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Can Travel be Unethical?

The world is a complicated place. There are countless people just like you and me who live under brutal, autocratic regimes who do not enjoy the same freedoms that those of us in the west enjoy. And with that in mind, I have to ask…

Can travel be unethical?

Yes. At least in my opinion. When visiting troubled places, you need to be very aware of where your money goes, lest you end up funding a government whose policies you don’t necessarily support.

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For years, this was the case with Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, which, until a year ago was ruled by a military junta. It was such a potentially thorny issue that Lonely Planet printed a warning stating the pros and cons of visiting.

While times have changed in Myanmar, other places are not so fortunate. Think of a visit to, say, North Korea. Sounds quite adventurous, right? Think about the fact that the only way you can visit is to go on a government-approved tour, where your money goes, in part, straight to the government and not to the people.

Don’t get me wrong, travel can be hugely beneficial to the world, broadening minds and showing people that we really aren’t all that different from each other regardless of religion, ethnicity or nationality. And by traveling independently and frequenting locally owned businesses, your money goes to help people directly, in some cases, people who really need it.

A Case Study

So where do you draw the line? Through research and personal comfort level. Pick means of visiting where your money goes to the people and not the government. This was the case with my visit to the Tibetan regions of SichuanChina, which, for all intents and purposes is Tibet, without technically being part of what China itself considers to be Tibet.

Tibetan Boys
Tibetan boys in Litang, which is technically located in China’s Sichuan province

A visit to actual Tibet involves going on an official tour and getting a special permit, where you can bet that your money is going to the Chinese government, not to the Tibetan people. By my standards, the trip I took is totally okay from an ethical standpoint because you’re not funding the Chinese occupation. You’re taking buses around and staying in locally owned businesses. What’s wrong with that?


But apparently to some folks, especially in the Twittersphere, this is not okay. In tweeting this post a couple of weeks ago, I got a barrage of complaints from Tibetan groups about “how dare I promote tourism” when Tibetans live under tyranny. How dare I suggest that people go and stay in luxury while others suffer (which I didn’t suggest at all). And how “Tibetans don’t need a few Western coins, they need the return of the Dalai Lama.”

Temple Carvings
Carvings in a Tibetan Buddhist temple in Litang

It only snowballed from there, and in a matter of hours, I had people from all over the world attacking me without even reading the content I was promoting! While I convinced one obnoxious person to actually read the post, they picked and chose small excerpts as means of proving their point. “Go on a tour!” they tweeted back at me! How dare I suggest that! Never mind that it was taken out of context, the full, sarcastic thought was:

“Want to go solo? Sorry, that’s not possible. Try a group tour!”

While I finally decided it wasn’t worth trying to reason with people, the barrage finally stopped. It also helped that an individual who had retweeted the post, setting off this barrage, came to my rescue. But I was flabbergasted that I’d endured such a beating for discussing what was, in my mind, a perfectly acceptable means of visiting Tibet, without technically visiting Tibet.

What do You Think?

So from you, I’d like to hear…when is it not ok to visit a place?

And am I complete hypocrite for visiting the occupied Palestinian Territory (though I did so completely on my own dime, investing my resources towards what I believed were Palestinian individuals and companies)?


By Aaron

Hey there! I'm Aaron and this is my travel site, where I document my adventures to all corners of the world. My love for travel started at the ripe old age of four, when a midlife crisis uprooted my family to Ecuador for five years. Since then, I've been to countries on 4 different continents. When I'm not blissfully on the road, I reside in New York City, where I become the ultimate travel junkie and spend my days dreaming up my next great adventure! Read More...

16 replies on “Can Travel be Unethical?”

I think you probably already know my opinion on this matter, but yes, travel can definitely be unethical at times! And some might argue that by visiting Israel, you’re engaging in unethical behavior. Unfortunately, ethics seem to be in the eye of the beholder as there are often more complicated things at play.

Personally, I feel it’s important to learn and understand as much as possible about a destination before, during & after a trip. Learning is a powerful tool and a great way to enhance your travel experience.

Ethics are absolutely in the eye of the beholder. As much as a visit to Israel could be construed as unethical, so could a visit to, say, China or Cuba. Heck or Turkey if you think back to the Armenian genocide. Few countries have clean hands. Though I’d argue that you can skirt around the ethics by trying to minimize your financial aid to governments whose behavior you don’t endorse.

I agree though. Learning and understanding as much as possible about a destination will totally enrich your travel experience!

It’s only human so yes, travel as so many other things can be tied to ethics – good and bad. It’s a tight rope but you seem to manage it quite well.

Great case study you posed too. Kudos!

It sure is a tightrope as not only do you need to apply your own ethics to a situation, but apparently everyone else’s too! Glad you liked the post!

Well the funny thing about ethics is that they are open to interpretation. What’s unethical to me may not be to you. My goal here isn’t to so much dictate what people should do but instead to make you stop and think about an aspect of travel that many people like to overlook.

You make some excellent points here. Sometimes people just fly off the handle without getting their facts straight – that’s truly frustrating. I definitely think that some areas of the world are more sensitive than others and we have to be careful to do no harm…but it sounds like you did your best to be responsible in that situation. I usually just ignore hysterical, irrational people =)

I usually try and ignore hysterical irrational people, though I like to thing everyone can be reasoned with. Apparently not in this case… And it’s true that certain parts of the world are more sensetive than others and I don’t just speak of Tibet and the Middle East… I think it’s best to educate yourself about a destination before you go, that way you can make your own informed decisions.

I think Aaron is right and ethics are in the eye of the beholder. The best bet is to do your research so you’re aware, and then be comfortable in the decisions you make. Someone else may do things differently but everyone has their reasons. I struggled with Myanmar last year and ultimately visited because Aung San Suu Kyi was encouraging travel. But I tried to stay away from hotels owned by the government or their ‘cronies’ because that didn’t feel right to me. Whenever you visit somewhere like this though you know some of your money will go to the wrong people, you can only do your best. In saying all of that I’ve happily travelled to China with a ‘blindfold’ as to all the human rights issues there. We are all prone to blindness in some cases I think. Thanks for the thought provoking post!

Why thank you! And you’re definitely right that we all have our moments of blindness. Admittedly, though I visited China after the 2008 Olympics, when there was a lot of press about their human rights violations, it wasn’t exactly in the front of my mind when I traveled there. I was able to meet with a few CouchSurfers in Shanghai who shared tales from their childhood during the Cultural Revolution and also witness coverage of China’s “legislative sessions” on TV (which was a fascinating experience in itself!), but issues about Tibet didn’t come up till I considered venturing that direction.

Whereas when I visited Israel last year, the Palestinian conflict was fresh in my brain as signs of it are everywhere.

I’m sure a visit to Myanmar would be really fascinating. I’m guessing it’s now easier to minimize your spending in ways that benefit the government?

Hey Aaron, it’s definitely not as easy as you think. In fact ownership of property in Myanmar is difficult to trace as there are strange rules about first names and surnames when marrying etc and often different family members have different names. Staying in backpacker and independent accommodation is the best bet, and if you want to stay somewhere nice it’s best to research as best you can. My biggest recommendation is for the Inle Princess Resort, a tranquil and inspiring place on Inle Lake If tourism brings an increase in places like this Myanmar will indeed be better off!

I agree that tourism can be an incredible force for good. The sheer money that tourists often spend in an economy, not to mention the exchange of ideas between people from different parts of the world (one could argue that if everyone traveled slowly and got to know other cultures and how people really are, there would be far less problems in the world today).

What tips do you have for distinguishing between an independent owned hotel and a military owned one? And I would imagine that times have changed a bit in the last couple of years, with tourism not being nearly as restrictive as it used to be.

This article alerted me to the issues with hotels and then I researched individual hotels based on what I’d read. The most wonderful place I stayed was at Inle Lake where the Inle Princess Resort employs locals in an eco friendly hotel where they make their own pottery, woodwork etc, it’s like a little village
It’s such a wonderful country that I would still encourage anyone to travel there

Great post Aaron! Have you read “Travel as a Political Act” by Rick Steves? Very, very interesting book along the same lines as this post. Completely changed my view on travel – and on Rick Steves. Wow can that guy write!

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