Tourism and troubled places
Should western tourists visit troubled and undemocratic places?
A family member recently visited Uzbekistan. She had read up on the cultural and architectural history for the primary purpose of the visit was to see and photograph the mosques and architectural sites and oases associated with the Silk Route. It was only when she returned home that she learned more about the troubled political life of the country. Torture, according to Human Rights Watch, is a wide-spread and indeed ‘routine’ feature of the justice system. When she read of some of the repressive tactics of the government in its dealings with citizens she felt that she may have decided not to go to Uzbekistan or at least that if she had decided to go then the visit might have had a different orientation.
This is a question that I myself faced directly nearly forty years ago when working as a very young civil servant in recently-independent Botswana. To the south and east was South Africa, to the west, South African administered South-West Africa (modern-day Namibia) and to the north was UDI Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), all unacceptable regimes. Access to Botswana from overseas was in those days via South Africa. It was the period of grand apartheid. From time to time I had to go to South Africa as a part of delegations working on Botswana government business. Working in Botswana seemed worthwhile (a decision that I have never had reason to regret) and I approved of its non-racial and democratic approach to life. The country’s aims stood in sharp contrast to those of the racist regimes with which it was surrounded. Visiting South Africa was a necessary part of that decision. I decided never to go to Rhodesia during UDI as the UDI-regime was illegal and had not been inevitable. It took me over two-decades to stand in Zimbabwe and look in awe at the Victoria Falls and to meet, in Harare, a Zimbabwean family with whom I am still very close. Over several later visits I grew to love the high veldt but given recent developments in Zimbabwe and its political and economic mismanagement, I would be unwilling, once again, to go as a tourist. My very private ‘stand’ (I only ever mentioned it then when asked to join groups going on a visit) from the late 1960s was no doubt inconsistent, given the wider context of Southern Africa, and insignificant, given the daily sacrifices made by those who opposed apartheid in South Africa. It was based on a compromise (and costs in opportunities foregone) with which I could live and which made sense to me.
I recently visited the Democratic Voice of Burma: Let’s talk page: http://english.dvd.no/letstalk.php?id=20 On the 24th January, the day I visited, the topic was: ‘Should tourists stay away?’ This topic echoed my family member’s concern about the visit to Uzbekistan. Burma (Myanmar) is under a long-standing military junta or the State Peace and Development Council as it now terms itself. Democratic opposition is not tolerated. There is no free press. Many democratic leaders are detained in prison or under house arrest. In recent months, even Buddhist monks have been subjected to persecution for political opposition. According to the website, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, a key democratic leader and Nobel Peace prize-winner, persecuted by the regime, has suggested that tourists stay away as any visit would be ‘tantamount to condoning the regime’. In the UK, trade unions and international charities have also called for tourists to stay away. This call is part of a wider strategy to urge further sanctions as a means of achieving regime change in Burma.
So here we have different countries, time periods and contexts and different levels of discussion (personal and full-blown ‘political’) but the question is the same. Should western tourists stay away from undemocratic and troubled societies? What regimes would be ruled out and what allowed? Are there different ways of being ‘a tourist’ that do not imply ‘condoning’ a given regime? Are there working compromises that can be made? Are there any considered views out there?