The ethics of traveling to certain parts of the world — places where human rights aren’t respected, where a sex trade exists (perhaps illegal but unfettered) or where ‘guest workers’ have their passports taken on arrival and have little choice but to toil in unsafe conditions – can be complicated.
I think it’s difficult, and certainly uncomfortable, for a world traveler to ponder how their choices affect the people they meet. And it’s even tougher to ponder the signals their choices send — does visiting Turkmenistan endorse that regime? Does it provide hard currency that sustains the regime? Is your tourism in some way fostering terrible conditions that people live under?
Sometimes that might be the case, although rarely does one person’s decisions materially affect the situations of people on the ground and rarely would one person’s decisions prop up or undermine an abusive structure.
Still, don’t we have some obligation just not to participate or at least not to derive enjoyment from situations and places that generate misery for others?
Here’s the Freedom House: Freedom in the World 2015 list of ‘Worst of the Worst’:
Without endorsing all of the particulars of this list, since I don’t have sufficient knowledge of each of the countries on this list, it’s certainly eye opening to note the countries on it that I’ve personally visited.
The more I think about it, though, the more I tend to believe that if we are aware of our surroundings, if we pay attention and learn and enrich ourselves through our travel, that may just be the very best way that we can contribute to improving the world and lives of the people we interact with along the way.
There are terrible things that governments do — such as providing weapons to oppressive regimes, giving governments the tools to abuse their citizens, such as propping up those regimes. Learning about the conditions in those countries, bringing that knowledge back home, undermining support for policies of a traveler’s government which support abusive governments, seems like a strong approach.
Traveling increases awareness, if you keep your eyes open. And bringing resources, raising standards of living, tends to correlate with greater freedoms as well. Saying you don’t want to spend your money in an oppressive country doesn’t obviously make the oppressed better off. Sometimes the oppression gets worse when there’s little surplus resources.
Interacting with locals and sharing your own experiences — that there are different social arrangements, that those other arrangements don’t lead to societal destruction but rather prosperity, helps make change from the ground up in those countries thinkable.
What do we owe as travelers? I’d reframe the question away from what we owe, though certainly not to take advantage of systems that allow abuse ourselves, that much goes without saying (don’t go to Thailand looking for underage prostitutes). Instead, what can we do that makes the most difference?
Simply ‘staying away’ and refusing to visit countries with abusive human rights practices seems counterproductive. Sure you don’t want to give your resources directly to oppressive governments. But I think if we want to make a difference then we:
- Pay attention, learn about the places we visit, get to know the conditions on the ground
- Get to know the people in the places we travel to, learn their stories and share your own back. Exchange knowledge about how their world works, and how the rest of the world works.
- Bring back that increased understanding, and use it to inform your own politics and what policies of your government you do and don’t support.
I’m not naïve enough to believe that my travel will change the world, or that my political voice will. I’m also not naïve enough to think that my voice is so important that if I deny my tourism to a country that I will somehow change its policies.
Instead the best I can do is learn about the world around me, use what I learn in forming my opinions and beliefs, and speak out about what I see along the way. I don’t always do this, I’ll be the first to acknowledge that I can fail to measure up. But I can try to be more aware with each trip.
Am I thinking about the ethics of travel the right way? Do you take these issues into account in your own travels?