If you want to get in a heated discussion with a group of travelers, one sure-fire winner is to bring up which countries should be avoided on moral grounds. At least one person will usually argue that the answer is “none,” others have memorized the lists of which places have the worst human rights records, and the remainder will fall somewhere in the middle. For once, there’s an article on the subject that manages to be brief and balanced at the same time, in June’s Budget Travel. (It also quotes Ethical Travel hero Jeff Greenwald.)
It mentions the Freedom House “Map of Freedom” in the article but doesn’t link to it, so go here. There are some interesting traits on that map, such as the fact that Thailand is an oasis of freedom among lots of repressive neighbors. That Russia and many of the “stans” are not places where you’re going to find intense public debate over the issues of the day, or newspapers telling you the real deal. Or people smiling a lot, for that matter.
As anyone who has read The World’s Cheapest Destinations knows, I tend to side with the boycotters much of the time. I don’t like the idea of my money going into the pockets of regimes that are holding people back, and it’s very hard to avoid giving them money in the spots on the globe that are the worst offenders. I’ve never been to North Korea, Burma, or Cuba and probably won’t set foot in any of them until the leadership changes. That day may be getting closer in Cuba, but reality is that the old “tourism fosters change” argument has been proven completely baseless in that country. Tourism has just created a class of (relatively) wealthy prostitutes and provided much-needed hard currency for the regime. Not that isolation has accomplished anything either, I’ll freely admit. When you’ve got an entrenched dictator in place who rules with an iron grip, one who won’t let anyone leave the country, there’s not much that’s going to rattle the status quo no matter what strategy you follow.
The best advice in the article, whatever you choose to do, is good advice for anywhere really. “‘Buy local, stay local, and hire local,'” says Malia Everette, director of Global Exchange’s Reality Tours. Choose privately run B&Bs and inns over government-owned hotels and buy souvenirs at community markets.”
If you can engage people, do, but that’s easier said than done in a county like North Korea where the whole population is brainwashed from sunup to sundown. More likely, you’ll come away just feeling depressed and maybe a bit more thankful you were born where you were. I once asked a Canadian friend about his time in Tibet. He thought for a moment and just replied, “We felt the need to really drink a lot there. Getting numb made it easier to take.”
Tourism in sensitive areas:
Black Market Biking (Cuba), by Lea Aschkenas
A Railway Runs Through It (Tibet), by Michael Buckley
Check out the September issue after 9/1 for a story set in Turkmenistan, another bizarre place run by another bizarre leader for life. Should we all pile in a plane and go there…or not? I’m leaving the room for that argument.