Little Tibetan Lama,Sichuan,China / Photo: utpala

Some travelers morally object to visiting certain countries with poor human rights records. But is there a case for visiting these outcast nations?

Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Burma, China, and Cuba: just a few of the countries out there with poor human rights records and a history of authoritarian governments.

Some travelers and organizations have advocated a travel ban to such countries, arguing that tourism helps to support the offending regimes.

Does it make us bad global citizens that my husband and I consciously chose to visit these countries and have a few more “rogue” states on our travel wish list?

We think the opposite. Here’s why.

1. Understanding and Advocacy

Father and son play games at their Ippodrom market
stall in Tashkent. Photo: Uncornered Market

It’s difficult – if not impossible – to truly understand a place without experiencing it first-hand and interacting with its people. You can be an advocate without ever having visited a place, but your advocacy carries more context and authority once you’ve traveled there and spoken with people on the ground.

What you see, hear and experience in country will influence, and possibly change, how you think about effective actions that support local people. Share this newfound knowledge and insight with others.

We had read about Chinese business interests in Burma, but it wasn’t until we visited Burma that we understood their importance in keeping Burma’s military officials, literally and figuratively, in business.

Another Matador writer explains how travel is a patriotic act. Her experiences in Cuba provided a sophisticated understanding of this misunderstood country; she now shares this knowledge with others.

2. Reject Isolation

A mother and daughter moment, Burma
/ Photo: Uncornered Market

Authoritarian governments generally want to keep their people isolated from the world. Their strategy is to control their people’s access to outside information and news. This is why they prefer tour groups to independent travelers. Organized tours help ensure that foreign tourists only see the “beautiful things.”

If possible, travel independently. Even if you’re forced to take a tour, find a way to engage with locals. Talk with real people at the market, in the taxi, at your guesthouse, and at street stalls.

We didn’t need to initiate discussions about politics or daily challenges – local people brought the conversation on their own when they felt comfortable with us and in a safe environment. We found locals’ views on their country to be surprisingly complex and nuanced, as were their questions about our home country.

In Turkmenistan, a country almost completely closed off to the western world until 2007, Turkmen people surprised us with their openness and curiosity.

3. Where You Spend Your Money Does Make a Difference

A spin around the vegetables, Turkmenistan
/ Photo: Uncornered Market

It is impossible to prevent every cent of the money you spend from slipping into the hands of the government. However, tourism is the people’s business.

Spend your money consciously: at privately run stores, street stalls and guesthouses rather than government-sponsored hotels, shops and restaurants. We believe the benefits that independent travelers spread by spending their money and sharing themselves with ordinary people outweighs the amount of money the government might collect in taxes and visa fees from your visit.

In places like Uzbekistan and Burma, people we spoke to felt the same. As tourism numbers dwindle, it’s the ordinary people working in guesthouses, restaurants, markets and shops who really feel the pinch. There just aren’t a lot of other job options.

4. Breaking Down Bias

Jose of Cuba / Photo: Sami

The perception we receive about a country often comes from the evening news, front page of a newspaper or the latest movie. Media is in the business of reporting crisis and Hollywood is in the business of creating drama. Countries, and their people, may look ominous and dangerous in this media light, but the reality is often something different.

I’m certainly not immune from these stereotypes. Before traveling to Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, I thought of these areas as dark, evil places where people mysteriously die in prison. (Much of this is due to the fact that I worked for a media organization whose journalists were at risk). I initially resisted traveling to these countries, but my husband convinced me otherwise. And I’m glad he did.

Not to diminish the relevance of the transgressions that do still occur, but there’s more to these countries than their governments’ human rights records.

Like anywhere else, average citizens are just trying to make a living, raise a family and hope for a better life for their children – many times with extreme challenges. This is just as much the story as the rogue governments that run their countries.

5. Experienced-Based Empathy

At the animal market in Kashgar, China
/ Photo: Uncornered Market

When you’ve traveled through a country and have a connection with its people, the news about that place becomes more personal. When our own empathy is rooted in experience, it becomes deeper – we want to help.

Why does this matter? Perhaps this empathy will motivate you to act and become an advocate – to raise money, volunteer, or share your knowledge and educate others.

Even though we did not visit Tibet during our travels across China, the time we spent in two other minority regions – Kashgar (in the western province of Xinjiang with a primarily ethnic Uighur community) and Xiahe (in Gansu Province with a substantial ethnic Tibetan population) – provided the context to understand some of the impacts of the Chinese government’s development actions and attitudes first-hand.

I had seen plenty of “Free Tibet” slogans before our trip, but I now have a deeper understanding of what those signs mean and the nuances of the situation.

Although we’ve decided to travel to these countries with shaky human rights records, each person needs to decide whether to visit countries with governments they may not support.

If you make the journey, it’s even more important to travel responsibly and with an open mind. And don’t forget to share your experiences when you return.

What do you think – do the benefits outweigh the negatives when visiting banned countries?

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