the African people rather than looking down on them from the heights of great wealth. Are there times when overexpenditures for travel become immoral?

Arthur Frommer is the pioneering founder of the Frommer's Travel Guide book series. He co-hosts the radio program The Travel Show with his travel correspondent daughter Pauline Frommer. Find more destinations online and read Arthur Frommer's blog at frommers.com.

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