Cuba. Syria. North Korea. Myanmar. China.
You’ve heard the names and the stories. Their governments are abhorred by the international community for being repressive, authoritative, and sometimes bloody.
They limit access to information, movement, and education. They limit the freedoms of their people and hoard the country’s wealth while their people suffer in poverty.
Since Cyclone Nargis and the chaos in Tibet, world attention on these countries has become more sharply focused.
As I recently wrote about Tibet, boycotting China only encourages a hard line. The same is also true for these repressive countries. Boycotting only hurts the locals and keeps these regimes in power by limiting the people’s access to the information that may foster change.
Should we travel to these places? Will our travel, however tightly controlled, help the people or the government in power?
This is a complex and personal issue but, in my opinion, the benefits of traveling to these countries outweigh the negatives.
Travelers expose the people who suffer under repressive governments to ideas they can’t otherwise access. Depriving them of that information keeps them uninformed and helps the government to continue its stranglehold. A vibrant travel industry can also bring money they desperately need to survive.
People are understandably worried that their travel might be viewed as support for the government but by avoiding these countries.
Can we travel without supporting the government? Yes, here’s how:
Avoid government run organizations.
Governments have their hands in all the cookie jars. They run bus services, tourist offices, tours, hotels, and most everything else. It can be difficult to avoid them but it can be done. Find an operation not owned by the government, no matter how bad, and go there. Look for independent people offering rooms, rides, or guides. Support them.
Give money to aid organizations in the country, temples, schools, or other charities that help the people directly.
Love thy neighbor.
Be kind, be gentle, be polite. Doing so will show the locals you aren’t the “boogie man” government propaganda makes you out to be. It will help counter the government propaganda machine. It will show them that the outside world isn’t so scary.
This is the best way to offer direct assistance. Build a house, teach children, or help the sick. Whatever you do, it will be appreciated and directly improve the lives of the local inhabitants. Helping through Volunteer tourism will last longer than money and give the people something they can use years to come.
Follow the rules.
Following the rules is extremely important. Not only does this keep you out of trouble, but it also helps counter the propaganda that all foreigners are trouble makers. Governments would love to parade you around as a rabble rouser. Don’t give them that chance! It gives them an excuse to tighten their grip and further limit freedoms, movement, and information.
They need that dollar more than you do. As a backpacker, I know how a tight budget feels, but the victims of years of repressive policies need the cash more than you. By donating to them, you help improve their lives directly as well as show them a kindness they normally don’t see.
Travel shouldn’t only be about expanding your own mind, but also the minds of the locals you meet – and everyone is entitled to that opportunity.
Don’t punish the people of these countries because their governments are repressive – go and show them that there’s a bright world out there…and we want them to be a part of it!
Do you think traveling to repressed countries is better than boycotting them? Share your thoughts in the comments!