Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Where can we blacks holiday then?

'Rural France will never again attract me because I will not go to places where they treat like scum anyone they think is Arab'
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The Independent Online

You have no idea how much I fret at this time of every year. It is the same frustration when the skiing season is upon us and at Christmas time. Nobody from the media ever asks me about my holidays, what I like drinking and eating when I am abroad, or if I might go on a nice little freebie with the lover and/or the children to the Maldives and then write it up. Perhaps they think my tan is good enough already.

I long to be asked what books I will be taking with me. It is such a mark of being a somebody and of establishing your credentials as a very cultured person. Since you ask, I am taking George Orwell's Essays on England, Abdulrazak Gurnah's By the Sea, a novel about exiles in this country, two books by Anne Tyler, My Kind of America by Jeremy Poole, new novels by Asian women writers, Smell by Radhika Jha, Salt and Saffron by Kamila Shamsie and Felix Holt by George Eliot. You see, I am one of the élite really; erudite, adventurous and not a reader of trash, even on holiday. So why do I feel so wretched?

Because holidays planned at home or abroad, if you are a black or Asian Briton, often feel like acts of resistance, brave forced entries into places which have chosen to exclude us. We, you see, are not expected to go on holiday by the media and the leisure trade.

Internal tourism in this country is just as problematic, possibly more so. I am sitting here with major weekend newspapers all replete with travel articles, holiday destinations and honey-sweet adverts to entice punters. There are happy campers, beach bums, adventurer holiday makers, about 222 images, across 89 pages from two tabloids and three broadsheets, including The Independent.

Except for the musicians, Lionel Richie, and Ladysmith Black Mambazo and one ordinary black man with swimming trunks digging into a conch shell with a laughing blonde woman, all the other images are white.

We looked through 30 brochures before making our choice this year and there were several pictures of non-white people, most wide-grinning waiters serving multicoloured cocktails in the Caribbean and a few Arabs guiding camels. I know Thomsons has made a black consumer central to this years adverts and brochures, but this is so rare that you notice and remember. Other advertising has moved on and you get all sorts of Britons, white and black, used by companies, including in the financial sector.

Then there is the problem of sorting out which countries in Europe to go to if you are black or Asian. Rural France will never again attract me because I will not go to places where they treat like scum anyone they think is Arab. The last time I went, residents of a town in Brittany were unforgivably nasty to my teenage son and when my six-month-old daughter smiled and touched the head-scarf of a woman in a shop queue, her hand was brushed off and the woman stormed off muttering in disapproval.

Parts of Germany are very difficult for black, Asian and mixed race families. Some areas of Northern Italy are showing signs of blatant racism. In urban Britain, where most of us non-whites live, these hostile attitudes are still confined to some areas and small groups (important to remember this in the wake of the recent riots) so why should we spend good money to experience meanness and intolerance? No wine, food or landscape is worth that kind of humiliation.

Southern Spain is good, so are some of the Mediterranean Arab countries such as Tunisia and Morocco, particularly for European Muslims who are hungry to see the old Islamic civilisations and to experience Islam which is easy with itself. The fear is that these places will harden and force changes of the sort we see in parts of Egypt, another country I cannot visit because they would expect me to cover my head as a Muslim woman, which I will not do.

In Britain, similar obstacles stop too many of us wandering around the countryside. How many black and Asian Britons would you get joining the Ramblers Association? The Black Environment Network does some valuable work trying to change the white heartland image of the countryside and the environmental movements. The director, Judy Ling Wong, who lives in a village at the foot of Snowdon asserts: "The wonderful countryside, with its treasures of heritage is also ours. Beyond the physical and legal ownership of land, we have a need to feel that we have a spiritual ownership of the landscape."

Wong has done much to get rural areas to embrace diversity so that black and Asian people are not seen as a threat when they enter the ancient hills and cliffs, the walks and villages. It is an uphill battle and who wants that on holiday?

So go to the third world, I hear you say, full of black and Asian people, your people who will make you welcome.

More difficult than you think actually. Long distance tourism – one of the fastest growing industries in the world – is still attached to the imperial idea that it is white rulers of the world who travel. They can behave there as badly as they wish (Can you imagine how this country would react if wealthy tourists from Bombay set up their version of Benidorm in Bournemouth?) because, although the Empire is long gone, the world still belongs to these people, White Britons, Germans, French and others. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, Japanese and North American tourists and sometimes very rich Arabs have been allowed to join in.

Many of us black and Asian Britons are getting richer as the years go by and with these disposable incomes come desires for expensive holidays abroad. The first generation of immigrants never took a day off and any money saved for travel had to be used to make rare and important journeys "back home" – usually carrying many suitcases of presents to show the folk (or pretend) that your long journey of hope had indeed delivered. Other trips would include pilgrimages to Mecca or Amritsar and journeys made for weddings and funerals. Now we want the luxury trips too, but how should the children of ex-subject people behave when they go on these trips?

Tourism Concern, an organisation which usefully highlights the effects and morality of modern tourism, is seriously critical of the arrogance and carelessness of first-world travellers who exploit places, cultures and people with no regard for equality or respect. Worse, most of the income generated by tourism – 60 per cent – goes to companies based in the West.

Imagine how it feels, then, if you are an anti-racist warrior and you go to India, Kenya, the Caribbean, Hong Kong as a western tourist carrying the money and kudos. You feel guilty, implicated and sad too that you have lost your place in the old place. This is why I have not been to India since 1972 and why I only go to East Africa if I can use local people and local agencies to arrange the trip.

After all this navel gazing, the holiday when it comes is all the sweeter. Until the next time, that is, when the soul searching begins all over again.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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