Is it right to travel to countries with oppressive governments?

A woman and her baby in Tibet

Sharp eyes look over at me from under an olive green helmet. I see fingers momentarily tighten around the but of a tear gas gun. Our guide had said “no photos of soldiers”. I hesitate then slide my camera back into the case. I was aiming at a shop across the street, but don’t want my camera confiscated at the very start of my trip.

Am I giving in to the oppresive nature of Chinese government in Tibet? Well, yes I am. But what would it do any good to snap away and get chucked out? This is a difficult post to write and it’s taken me some time to gather my thoughts. Is it wrong to visit somewhere with an oppressive government, somewhere the locals consider as occupied territory?

In terms of scenery, the wider in picture in Tibet is certainly beautiful. Breathtaking mountains, endless plains, the deepest gorges in the world, everything is on a grand scale. Close up – particularly in Lhasa – you’re as likely to see soldiers marching watchfully down the streets or black-clad para-military police toting sunglasses and shotguns, SWAT emblazoned across their caps.

Round these still soldiers the locals flow like a river around a rock. The odd sidelong glance aside, it’s like they’re inhabiting somewhere else, some other city. And in many ways they are. Except when those realities come clashing horribly together in flames and violence.

Chinese police training in Tianamen Square
Policemen training in Tianamen Square, Beijing. I would not have been allowed to take this photo in Tibet

This train of thought was kicked off by an exchange I had on twitter over whether you should visit the country and whether tourism is helping the Chinese oppress the Tibetans or not. Despite the strong views on either side of the argument, I think it is anything but clear cut.

And this is an issue that isn’t confined to Tibet, it’s been argued bitterly over visiting Burma too. And what should we do about travelling to places like Laos, North Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia? For that matter what about Northern Ireland, Afghanistan, Kashmir and Sri Lanka? All of those places can claim to be occupied by foreign powers, or run by oppressive governments.

Does travelling to those countries as a tourist support the powers that be, or shine a light on the country, making it harder to hide abuses? The answer, as with so much, is something between the two. The money you spend will undoubtedly go into government coffers as well as local pockets. Is the visibility worth that? I’m not sure, but I don’t believe that not visiting a place, not taking photographs of it, not talking and not writing about it helps. That way forgetfulness and apathy lie.

A grubby posse
A wary posse of kids show life is hard in Tibet

Visiting Tibet, feeling its beauty, seeing its people, makes the country more real for me. It makes the abuse and the violence more than just another depressing story on the news. One among so many. This is partly why I ravel. I don’t want become jaded as report after grim report come piling in from around the globe.

This isn’t the only reason I travel of course, it would be disingenuous in the extreme to claim this. I like to see amazing countryside, meet people, experience new places and new ways of living. It may be a cliche, but travel does broaden your horizons, it does help put things in perspective. It also opens your eyes to the way people live, the conditions under which they exist. And that’s important too.

So yes, I think that the more people visit places, the harder abuses become to hide, especially in this age of digital and mobile technology. The more contact there is between locals and outsiders, the harder it is to oppress people. Knowledge really is power. If there are no visitors, it becomes too easy for the outside world to forget what’s happening.

That doesn’t make it any easier when you see the tensions, hear about the abuse and with a little reading – or listening – between the lines, realise the fear locals have of authority in somewhere like Tibet. But, for me, seeing it, being there, does count for something.

14 Responses to “Is it right to travel to countries with oppressive governments?”

  1. Sasa

    Great post Aaron, you show clearly the grey – I feel the same way.

  2. Sarah

    It’s an extremely difficult one. I went to Sri Lanka last year, and found it a magical place, the people were so friendly and everyone I met expressed relief that the war was over. Many people told me I had to visit Jaffna as it was the most beautiful part of the country (I didn’t, although I did visit the east of the country where the military presence was quite startling).

    Closer to home (as I come from New Zealand), I have often thought about whether I would visit Fiji. I try not to buy any products from Fiji. It remains a popular and increasingly cheaper holiday destination, although it is getting more dangerous, with the “unexplained” death toll of foreigners rising.

    I think perhaps tourism can be a force for good. The tourist dollar is important, and governments will modify their behaviour in order to keep the tourists coming in. And the kind of cultural exchange that occurs is a powerful force too.

  3. Mr Noodles

    At the end of the day, it’s all about the people, not governments. Sure you can take a 6th form agit-strop posture on the evils of tyrannical regimes, but who suffers? The Chinese govt? A bit. The Tibetan people? Probably more. There’s a fine balance to strike, and one I think you have struck with this considered post.

  4. The Grubworm

    @Sasa – thanks, I feel quite conflicted about Tibet, but am really glad I went.

    @Sara – it is, isn’t it? I agree about cultural exchange being a powerful force. I think information exchange is as well, not just verbal and digital, but just to see other people, how they act, what they expect etc can be a real force for change.

    @meemalee – I intend to. It’s a country that’s more information-dark than almost any other (except perhaps North Korea). And light shining into it must be a good thing.

    @Mr Noodles – You’re right, it is about the people, and about who suffers.

  5. helen

    I’m not entirely sure it’s helpful to include Northern Ireland on this list. It may be disputed in some people’s eyes but the decision to remain part of the UK was given by the majority of people living there when they backed the Good Friday Agreement, vote for the Assembly and back the politicians who worked to create ceasefires. It might have been a relevant question in 1975, but now?

    One thing I’d say though, if you travel to these places, be respectful. Don’t, for example, go and stare at the sites of massacres like a rubbernecker at a dual carriageway crash. These events are people’s heritage and private grief, not something to tick off on a travel itinerary. If you can behave respectfully (as I’m sure you personally can) then I agree with your points here. If you can’t, stay home.

  6. Pub Diaries

    It’s a question I’ve been asking myself in planning a large trip next year. My conclusion echoes most of the comments made. It’s not about current Governments and regimes it’s about people, cultures, landscapes and history. As long as I don’t go with a blinkered idea that what I’m allowed to see is reality then I can travel with a clear conscience.

  7. The Grubworm

    @helen – thanks for the considered comment. I included NI in that list because it is so close to home and the question for most people (but definitely not all) seems to have been settled. I wanted to provoke a bit of thought on what can be considered oppressive. Although I agree it is not in the same situation as most of those countries I mentioned.

    I am with you 100% on the issue of respect, as a traveller you have to show both sensitivity and respect where-ever you go. And gawping at site that have painful connotations and mindlessly snapping away is a definite no-no.

    @Pub diaries – I would agree with what you say about travelling with open eyes. And I would also say that talking (just generally, not asking awkward questions etc) and mixing with locals where possible is a good idea too. And it makes travelling so much more interesting.

  8. Mzungu

    It’s a difficult one for some people, but as you say it’s about the people and the scenery, and sometimes a few dollars going to local people can make all the difference.
    The Chinese Govt. is promoting Tibet quite heavily for domestic tourism, so the foreign dollar is really a drop in the ocean when you consider that during this Golden Week they reckon around 300,000,000 people are travelling internally within China.

    With Burma, the Govt. earns so much more money through natural resources like gas and oil, that the tourism dollar is again a minor drop in the ocean. But the lower rankings of the military do get to have their fingers in the tourism sector by providing things like the bottled water you would drink. I guess it’s a way of keeping them happy and the high ranking officials in power.

    I’ve found that most of the places I’ve visited over the years that are either war torn or have major internal strife happening are some of the most beautiful spots in the world. War seems to keep mass tourism away and therefore nature flourishes. Just look at what is happening in Colombia these days after now it is deemed safe to visit most of the country. It certainly is on the Gringo Trail now and some of the National Parks are being spoilt.

    But that is tourism for you.

  9. catty

    Great post Aaron! I agree with you – to ignore it is not the solution. The solution is 100% education and information, and letting the world know what is going on. Kudos!

  10. The Grubworm

    @Mzungu – that is a good point about the amount of domestic tourism to Tibet, we saw a LOT of Chinese tourists and no other non-Chinese at all. I agree about war/conflict/oppression keeping tourism away as well, it’s sad but true that conflict often preserves an area’s beauty (at least until it escalates into a major conflagration – then it can ruin an awful lot, just look at agent orange in Vietnam or Afghanistan).

    @catty – thanks, information and education is so often the best way to shine a light on an otherwise dark place.

  11. s

    i agree, too- as the others do, but i come from Pakistan- where my family lives, so i dont really have a choice- though i do get what youre saying. it is just sad and almost ironic that i am reading an article which is so relevant to my own life…

    great piece. really great.

  12. The Grubworm

    @Shayma – we do seem to be reaching some sort of consensus here, although as you say, you don’t really have a choice. It’s interesting, I had not really thought about Pakistan in that way before as it is ostensibly a democratic country. But the more I think about it, the more I can see where you are coming from.

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