What should one consider when choosing where to travel? Every destination offers its own appealing reasons for visiting — from its food to its people, from its cities to its historical sites — and there are always the more practical concerns that weigh down any traveler (costs, visas, seasons, flight routes, internet access). But the 21st-century traveler is more knowledgeable than ever before — she must engage in the ethics of where she visits, and why. Global conflicts are not new, but in a shrunken world, we hear of them much more quickly and in much more detail than we would have a generation ago. This means that even the casual traveler also faces an ethical dilemma when she chooses where to visit. What about a country’s treatment of minorities? What about its freedom of speech or the transparency of its government? And if we do go to a country ruled by a despot or military junta, will our currency benefit the nation’s citizens or only the regime that oppresses them? While there are few widely agreed upon rules for answering these questions, asking them seems increasingly vital. Here, seven travel writers contemplate the ethical ambiguities of travel.
Taseer’s most recent book is “The Twice-Born: Life and Death on the Ganges” (2018). He lives in New York City and traveled to Morocco for T’s spring Travel issue.
The other day, driving from Islamabad to Lahore, my driver — a man in his 30s from southern Punjab — asked me if I was married. “No,” I lied easily, as I would automatically have done in half a dozen societies from Indonesia to Morocco. “Should I have been braver,” I asked my sister, “and said, ‘Yes, I am married to a lovely white man from Tennessee, a little taller than yourself?’” “No,” my sister said resolutely. That would not only have been stupid but dangerous.
The question of whether it is ethical to go to a country that persecutes people based on their gender, sexuality, religion or ethnicity is one that I have always answered unethically, which is to say, without an underlying principle that can be applied universally. The truth is that until I moved to New York four years ago, I had never lived with the idea of a unified moral landscape. In the societies where I had lived, the morality was set at many different speeds — what the German political scientist Ernst Bloch calls “the simultaneity of the non-simultaneous,” i.e., the coexistence in the same place of modern, early modern and premodern moral codes and ways of life — and one was obliged to switch between moralities as if between languages. It was never an option, till I moved to America, for me to be the same person everywhere. What I ate (pork in Pakistan, beef in India), whom I slept with, what substances I consumed and, in my case, whom I married, was privileged information. I would no more tell a driver in Pakistan that I was married to a man than I would tell him I liked bacon with my eggs. Did these moral silos produce a corresponding moral ambivalence? Not at all. If anything, it made me treasure those places where I could be open. But if travel has taught me anything, it is how little people are the sum of their politics. The wonder of travel, for me, is to reckon with the kindness that can survive in the heart of a religious bigot, or the integrity of someone conforming to a moral system that they believe wholeheartedly but that may be repugnant to us. I do not advocate surrender, but I say: Go everywhere, and watch yourself moving about against a hostile background. We have an obligation to be who we are in full knowledge of what the world is.
Saro-Wiwa lives in London and is the author of “Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria” (2012).
How do we define what constitutes an oppressive government? My threshold is perhaps lower than other people’s. I see persecution not just in the obvious regimes, such as North Korea, but in countries such as the United States, where ill treatment may not be codified in law but exists nonetheless. My Nigerian friend’s brother died after being hit with a Taser during a struggle with California police, yet I would still vacation there. Perhaps being a minority on several fronts requires you to live in a permanent state of cognitive dissonance. You learn to override your outrage and exist in places where some people have values you abhor.
My father was also killed, by the military dictatorship in Nigeria, but the idea of discouraging travel to Nigeria never entered my mind. I want people to see Nigeria. I would prefer a halt to the flow of corrupt international bank transfers over a halt to the flow of people, since the former has more power than the latter.
Tourism and the exchange of ideas and exposure to foreigners can challenge and influence local ideological viewpoints over time, especially among the younger generation. Countries that are the least open to tourism often have the worst human rights record.
Of course, it is hard to escape the worry that by visiting places with oppressive laws you are validating the regime of the day. But I believe the benefits of travel outweigh that. And it is possible, in your own small way, to help those suffering discrimination, through donations, information exchange, connections. Tourism need not be apolitical — it’s not where you travel but how you do it.
I do draw the line at places where the oppression is wholesale, such as apartheid South Africa. Sunning oneself on the beaches of 1980s Cape Town, where blacks were dispossessed and excluded, was unequivocally unethical. However, I will soon be visiting Pakistan — land of persecuted Christians. My hosts in the beautiful Hindu Kush do not represent the anti-Christian values of their government, so I feel comfortable going there. I’m looking forward to supporting businesses and interacting with people who may never have seen a black person before. Hopefully I will leave a positive impression of Africans.
Distinguishing between Pakistan and apartheid South Africa may be subjective. But that’s the point: The Golden Gate Bridge may be one person’s symbol of paradise but another person’s vision of hell.
The Pelkor Chode Monastery in Gyantse, Tibet, 1998.CreditMartine Franck/Magnum Photos
The only question to ask before visiting a place is whether the locals at the other end would rather see you or not. For 45 years now, I’ve been traveling mostly to closed or impoverished countries: not just North Korea and Yemen, but Cuba (six times between 1987 and 1994) and Tibet (in the 1980s, 1990s and this century), Myanmar again and again. In every case, I felt that the people I’d be visiting would far prefer to see me and other tourists than not. Yes, the money I spent would be claimed by unforgivably repressive governments; yes, my very presence might be taken to be an endorsement of those tyrannies and might even help them stay in power; yet tourists like myself would be the only source of information, possibility, even solace that many voiceless and oppressed souls might encounter. Without us, they’d be suffering through a kind of solitary confinement.
The first principle of travel is that people are not the same as their governments; indeed, even in the free world, they’re often the victims of those governments. Walking down the streets of Havana on the 28th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution, I inevitably drew toward me all those who longed to complain about their rulers, to escape them (or, in a few cases, to spy on me on their behalf). What I encountered was the same response that war photographers everywhere report: In times of terrible grief, people want their stories to be taken to the larger world, because otherwise the suffering will go on behind closed doors, possibly forever. “Tell your country what’s going on here,” people say. “And tell us, please, what it’s like everywhere else.”
The first time I went to Myanmar (then Burma), in 1985, tourists were scarce and the locals I met could not have seemed more blue-skied and undefended. Even as I chafed against the constraints of a seven-day visa and any number of arbitrary restrictions, their whole lives were spent in such a state. A bar of chocolate, a photo of my homeland, a piece of the larger world was all they craved — and the chance to tell me what they were going through.
I wrote about one friend, a humble trishaw driver I encountered, in my first book, “Video Night in Kathmandu,” worried about the consequences for him. Over the next 30 years, I’ve heard from my friend again and again: “Thank you, thank you for coming to visit us in our prison. And thank you for sharing my story with the world. I sometimes think it’s all I have.”
Murphy lives in Lismore, Ireland. Her many books have recently been recognized by the Royal Geographical Society, which, in June, will present her with the Ness Award for travelers who have successfully popularized geography and the wider understanding of our world and its environments.
Is it a generational thing? In my remote youth, travel was rarely inhibited by ethical considerations. The Iron Curtain of course imposed restraints; otherwise, we applied for visas and roamed lightheartedly.
In 1953, when I set off to cycle around Francoist Spain, no one reprimanded me for condoning fascism. Eight years later, my plan to cycle through the shah’s Iran, en route to India, provoked no shocked protests about Savak. Nor did references to tyrannical emperors disturb my three-month trek through Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia. True, those journeys predated mass tourism, which so many contemporary governments are so keen to promote.
In 2019, should we think twice before spending time and money in Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s Egypt or Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil or Joko Widodo’s Indonesia? It certainly makes sense to ask, “Who benefits if I don’t go to X, Y or Z?” and then, “Who might benefit if I do go and return with useful facts to be used constructively?” Facts about the denial of women’s rights, the persecution of minority religions or gay communities, the indiscriminate felling of rain forests, the ruthless damming of rivers, the anti-peasant collusions between “developing world” governments and corporate agribusinesses.
We are now in that uncomfortable terrain between travel and tourism. Plainly, holidaymakers can’t be expected to probe their host countries’ defects — quite often linked to their home countries’ hypocritical “foreign aid” programs. Undoubtedly, the tourists’ tacit (or unknowing) support for unjust regimes may fortify them. But how can we measure the value of our holiday spending to the tourism-dependent citizens of X, Y or Z? Moreover — and no less important — friendly, outgoing foreign visitors can do a lot for international relations at a grass-roots level. Where to draw the line? Or should any line be drawn? (Space constraints require me to ignore the elephant in this room; one day very soon a thick line must be drawn under budget-flight mass tourism.)
When the Chinese government opened Tibet to foreigners, everyone expected me to rush to Lhasa. But I didn’t want to go. My time working with Tibetan refugees in India and Nepal had drawn me close to their culture, and it would have deeply distressed me to see its vestiges superficially “restored” as tourist bait. However, my motive for eschewing this ravaged country was personal and emotional, not a matter of principle. Should I be ashamed to admit that ethical scruples have never curbed my wanderlust? Or can we agree that this newish debate is best left to the individual’s conscience?
Yuan was the inaugural 52 Places Traveler, in 2018, for The New York Times. She is a freelance writer based in New York City.
While on the 52 Places To Go trip, I visited multiple destinations recovering from war, violence and humanitarian crises: Rwanda, Cambodia, Germany, Lithuania, Canada, Australia, China, great swaths of South America and many of my 11 stops in the United States. If you’re interested in history and traveling the world, it’s rare to go anywhere that wasn’t the site of horrific violence at some point, either toward animals or fellow humans. My home state of New Mexico, which I love very much, is one of those places.
We travel to explore empathy, and it’s important not to avoid places with troubling pasts, but to listen, bear witness, remember and go home and tell others what we’ve learned. At the Kigali Genocide Memorial in Rwanda, I saw people curled into balls and sleeping on the lawn, seemingly overcome with emotional exhaustion. The genocide came up in casual conversation; it’s embedded into everyday life, even 25 years later, as the country is experiencing a strong recovery.
Whether to visit a country that is currently persecuting people is a different ethical choice. I didn’t have to face it while on the 52 Places trip, but it did come up right afterward, when I was recuperating in Southeast Asia and one of my travel companions was heading to Myanmar. I didn’t go because I didn’t have time, because it wasn’t safe for me to go as a journalist and because it didn’t feel right to spend a vacation in a country where its armed forces and Rakhine Buddhists have been have been killing the Rohingya Muslim people and gang raping Rohingya Muslim women and girls. My friend didn’t encounter any signs of oppression while there; just kind motorcycle taxi drivers of Myanmar who were grateful for the tiny financial infusion he brought to their lives.
We talked about the ethical implications before he left, and he decided that he’d rather see the country to better understand it in the small window of time he had, since he didn’t know when, if ever, he’d be back to that part of the world. And he was glad he went. It’s a tricky dilemma for Americans, when our own country is persecuting asylum seekers and separating children from their parents at our southern border, or when certain states have passed laws criminalizing people with uteruses who don’t carry pregnancies to term. Should we start boycotting parts of our own country? Would it be wrong for visitors from other countries to do the same? I don’t know what the right choice is, or whether I might make a different choice about Myanmar under different circumstances. It just wasn’t the right choice for me in that moment.
Mehta is author of “This Land Is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto,” out this June from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. He is based in New York City.
All nations are imperfect, but some are more imperfect than others. Should you boycott Myanmar because of its treatment of the Rohingya, or Israel because of its treatment of Palestinians? How about Slovakia for its treatment of the Roma, or the United States for its treatment of African-Americans? Which glass house do you live in, and where would you like to direct your stones?
I lived and taught in Abu Dhabi for a semester, not because I am in sympathy with the regime there, but because I am a reporter, and I wanted to see firsthand how the 88 percent of the nation’s population who are migrants are treated there. And I’ve written about their situation in my new book. There’s a difference between a reporter going into a country with a troubled human rights record to write about the situation there and a tourist going to prop up a dictatorial regime with their hard currency.
But there’s a little bit of a reporter in every tourist. You might not like the policies of the Venezuelan junta, but you might want to witness firsthand the situation on the ground, unfiltered by media reports of whatever political orientation.
If you go to a country with an oppressive regime, you are morally obligated to step out from your five-star hotel, if you should choose to stay there, and speak to ordinary people, and carry the news back home to your friends and family — who might then call their representative or write a letter to an editor. You can’t just be there for the food and the sights because otherwise you really are funding tyranny. But if you mix in a little bit of reporting with the sightseeing, you can be, in your own way, an agent of change.
Kulish has reported from more than 40 countries on five continents for The New York Times, as the Berlin bureau chief, an East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi and now as a member of the paper’s investigative team. He is the author of the novel “Last One In” and co-author of the history book “The Eternal Nazi.” He is based in New York City.
I confess I am largely numb to the question of when it is ethical to travel somewhere. As a foreign correspondent for The Times, you internalize the dictum “something bad happened; go there.” Terrorist attack? Civil war? Invasion? Catch the next flight. Revolt, protest, natural disaster? Get as close as you can and report back.
So stumbling out of covering an insurgency in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, I didn’t ask myself whether I should be subsidizing President Paul Kagame’s orderly but repressive regime in Rwanda. I just wanted to see a silverback mountain gorilla double-bass-drum his chest before they went extinct. Should we have gone to Uganda, where the infamous Anti-Homosexuality Act of 2014 was about to pass, or back into war-torn eastern Congo? Those are the only three places you can visit these rare animals.
I was reluctant to pay entry at the Hezbollah Museum in southern Lebanon, but more out of fear of running afoul of American laws prohibiting material support for terrorism than any deep ethical examination I undertook. A friend paid the entry for our group. Once I had watched their videos, looked at the mannequins posed like life-size action figures in an underground bunker and spoken to the staff at the largely empty museum, a better understanding of their motivations, of their narrative, dawned on me. And while I can’t say whether arguing with the Hezbollah tour guide about the deaths of innocents had any effect on his views, it was better than not trying, wasn’t it?
None of us are pure until we’ve ditched the conflict minerals in our phones, ensured none of our vast array of Chinese products were made with forced labor and siphoned the Saudi petroleum from our gas tanks. Everyone has to set the priorities for their personal sanction regimes, whether that means dutifully checking Human Rights Watch and Freedom House each time before visiting Orbitz or just refusing to stay at the Beverly Hills Hotel until the Sultan of Brunei changes his tune on gay rights.
My wife and I decided not to include Myanmar on a trip to Southeast Asia. Sunset selfies with burning villages in the background went too far. But the Cambodian and Vietnamese governments benefiting from our visits to Angkor Wat and Halong Bay could not be described as wholly innocent either. Irresponsible travel is possible anywhere. I lived in Berlin during the heyday of dating app pics at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, inspiring Grindr Remembers and later Yolocaust.
Because of what I do, I have to believe in transparency, the exchange of ideas, the good that I can do by bearing witness, engaging and writing about it. But maybe I’ve just developed a blind spot, or more like a beautiful filter, to smooth away the flaws in the trips I’m already taking.