Holiday or human rights? What do travelers do when they’re considering visiting countries where basic human rights are violated? Do local people suffer more if nations are boycotted? Leon McCarron explores this complex conundrum.
I’ve spent much of the last decade traveling to places that are unusual or unpredictable in one way or another. Last fall, I spent a month in Iraq, following a pilgrimage across the center of the country. In 2014, I spent six weeks in Iran, tracing the country’s longest river from source to sea, and some years before that, I cycled through Burma/Myanmar, sleeping in temples close to the Thai border.
In short, I’ve visited many places where governments have been accused of severe human rights violations or where it’s clear that the sitting regime is an oppressive one, or simply a dictatorship. So one question that frequently comes up is this one: Knowing all of this, should we still visit such places? Or should we take a supposedly more ethical stance and boycott? Or is the key to divert as much of our tourist dollar into local businesses?
Of course, it’s complex and I’ll say this from the outset: There is no one-size-fits-all answer. My take has always been that there’s a huge separation between the people who live in a place and those who hold power and make decisions, and to make a blanket decision to not travel based on the actions of government seems short-sighted.
“Initially, we felt it unfair to withhold our investment to local suppliers, guesthouses, roadside street-food vendors and all manner of other micro-businesses that have essentially nothing to do with the creation or implementation of their government’s strategies.”
Marley Burns, tour company owner
I’ve seen this play out in practice too; all the countries I’ve visited with oppressive regimes and appalling human rights records have also been places where I’ve found examples of deep humanity at ground level.
In Iran, I spent 30 nights in the homes of complete strangers who took me in when I passed through small countryside villages. In Burma/Myanmar, I’d often be guided to the nearest temple and given somewhere comfortable to sit in the shade after a long day of cycling.
In fact, Burma/Myanmar is a useful case study. It’s gone through a number of dramatic upheavals in recent decades, and most recently, we’ve seen the escalation of the Rohingya crisis, with tens of thousands of the Muslim ethnic group being killed, and hundreds of thousands more being forced to flee to seek refuge in neighboring Bangladesh.
Reports of the massacres are harrowing, and there are international calls for the army to be investigated for genocide. So how should we, as travelers, view the nation? And how does the travel industry respond?
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Marley Burns runs an adventure tour operation called Silk Road Adventures. In 2017, in the lead-up to a motorbike tour here, he assessed the situation. “Initially, we felt it unfair to withhold our investment to local suppliers, guesthouses, roadside street-food vendors and all manner of other micro-businesses that have essentially nothing to do with the creation or implementation of their government’s strategies,” he says.
But as the crisis escalated, Marley’s position changed. “We made the decision that we couldn’t, with clear conscience, run a trip to one area of a country when just a hundred miles away another region was experiencing a disaster. So we cancelled our trip, and [at time of writing] we have yet to return.”
Red lines like this are useful for both operators and independent travelers. But, as Marley also acknowledges, they can’t be arbitrary, and the facts are crucial. And when certain parts receive less of an international spotlight, it can be difficult to have enough information to make a fair assessment.
Ethical tourism expert Helen Jennings raises another point on the blog page for now-inactive NGO Tourism Concern. She writes: “We live in a closely interrelated world in which all our actions have consequences. It has wisely been said that people in glass houses should not throw stones. The scale of abuses may differ, but sadly, can we think of many countries these days—our exalted western democracies included—that are not guilty of some human rights violations?”
“The reality is that when tourists stay away, it often impacts the wrong people. It’s not just the government or military who feels the pinch; it’s the locals.”
Geoff Manchester, Intrepid Group
So, what do we do? Is it OK to visit North Korea, even though it’s clear that all trips there are highly managed, and there’s a lack of free speech about the reality of life there? How about Venezuela, in the midst of a social and economic crisis? Or how about all the countries where the political landscape might seem benign and the atmosphere welcoming, but where simultaneously, LGBT rights are not recognized, and homosexuality can be punishable by imprisonment or even, as the tiny Asian country of Brunei announced in March, death.
I’d propose that for each trip we want to make to somewhere we’re unsure of, we research the situation well, using a variety of media sources to find a well-rounded version of the truth. Is there active conflict or a period of unrest in the country?
If so, there’s a good chance that traveling there may not be appropriate, and perhaps even voyeuristic. Assuming though that our destination is stable, we should look at what it’s possible to do there, either independently or with a tour operator—how much will the journey be controlled by outside influences?
Figure out where our money goes: Does it disappear straight into the hands of the government, as is the case with curated tours in North Korea, or is there an opportunity to support small businesses and entrepreneurs directly? Geoff Manchester, co-founder of Intrepid Travel (part of Intrepid Group, who own Adventure.com), sees this distinction as central to the issue. “The reality is that when tourists stay away, it often impacts the wrong people,” he says. “It’s not just the government or military who feels the pinch; it’s the locals, who rely on travelers purchasing their goods to support their families.”
As a response, his company foregrounds these interactions, employing predominately local staff on the ground. “In every destination we visit, we spread the economic benefits of travel by purchasing from a range of local suppliers,” he adds. “Community-based tourism is a fantastic way to improve the lives of local people and in fact, the presence of travelers can help to keep governments and regimes in check. When this global gaze is removed, the situation often worsens.”
Finally, if we’re thinking of traveling to destinations that challenge our ethics, it’s useful to reflect on why exactly we want to go. We travel for fun, of course, but also do it to learn, and to share knowledge.
“One of the things we in the tourism industry can do is to foster personal relationships in the face of this current trend of disconnection,” says Marley Burns from Silk Road Adventures. “Designing itineraries that bring cultures together is core to what we do, as not only does it enrich the travel experience but so it dissolves perceived differences between people.”
And this is the crux of it. If done in the right way and for the right reasons, we can support local people and build cultural bridges by visiting. The key, as ever, is asking the right questions, and knowing where to draw the line. It’s never easy, but having the conversation is a good place to start.