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.