Many people around the world believe that travel and politics shouldn’t be mixed. Travel is usually something fun, politics (very often) is not. Similarly, travel blogs are usually a place where people want to come and read about what to do at various destinations – not about what those countries might or might not be up to.
So, why put the two together? Politics is everywhere. While many believe that politics is about having a firm ideology, that isn’t always the case. It’s about so much more.
For example (as mentioned by VitaminStree), even the simple act of buying fair trade coffee (and having easy access to it), is political. This is because it is governments who dictate how food is grown, stored, and distributed and accessed. So every time you take a sip of that coffee, you’re taking a stand on any number of policies. From where you shop to the education you receive and even who you marry, every decision you take adds up to some kind of political choice.
So it should come as no surprise that even our travel choices are a political act
Much like coffee, travel doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The places we decide to visit, the things we do and eat, the people we meet – all of them have consequences.
Myanmar (previously known as Burma), is known for its lush forests and many Buddhist temples; but, the government is also infamous for its religious clashes and the continued persecution of Rohingya Muslim minorities (that has led the UN to accuse them of ethnic cleansing) which has continued even after the landmark 2015 election that brought Aung San Suu Kyi’s political party to power instead of the previous ruling military juntas.
This ethnic conflict has resulted in the world’s longest ongoing civil war where the government is said to have allowed state-sanctioned torture and rape and the burning down villages. Both sides have also been accused of various atrocities, such as planting landmines, using civilians as slave labour, and using child soldiers.
Cuba & Ecuador:
Cuba and Ecuador are both popular destinations that faced major issues that severely impacted tourism. Cuba with Fidel Castro’s ascent to power and, Ecuador with unregulated tourism that threatened the biodiversity of the Galapagos Islands.
Another destination fraught with controversy is Libya, once known for its beaches and ancient archaeological sites, it became synonymous with Muammar al-Gaddafi, terrorism, and decades of cultural repression. After a devastating civil war in 2011 centred around Benghazi and Tripoli, the country is once again torn apart by conflict involving rival parliaments tribal militias and jihadist groups. Meanwhile, terrorism within Libya has seen a steady increased
The LGBTQ community of Israel has recently been up in arms, protesting the denial of surrogacy rights for gay couples. Yet, the country’s government uses gay tourism to propagate a more progressive image of the country. There is also the ongoing issue of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and the conflict between Jews and Arabs in the region.
Similarly, Sri Lanka became known for its associations with wartime genocide and human rights violations after the conflict with the separatist Tamil Tigers. The country recently been promoting tourism to its many ancient sites and great natural beauty (one more successfully than the other).
In recent years, India has seen an increasing rise of nationalist politics, with incidences of political parties instigating communal violence on the rise along with cases of sexual assault. In 2019 the right-wing government locked down the Kashmir Valley, cut-off communication, and placed its former political leaders under house arrest. They continued to arrest local protestors and journalists, before eventually revoking the region’s special status to “help end violence and militancy in the state and enable people to access government schemes”.
Amidst concerns about the risk of escalation, infringements on civil rights and reports of detentions, that might inflame tensions, the country’s Supreme Court of India ordered disputed land in Ayodhya that once held the Babri Masjid to be handed over to a trust to build a Hindu temple, with alternate land allocated for the purpose of building a mosque. Later in the year, the government passed the contentious Citizenship Amendment Bill (and the proposed National Register of Citizens) that will grant or deny citizenship on the basis of religion to illegal migrants, however, it excludes regions of the North East; it also includes a provision to cancel citizenship for overseas citizens of India in the case of even minor violations of the law
Russia is almost infamous for its litany of political controversies and of human rights violations. From its annexation of Crimea to its many targeted killings and assassinations and discrimination and persecution of the LGBT community, the Russian government is
Zimbabwe is infamous for its conflict diamonds. Until recently, the country’s authoritarian regime under Robert Mugabe was responsible for widespread human rights violations. This included brutal attacks on the opposition, discrimination against women and LGBT communities, and restricted civil liberties. Additionally, there have been reports of an increase in exploitation and human trafficking of Zimbabweans, exacerbated by declining socio-economic conditions. Following the 2017 army led coup d’état, Mugabe’s vice president Mnangagwa was sworn in as Zimbabwe’s new president after a divisive election.
Zimbabwe has also seen a major rise in deforestation, causing erosion of its agricultural lands, and in poaching, which has severely affected the number of black rhinoceros in the region. Poor mining practices have also led to toxic waste and heavy metal pollution that affects both humans and animals.
Famous for its rich wildlife, Brazil is home to Amazon rainforest, the most biodiverse region in the world. However, the recent election of the Bolsonaro government has seen a sharp increase in deforestation of the rainforests. Apart from seriously impacting the indigenous people who live in the Amazon, these fires will create carbon emissions that could contribute to global warming. This resulted in a record number of wildfires in 2019. The President initially blamed this on NGOs and refused to international calls to take action and even rejected international aid.
After massive protests against the Brazilian government, measures were finally put in place to stop the fires, which were likely set by humans (unlike those in 2016 which were also due to droughts). President Bolsonaro has also said that he would be in favour of opening areas in the Amazon to mining.
While the Amazon fires were widely reported in the international press, Brazil has also seen a huge surge in violent crime, drug trafficking.
Also in South America, there has been a major socio-economic crisis in Venezuela under Nicolás Maduro (and his predecessor, Hugo Chávez). Amidst various protests, the country saw a serious shortage of medical supplies, food, and other basic goods often leading to violent confrontations, authoritarianism, and human rights violations. These are a direct result of populist policies, corrupt practices, and few checks on presidential power.
Tibet was incorporated by the Chinese government in 1959, forcing the Dalai Lama and his government into exile in India. Subsequently, there have been concerns about its abuses of human rights. Contentious issues include lack of freedom of speech, arbitrary arrests, and political and religious repression.
Once a British Colony, Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997 and governed as a special administrative region, separate from that of mainland China. Popular with both domestic and international tourists, the country has had a tense relationship with mainland China which has only escalated in 2019 after a proposed extradition bill. This would then allow the extradition of criminal fugitives wanted in territories where Hong Kong doesn’t currently have extradition agreements, such as Taiwan and mainland China; which led to concerns that Hong Kong residents and visitors would then be subjected to the mainland Chinese legal system, thus undermining the autonomy and the civil liberty of the region.
Hundreds of thousands of people have been protesting the move, leading to many confrontations between protesters and the police. Even after the bill was finally withdrawn, the Chinese government refused to release previously arrested protesters and continued to call the protests “riots”, causing the confrontations to escalate, with police employing brutal force (leading to allegations of police misconduct) and protestors resorting to radical methods.
The People’s Republic of China is a destination famous for its many cultural and natural sites, and for being an emerging economic powerhouse. However, under the leadership of the Communist Party of China, the country has garnered criticisms for its censorship of political speech and information, mass surveillance, religious repression, human rights abuses, and suppression of protest.
The persecution of practitioners of Falun Gong and the mass detention of members of China’s Muslim Uyghur minority in re-education camps, as well as other human rights abuses in Tibet and Xinjiang which include violent police crackdowns and intimidation foreign reporters, are just some of the many issues raised in recent years.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo is home to the rare (and endangered) mountain gorilla but is also known for conflict and the indiscriminate poaching of these animals.
The middle eastern country is currently trying very hard to attract tourists, with new luxury resorts, preparing incredible historic and natural sites, e-visas and relaxed dress codes. However, things haven’t always been this way. The country has had a terrible record with women’s rights, with the religious police imposing restrictions that amounted to a limited ability to even leave the home.
While things have been slowly changing under crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman in an effort to change the world’s perception of the country. Termed “Saudi Visio 2013” this includes finally allowing women to drive, vote, run businesses, and travel without a male guardian and restrictions imposed on the religious police), there are still many things to keep in mind: from the recent disappearance and alleged brutal assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi who criticized the regime to the imprisoning hundreds of businessmen, officials and royals without trial in an anti-corruption move, to the country’s wars in Yemen and Qatar.
In recent years, Iran tourism has seen a slow increase in numbers, though this could be in doubt after the last year’s controversy over the Iran Nuclear Deal. Recently, there also has been a heightened risk of political demonstrations due to inflation and increases in the fuel price. The Iranian government has been accused of employing lethal tactics to shut down the protests including shooting at peaceful protesters with live ammunition, confiscating bodies of the dead protesters, an internet blackout
What do you do when you find out that one of your must-see destinations is a hotbed of controversial politics, human rights violations, or known for unethical animal practices?
Do We Boycott These Places Or Not
So, we can see that choosing to visit Myanmar, or Egypt, or China, or Iran, you’re making a statement about politics. Even if you avoid travelling to, say, Sri Lanka, or Russia, you’re still making a statement about politics.
Many visitors worry that travelling to these places merely puts money in the hands of these controversial governments. The obvious solution to all these ethical issues is to refuse to travel to these destinations. This way, you can be sure that you’re not supporting unethical practices or funding corrupt governments.
Tourism is a vital part of the economy of many countries, making tourists a powerful socio-economic force. But what happens when this tourism money goes away? In many instances, boycotting a destination for ethical or political reasons has changed the world (for example it helped abolish apartheid in South Africa). But, in many cases, it may not always be the best practice.
This doesn’t mean that you ignore all the country’s issues and travel there anyway, but rather that you make an informed decision about where you choose to go.
What Can We Do Instead?
Travel has the potential to change the lives of the people we visit. Oppressive regimes tend to work best when the world is in the dark about their practices, and shining a spotlight on them can both help raise awareness and make extreme violence less likely.
It can also bring people access to world news and different ideas and beliefs, bringing awareness of human rights, endangerment of species and so on. Boycotting may also harm those whose livelihoods depend on it. Tourism provides direct employment to tens of thousands of innocent civilians and staying away harms their ability to earn a living.
There are lots of ways to visit your favourite destinations while refraining from promoting iffy practices. You could avoid certain experiences (such as captive animal experiences) or government-run businesses and hotels, instead choosing to empower local businesses.
Travel is an excellent way to expand your horizons – it changes the way you see the world by exposing you to things you might not otherwise see and do, even when all you plan is a light-hearted and fun trip somewhere. Travel is inherently political. There’s just no way around it.
Ultimately, the choice is up to you. While some people travel to relax and forget, for some, immersing themselves in another culture is a better way to change the world than by staying away and avoiding the world’s problems.
This obviously does not mean that you put yourself at undue risk or do anything that can get you in serious trouble. If you’re planning to go somewhere known for such practices, be sure to stay informed so you can make a decision from a place of awareness.
So what do you think? To boycott, or not to boycott? Let us know in the comments below.