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.
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 Sichuan, China, which, for all intents and purposes is Tibet, without technically being part of what China itself considers to be Tibet.
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.”
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)?