Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Uneasy traveller

There are some countries I simply wouldn't visit, however beautiful and unusual they are, because the prevailing poverty and injustice would make it impossible for me to enjoy myself without feeling utterly callous.

I'm always bemused that people can casually jet off to places like Thailand and Burma and apparently be unconcerned about the living conditions of the locals - the sexual exploitation and political repression and grinding penury.

I know it's argued that tourism benefits the downtrodden by bringing money into the country, but in practice much of the money doesn't reach them. It just goes to airlines, hotels and tour operators, leaving most people feeling even more exploited.

Then others say "Well, it's not up to me to decide how a country should be run, that's their business. And if conditions are bad, of course I sympathise but there's nothing I can do about it." But if we can choose between a trip to an oppressive country and a trip to a more civilised one, isn't it just a simple matter of morality and decency to choose the second?

I really wouldn't feel comfortable strolling around with plenty of cash in my pocket, gawping at the scenery and soaking up the atmosphere when the 'atmosphere' consists of wretched souls struggling to eke out an existence and bitterly envious of all the material goodies I take for granted.

And since you ask, yes, I'm all in favour of the UK boycotting the Chinese Olympics in protest against their abysmal human rights record. It's shocking that so many politicians and businesses are resisting a boycott because they're more concerned with trade than human dignity. But then again, what did you expect?


thailandchani said...

Nick, I agree with some of what you say.. and disagree with some.

As for Thailand, I do go there and plan to spend the rest of my life there. Without going into a huge diatribe about Thailand's internal problems, I have a commitment to the place and that's that.

I think we have to be really careful to determine what is propaganda and what's fact. You won't get that from Fox News or CNN.

As for going over and disrespecting any culture by flashing money around and subordinating the people in their own country is wrong. It's wrong on an individual basis and it's wrong on a national basis.

As for the human rights issues, that is something that needs to be addressed on a global scale.

The US isn't lily-white and clean when it comes to human rights abuses, either.

I'm just sayin'

Grannymar said...

I have never been that far east and am hardly likely to get there now. The only thing I know about Burma is that it is where My late husband was injured during WW11.

red said...

I used to feel the same as you do, but my curiousity has got the better of me and I now want to see as many places in the world first hand as I can.

Baino said...

Nick tourism has been Thailand's largest source of currency since 1982 so it's a very important part of the economy. The west coast was completely throttled by the Sunami a couple of years ago and badly needs the tourist dollar which flows through to handcrafts, hospitality and infrastructure. I've been there myself and like so many countries theres the dichotomy of poverty, sex slavery and wealth and stunningly beautiful scenery and buildings. My son is there at the moment and contributing to their growing ecotourism! Most of the tourists to Thailand come from East Asia (including Aust.) I can't help feeling that without the millions of legitimate tourists, they'd be in a bit of a pickle. Agree with China by the way but we'd never boycott due to our total reliance on flogging them resources!

Quickroute said...

I think the only way you can educate yourself to what a country or culture is really like, is to visit it (even as a tacky tourist) and try and mix with the locals as much as possible and hear what they have to say. I believe you learn more about the world thru face to face interaction than you do via the media or hearsay.

Dave Hampton said...

I need to go with the folks who say that the only way to learn about a country or it's people is to go there. I always try to be sensitive to local customs and to fit in rather than run over the culture. That means staying away from the Western attractions like tourist shops and MacDonalds, and trying not to support the destructive aspects of international tourism. I agree that there are ugly and clean ways to be a tourist, and people have to recognize and choose the difference.

Nick said...

Phew, some strength of feeling here! Thanks to all for challenging me!

Chani - I can understand if you're committed to a place despite all its faults, though I'd want to resist them as well. And true enough, the media can give a very distorted view. But isn't it a bit of a cop-out to say human rights can only be addressed globally rather then locally?

Grannymar - Sorry to hear your only acquaintance with Burma is a sad one.

Red - Curiosity is a very powerful motive I must admit. Though you have to be careful it's not just an excuse for overlooking a country's faults.

Baino - But does the tourist dollar reach the people who need it? I hope so. In so many places it seems to end up in the wrong hands, with those who already have the wealth.

Quickroute - Good argument. It's the locals who can tell you what's really going on and whether they want you to visit or not. And yes, media accounts need to be treated pretty sceptically.

Nick said...

Dave - that sounds like a good compromise, to be sensitive to local customs and avoid the Westernised rip-offs. And yes, maybe you're right about going there and getting informed at first hand.

Wisewebwoman said...

I think adequate research/preparation first is key to taking a trip to unknown and suspect parts.
For instance, I did a lot of research on Cuba before going there and managed to bring a (legal) suitcase full of medical supplies and other desperately needed items not available there.
We can be part of the problem in these place or genuinely part of the solution.
And supporting local crafts/cafes etc. is a wonderful way to get to know the people.

Anonymous said...

I would venture that every single country in the world is full of contradictions and unless you see for yourself it is hard to understand. As for poverty tourism is one thing that can often benefit the local economy I guess. I can well imagine that some experiences would be difficult to deal with but that is also the beauty of travel - finding out that the world isn't the same everywhere for better and worse.

Nick said...

www - as you say, we can be part of the problem or part of the solution, and sometimes it can be hard to know which it is. I certainly try to support local businesses wherever I go.

Conor - There's a consensus developing here - see for yourself and support the locals! That's true, dealing with the negatives is all part of the experience. But when does dealing with it become condoning it or trivialising it?

Los Angelista said...

I definitely think we should be boycotting Beijing. We act like they're not communist anymore but they are. And the support of Darfur is awful.

We are definitely guilty of human rights abuses as well but the scale of what goes on in China takes it to a whole other level.

Medbh said...

I would not choose to go to a country where the women are veiled. That may seem closed-minded, but I recoil from the notion that I am responsible for hiding myself and controlling men's desires. If women choose to take the veil, that's their business. Just don't ask me to do it.

Nick said...

Amen to that, Liz. Darfur apart, the way human rights are trampled on in China is incredible. Mass evictions to make way for industrial development, brutal stifling of political protest, you name it. Money holds sway as always.

Medbh - Yes, I don't think I could stomach all that veiling either. And how come the men don't have to be veiled? Why is it only women who're deemed to be lust-inflaming?

Quickroute said...

I agree with the concept of a boycott against an oppressive power from a political standpoint, trade embargo's etc but am torn at a boycott of a sporting event where an athlete's life ambition (possible gold medal) is negated at the expense of what is in essence a bigger battle. Why not let the athletes vote?

Nick said...

Quickroute - that's a powerful argument. As you say, a life's ambition may be involved. Even so, is one person's ambition, which could still be realised later, more important than the interests of an entire population?

heartinsanfrancisco said...

I love to travel but I also feel horrible when I see poverty that I can't help.

In Jamaica I was told not to go far from the beach at Montego Bay. Of course I did, and within a half mile of sumptuous resorts were people living in tarpaper shacks with dirt floors.

Tijuana, Mexico, is heartbreaking because small children are sent to beg from the tourists, and it's impossible to give to all of them.

As for China, I don't think the Olympics should be held in the country which destroyed Tibet and treats its own citizens so barbarically. If the world fails to send them the message that their actions are unacceptable, they will continue endlessly, and we are all compromised.

Nick said...

Heart, how often that happens, that a short distance from the comfortable tourist quarter it's a very different picture of poverty and misery. My thoughts exactly on China - if you ignore their disregard of human rights, it will just go on - and get worse.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

It's particularly sickening to realize that the tourist areas, usually fronting exquisite waterfront, are a facade - and that as a tourist, I'm the one they exist for.

I can't help but feel mortified that the people who actually live there don't have access to their own beaches or the good food that is served to visitors.-- and I'm not wealthy by most US standards.

Nick said...

That's true, the swish tourist areas may be completely artificial but you don't realise unless you start nosing around on your own. And as you say, the locals are expected to make do with whatever's left after the tourists have been pampered.