A break from my never-ending Asia Trip Report series for something a bit more serious….
This morning, two different bloggers posted about traveling to places with atrocious human rights abuses, so that they can stay in fancy hotels and take pictures for their blogs. Lucky acknowledged that the United Arab Emirates has practices that are “close to modern day slavery”, but made no apologies for his visit there, saying people should still go to places they find morally repugnant *once* “in hopes of learning something from the experience.” Only repeat visits should be subject to any sort of moral consciousness test. Without going all litigator on that post, suffice to say I find this thinking itself morally repugnant. It also ignores the fact that most people do not have the luxury of traveling to places *more than once*, nor do they have legally questionable tax situations arising out of their jet-setting ways, nor do they have airlines paying for their flights. A similar approach was endorsed by Gary over at his blog, but with a slightly more missionary flavor.
My response is much simpler. If you find there to be a major problem with a country, say, the fact that the workers who will be waiting on you hand and foot are “modern day slaves,” do not go there for a vacation. If a country’s laws and culture actively oppress minorities, women, or dissent, don’t go. Basic of economics – if people wouldn’t spend money on hotels that treat their workers poorly, on sex tourism, etc., the supply would go down. Mega-hotels are not built in a day; they’re built because there’s a demand to fill them. A lot of regimes do think that their popularity amongst Western tourists is a sign of tacit approval of the systems in place there. And the idea that your little first class adventure to a fancy hotel is going to communicate why they really should be treating people better — or help you understand the country better — is laughable. If the purpose of your trip, of course, is to effect change or factfind for future action, sure. But that’s not what travel bloggers are usually talking about.
Of course, I agree that every city/country has a “dark side.” But if a practice is so prevalent that gives you pause to go, don’t go. And my own rule of thumb applies domestically as well as internationally. I recently did not stay at a hotel hosting a conference I attended because of the company’s atrocious labor practices. For me, my sense of justice and right is far more important than any silly little trip I do, or getting a nicer welcome amenity.
Two other policies that I’ve adopted for myself in trying to be a socially responsible traveler.
First, I’m often asked about my carbon footprint. I have a rule that I will not do a true mileage run — i.e., fly somewhere and turn around, without leaving the airport. I will spend at least one night in my given destination and use cheap/mistake fares to plan mini-vacations. In the end, given that I walk to work and do not drive a car, live in a shoebox, and take public transportation when traveling most of the time, I’m pretty comfortable that my carbon footprint is not a significant issue.
Second, I am out. Unlike a number of travel bloggers, I am open that I am a gay man. How is that relevant here? One, I have always believed that LGBT people have a responsibility to be open, particularly if their sexuality has nothing to do with their line of work. People’s views on LGBT rights are influenced by knowing other LGBT people. Anyone with a platform has a responsibility to acknowledge their sexuality, and the fact that it matters. Having traveled the world as a gay man – both single and as part of a couple – it’s mindboggling when I see other bloggers omit the very real considerations that go into travel as an LGBT person. To edit out a major part of your life, and a major part of the travel experience, makes me very sad. If you’re open enough with the world to show us the bed you’re sleeping in, you should be open enough to acknowledge the gender of your travel companion and the nature of youre relationship.
Two, when I travel some place, I research how it treats LGBT people – both travelers and locals. One reason I really didn’t want to go to Malaysia was its position on homosexuality. I ended up spending 2 nights there without incident, but I regret it and will stick to my guns more in the future. For those who don’t realize it, there are more than 70 countries where homosexuality is illegal, including the Seychelles, Mauritius, Belize, Antigua, Jamaica, the UAE, and Singapore — often punishable by death or life sentences. I can’t in good conscience travel to those places– no matter how good the deal — and like to think I wouldn’t even if I were straight — even to countries that do not enforce the bans on consensual activity as to foreign tourists. I avoid countries where my boyfriend and I would be subject to arrest for living our lives. I also refuse to travel to other anti-gay places, even those with no formal prohibition on homosexuality, such as Russia. In a perfect world, I’d love to travel to St. Petersburg and Moscow — but not so long as oppression continues the way it has.
Finally, I’ll admit there is a practical relevance to being openly LGBT. For the most part, I don’t feel any differently about traveling to a place that treats women, racial, or religious minorities as less than humans than I do about traveling to places that treat LGBT people that way. The one exception likely comes in places with no formal structural discrimination or human rights abuses. Before I travel somewhere, I want to know, will there be a problem if I check into a hotel with my boyfriend and ask for 1 bed? Fortunately, I’ve never had a problem with this, and the one place I thought we did get the stink-eye was here in the Northeastern U.S., at a major hotel chain (though my boyfriend insists I imagined it).
I acknowledge I probably care more about human rights, wage slavery, and general social justice more than many other travelers. But I don’t see a need to make tradeoffs between traveling cheaply to amazing places and being true to my values. Anyone who makes that trade-off is making a choice to do so.