Do you travel with morals?

Fushimi Inari Taisha

Fushimi Inari Taisha

Do you travel with morals? The other day, I was looking up flights online to go from Bangkok to Myanmar. Myanmar, or Burma if you wish to use that, used to be under a military junta. It was a pretty horrible one at that as the country was pretty much kept isolated from the rest of the world while humane condition deteriorated. Anyway, they decided to get rid of the military dictatorship, and were supposed to be pursuing a path to a democratic state, even if it was to be a fledgling one. As I was researching up on what to do while in Myanmar, I came upon this article and started thinking. Long story short, I started questioning about traveling and morality.

As tourists, we have the power of the wallet. By extension, whatever we spend money on, it says we support it (you wouldn’t spend money on something you hate and despise right?). This is fine and all if we’re in a country that’s relatively democratized and has amazing human rights record (Sweden). Not so much in other countries.

Let me explain.

Just as with my example above with regards to Myanmar, if we are to hold ourselves on a high moral ground, should we really be patronizing countries that, for a lack of a better word, have horrible human rights? Should we visit Russia for its people and diverse landscape, even if we know we’re helping to pad Putin’s pockets so that he can shoot more missiles at Ukraine?  Should we visit Angkor Wat for its wonders, even if we know that their President is essentially a dictator and has done nothing to improve the country’s dreadful sweatshop environment? Does traveling to the North Korea / South Korea Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) really make sense when we know the people living on the other side are suffering on the same conditions as that of the Jews in the Nazi camps? That’s as if German people were going to Poland to gape and wonder from afar the concentration camps. I can keep going with countries like Saudi Arabia or Egypt, or even the current normalization of American-Cuban relations, but I hope you see my point.  At what point do we let our morals take over to prevent us from traveling? Especially for wanderlustees like us. So I ask again, how does one travel with morals?

The most popular justification that many people use when visiting these countries is that their visit does not mean that they approve of the government. Instead, they reason that their tourist money would be helping the local poor merchants. I would refute this by saying that even before you step foot into the country you’re already contributing to the government coffer. Remember that airfare you paid? Well, if you happened to gloss over the “fees” part of the ticket, then you would have noticed that there was an airport levee.  Guess who owns the airport? Beyond the airport, unless you’re staying in a friend’s home, the hotel or hostel or guest home that you’re staying at will also be paying a certain fee to operate and a certain tax on its income. You will never be able to skip out on giving money to the local government. The more you think about it, the more you question about traveling and morality.

In trying to grapple with this issue, we must acknowledge that every country and situation should be taken ad-hoc, and that generalization here would be counter-productive. Everyone also has their own limit as to how deplorable a government must be before they do not want to visit. While I cannot hope to explain your rationality, I can only offer mine. For myself, I cannot visit countries like China where the government operates with total dictatorship over its people (and that’s not even counting their subjugation and ill-treatment of Tibetans and Uighurs. Neither can I visit countries where homosexuality is punishable with either jail time or death, which is shamefully a lot. Of course, I can’t help but look to my shirt’s tag that says “made in China” without feeling an air of hypocrisy, but the line has to be drawn somewhere right?

This now brings me back to the situation I mentioned above. I stumbled with myself at trying to rationalize if my visit to Myanmar will, overall, be good for myself and for the country. I tried to say that even if some of my money goes to the government, the majority of that would be going to people who are making less than 10 dollars a day. I tried to say that no country is perfect, and that if I try to hold a high moral ground, I might as well stay home.  I tried to say that as a westerner coming from a developed country, I should not try to impose my point of views on others and should instead be patient with them, and even maybe use my visit instead to enlighten the locals with ideas of freedom and human rights! (Condescending much?)

In the end, I weakened, and bought the plane tickets. I mentioned earlier that a line has to be drawn somewhere. And for me that line is this: As long as a country is slowly moving to a progressive society with democratic rights for all shapes and sizes, then I’m okay with supporting it. But as long as that country remains dormant or even backtrack on its human rights record, then I cannot and will not support it. This is the mountain that I’ve made for myself to stand on. I hope that you have your own mountain to stand on as well, however tall or short it may be. I believe it is possible to travel with morality. I hope so. I want so. Do you travel with morals?

 

One thought on “Do you travel with morals?

  1. AvatarOla

    I think you mentioned an important aspect – human rights are based on a set of values developed in the Western culture, as early as the times of Enlightenment. To what extend do those values represent the universal moral truths, if such even exist? To what extend are we justified in spreading enlightenment aka feeling superior, as you say? Human rights is something we, living in the developed world, take for granted. There are still many non-Western countries which haven’t adopted those (eg. in case of women in Saudi). But the perception of western values and their enforcement can never be one-sided and so shouldn’t be the definition of what is or what is not moral. I think this should be a question of how much you, as a tourist, influence that government or the status quo. I still think a lot of the changes in those societies have to happen from the bottom up and no outside intervention/help will substitute that (think how Polish people rebelled against communism and reached democracy through peaceful demonstrations). It can help, but is not a determinant. I would also say that for North Korea, tourism is perhaps the only aspect of that county’s exposure to the outside world and an (albeit indirect) way to let North Koreans know that the West is interested. It is probably more beneficial for travelers themselves, who can ponder on those issues upon return and perhaps perceive the world around differently, taking less for granted. Sure. We are travelers and we like to see the world. But cutting North Korea completely out of the global destination map will not reverse their politics. My argument is that you, as a tourist, are not powerful enough to influence that. What you can do it to go, see, spread the word. Be aware of the situation but don’t necessarily discard it as an “immoral” – those countries which turned towards democracy had to started somehow, right? Let’s hope that will happen for North Korea as well.

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