In today’s day and age, it seems everything is polarizing. Calls for boycotts of companies, people, movies, and even countries are prevalent. For those of us with strong political and ideological feelings, it can be a difficult set of circumstances to navigate. Can one eat at Chick Fil A, shop at Wal-Mart, see a Mel Gibson movie, or open a bank account at a Wells Fargo independent of the political bents or statements by those affiliated with those brands? Is eating an arguably tasty chicken sandwich an endorsement by a consumer of the company’s right-wing political stances? (The same can be said of companies with left-wing stances for people who have issue with those.) Or can one separate policy from the consumer end of things?

When it comes to travel, one is faced with these same challenges in an even bigger way, especially when one is a deep thinking traveler. Is visiting a country an endorsement of its policies, both present and past? Let’s look at a few examples.

As I have mentioned a few times on this blog, I am Jewish. My people had a rough go of things in Germany in the 30s and 40s. For many Jews, visiting Germany remains a difficult thing to do, because while the current government is undeniably friendly to the Jewish people, the Holocaust was not too many years ago, and there are people still alive who were either participants in it, or at least didn’t speak up on behalf of their Jewish neighbors. In a similar vein, I have a close friend from Korea who will not travel to Japan because of the atrocities committed by the Japanese during the occupation of the Korean Peninsula during World War Two, and the subsequent refusal to acknowledge or apologize for those things. Can a Jew go to Germany or a Korean to Japan without it being an endorsement of those past events?

Let’s take things a bit more present-day. Russia is currently not a good friend of many countries in the western world. They have interfered in elections, conducted mass misinformation campaigns, and even assassinated people on foreign soil. They invaded their neighbor, and all semblances of a free and open democracy have vanished under Vladimir Putin. Can an American still travel to Russia without it being seen as an endorsement of the country’s policies?

Looking finally at an even more extreme example, Myanmar is currently one of the “in” up and coming travel destinations, and I know many people who have been or would like to go. However, the government has been conducting a covert genocide against their Rohingya minority for years, killing them or driving them into neighboring Bangladesh. Can one travel to Myanmar without endorsing those policies?

My answers to these things can be only for myself. Decisions on where to travel, especially as they relate to morality, are very personal. If you disagree with me, that is your prerogative.

Looking first at the example of Myanmar, this is to me very clear-cut. This is not simply violence – there is violence in many places – but a government-sponsored genocide. I cannot in good conscience promote a state that would engage in these things, or spend my money there. While individual citizens (shop and restaurant owners, for instance) would benefit from my travel, the benefit derived by tourism for the government is greater, and something I’d like to deny them.

Moving to the first examples of things done in the past, I have been to Germany, and would happily return. Not only were those atrocities committed by a government that no longer exists (and hasn’t for decades), the current government has done everything possible to learn from its mistakes. Japan is slightly more complicated, given the lack of acknowledgment and apology issued to those who were mistreated under Japanese occupation. For me, personally, I am able to separate out that these events were in the past by a government that, like Germany, no longer exists. I made the decision to visit Japan.

Russia, and others like it, are where I struggle. On the one hand, the civilian population of Russia, or Cuba, Turkey (as in the title image), Venezuela, or Pakistan, might be made up of largely wonderful people who don’t bear the western world any ill-will. On the other, their governments have certainly not been model world citizens. Does my going and building bridges with ordinary people help more than my money – or the propaganda of simply having tourists present – hurts? I am not sure.

That is the biggest issue with tourism in this particular segment of the conversation. A country that wishes to appear “nice” will devote resources to appealing to tourists, knowing that they will return home and speak of the wonderful times they have had. Meanwhile, in other parts of the country or other segments of the society, atrocities might be taking place. Free speech might be repressed, political opponents jailed or killed, political officials enriching themselves while ordinary citizens starve, or even military aggression. Do I want to be part of their propaganda strategies? While I may not agree with their policies, I don’t want them to be able to say that since millions of tourists came, they are therefore positive members of the world order.

I don’t have a good solution. While I might choose to avoid those countries I mentioned above, at least in their current states, I am sure I visit others that would give other people pause. I’ve been to China and Vietnam over the past couple of years, two places that restrict free speech, and do so violently on occasion. I certainly don’t endorse those policies.

Limiting travel to solely those countries with which I always agree would mean never going anywhere, even to my own country. Perhaps my role can be to speak out against policy with which I disagree, even while talking about the positives of visiting a country. I certainly tried to do that with Singapore.

It is a complex issue. What do you all think? Please post your thoughts.

13 thoughts on “Is Visiting a Country Endorsing its Policies?

  1. I was asked the same question by a lot of people before visiting North Korea.
    Basically, no country should be off limits due to it’s government as you won’t be seeing much of the world, and meeting people who have nothing to do with their government’s policies.

    1. I appreciate that perspective. I don’t think I’d go to North Korea right now, but certainly understand those who would choose to.

  2. Every government commits terrible acts, even one’s own so if you boycott places where you disagree with the policies of it’s government, you are going to be severely limiting yourself and unfairly punishing the average citizens of that country who do not represent their leaders. I usually gravitate to the places I’m told I shouldn’t go (Russia, Turkmenistan, North Korea etc) and have had some of the best experiences and met some truly wonderful people. Does my visiting a country give tacit support to its government? Absolutely not. Does my tourist money go directly into the coffers of the government? A little may find its way there, but mostly goes to street food vendors, bar and cafe owners and those that rely on it. So, as far as I’m concerned nowhere should be off limits. It’s also good to go and see for yourself rather than rely on biased media to give you the picture of a country.

    1. First off, I’m fascinated by your experience in NK. Did you feel safe? Second, is there anywhere you’d draw a line? Would you visit a place actively killing a portion of its population, like Myanmar or Syria? Do you think visiting sends any sort of statement?

      I am asking not to play devil’s advocate, but because I am sincerely interested in perspectives that are different from my own.

      1. I didn’t feel safe the entire time I was in North Korea. It was within a few days of Otto Warmbier being returned to the US in a tragic state and tensions were at an all time high. The thought that I could be facing a similar fate was never far from my mind, but I was only there for one day so thought the risk worth taking, and certainly don’t regret going. I was mightily relieved when I was handed my passport back at the end of my visit.

        No, there is nowhere I would draw the line at. I really want to visit Syria (have done so since long before the current conflict) but will wait until things calm down before I go simply for safety reasons. I am also looking to visit Myanmar this year simply for the nature and I don’t think my visit means I support what’s being done to the Rohinga any more than my living in China supports their regressive and repressive government.

      2. Do you feel a responsibility to talk about these countries from both sides after going? Or do you prefer to stick to the positives?

  3. Yes, I certainly take an objective look at these places and talk about the negatives and positives (in my report about North Korea I am highly critical of many aspects). I have just returned from Chernobyl where I write in glowing terms abut the experience, but I also reflect on the tragedy and donated money to the Chernobyl Children’s Fund and urge my readers to do likewise.

  4. If we stopped visiting countries based on its policies nobody would travel anywhere Jonathan 😉 Joking a bit but serious in that every country on earth has some dubious qualities, being run by faulty humans. Totally get your point though. I feel visiting any nation on earth is good because it forms a connection and brings the world and human beings together. All healing happens one human bond at a time. People over policies. This is why I went to Myanmar last year. Most of the people there are awesome so some monsters in government shouldn’t stop travelers from connected with the awesome folks there. See the majority of a nation’s people before its policies.

    1. I totally appreciate this perspective. I’m just not sure I could go there right now. Like I said, it’s a personal choice for each traveler.

  5. This is a touchy subject. Personally, I see travel as an educational experience, learning curve, an opportunity to actually see first hand what is going on, try to understand underlying motives without rushing judgment. Sometimes it is so hard to keep cool. Truth to be told, there were times when I couldn’t do it. However, I believe that talking to different sides helps with personal growth and makes you a better person. Perhaps, it’s a bit naive, but I do think that people should travel to questionable destinations to broaden their minds especially in current polarizing times.

  6. Very interesting article! When I saw the title, I actually immediately thought of Russia; a country I refuse to visit in the current climate. That actually started from the government’s response to gay rights, but there are just so many other things that make me not want to pay the government for a visa. Unfortunately I am feeling quite similar about the US at the moment… while simultaneously planning a trip there later this year, lol. Myanmar is another great example because three years ago, I said I “must visit in the next 5 years” before it gets too touristy. Now, I wouldn’t visit, at least not at the moment. Dubai is also on my blacklist considering women can be sent to prison for being raped. I kind of agree with one of the above comments; if you refuse to visit a country based on their policies, you’d probably never go anywhere. But it’s all subjective. And I do think that travelling to them can not only endorse the policies but even amplify the problem if you are giving that government money to do so. Very difficult because I am all for supporting the people of a country regardless, but sometimes I feel like making a stand is a good thing, too.

    1. It’s really a fascinating thing to think about. Thank you for sharing your perspective!

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