When, if Ever, Is It Unethical to Visit a Country?

Seven well-travelled writers discuss the dilemma of whether or not to visit nations with oppressive governments.

Article by T Australia

Havana, Cuba, 2017. (Steve McCurry/Magnum Photos)

What should one consider when choosing where to travel? Every destination offers its own appealing reasons for visiting — from its food to its people, from its cities to its historical sites — and there are always the more practical concerns that weigh down any traveler (costs, visas, seasons, flight routes, internet access). But the 21st-century traveler is more knowledgeable than ever before — she must engage in the ethics of where she visits, and why.

Global conflicts are not new, but in a shrunken world, we hear of them much more quickly and in much more detail than we would have a generation ago. This means that even the casual traveler also faces an ethical dilemma when she chooses where to visit. What about a country’s treatment of minorities? What about its freedom of speech or the transparency of its government? And if we do go to a country ruled by a despot or military junta, will our currency benefit the nation’s citizens or only the regime that oppresses them? While there are few widely agreed upon rules for answering these questions, asking them seems increasingly vital. Here, seven travel writers contemplate the ethical ambiguities of travel.

Taseer’s most recent book is “The Twice-Born: Life and Death on the Ganges” (2018). He lives in New York City.

“The other day, driving from Islamabad to Lahore, my driver — a man in his 30s from southern Punjab — asked me if I was married. “No,” I lied easily, as I would automatically have done in half a dozen societies from Indonesia to Morocco. “Should I have been braver,” I asked my sister, “and said, ‘Yes, I am married to a lovely white man from Tennessee, a little taller than yourself?’” “No,” my sister said resolutely. That would not only have been stupid but dangerous.

The question of whether it is ethical to go to a country that persecutes people based on their gender, sexuality, religion or ethnicity is one that I have always answered unethically, which is to say, without an underlying principle that can be applied universally. The truth is that until I moved to New York four years ago, I had never lived with the idea of a unified moral landscape. In the societies where I had lived, the morality was set at many different speeds — what the German political scientist Ernst Bloch calls “the simultaneity of the non-simultaneous,” i.e., the coexistence in the same place of modern, early modern and premodern moral codes and ways of life — and one was obliged to switch between moralities as if between languages.

It was never an option, till I moved to America, for me to be the same person everywhere. What I ate (pork in Pakistan, beef in India), whom I slept with, what substances I consumed and, in my case, whom I married, was privileged information. I would no more tell a driver in Pakistan that I was married to a man than I would tell him I liked bacon with my eggs. Did these moral silos produce a corresponding moral ambivalence? Not at all. If anything, it made me treasure those places where I could be open. But if travel has taught me anything, it is how little people are the sum of their politics.

The wonder of travel, for me, is to reckon with the kindness that can survive in the heart of a religious bigot, or the integrity of someone conforming to a moral system that they believe wholeheartedly but that may be repugnant to us. I do not advocate surrender, but I say: Go everywhere, and watch yourself moving about against a hostile background. We have an obligation to be who we are in full knowledge of what the world is.”

Saro-Wiwa lives in London and is the author of “Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria” 

“How do we define what constitutes an oppressive government? My threshold is perhaps lower than other people’s. I see persecution not just in the obvious regimes, such as North Korea, but in countries such as the United States, where ill treatment may not be codified in law but exists nonetheless. My Nigerian friend’s brother died after being hit with a Taser during a struggle with California police, yet I would still vacation there. Perhaps being a minority on several fronts requires you to live in a permanent state of cognitive dissonance. You learn to override your outrage and exist in places where some people have values you abhor.

My father was also killed, by the military dictatorship in Nigeria, but the idea of discouraging travel to Nigeria never entered my mind. I want people to see Nigeria. I would prefer a halt to the flow of corrupt international bank transfers over a halt to the flow of people, since the former has more power than the latter.

Tourism and the exchange of ideas and exposure to foreigners can challenge and influence local ideological viewpoints over time, especially among the younger generation. Countries that are the least open to tourism often have the worst human rights record.

Of course, it is hard to escape the worry that by visiting places with oppressive laws you are validating the regime of the day. But I believe the benefits of travel outweigh that. And it is possible, in your own small way, to help those suffering discrimination, through donations, information exchange, connections. Tourism need not be apolitical — it’s not where you travel but how you do it.

I do draw the line at places where the oppression is wholesale, such as apartheid South Africa. Sunning oneself on the beaches of 1980s Cape Town, where blacks were dispossessed and excluded, was unequivocally unethical. However, I will soon be visiting Pakistan — land of persecuted Christians. My hosts in the beautiful Hindu Kush do not represent the anti-Christian values of their government, so I feel comfortable going there. I’m looking forward to supporting businesses and interacting with people who may never have seen a black person before. Hopefully I will leave a positive impression of Africans.

Distinguishing between Pakistan and apartheid South Africa may be subjective. But that’s the point: The Golden Gate Bridge may be one person’s symbol of paradise but another person’s vision of hell.”

The Pelkor Chode Monastery in Gyantse, Tibet, 1998. (Martine Franck/Magnum Photos)

Murphy lives in Lismore, Ireland. Her many books have recently been recognised by the Royal Geographical Society.

“Is it a generational thing? In my remote youth, travel was rarely inhibited by ethical considerations. The Iron Curtain of course imposed restraints; otherwise, we applied for visas and roamed lightheartedly.

In 1953, when I set off to cycle around Francoist Spain, no one reprimanded me for condoning fascism. Eight years later, my plan to cycle through the shah’s Iran, en route to India, provoked no shocked protests about Savak. Nor did references to tyrannical emperors disturb my three-month trek through Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia. True, those journeys predated mass tourism, which so many contemporary governments are so keen to promote.

In 2019, should we think twice before spending time and money in Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s Egypt or Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil or Joko Widodo’s Indonesia? It certainly makes sense to ask, “Who benefits if I don’t go to X, Y or Z?” and then, “Who might benefit if I do go and return with useful facts to be used constructively?” Facts about the denial of women’s rights, the persecution of minority religions or gay communities, the indiscriminate felling of rain forests, the ruthless damming of rivers, the anti-peasant collusions between ‘developing world’ governments and corporate agribusinesses.

We are now in that uncomfortable terrain between travel and tourism. Plainly, holidaymakers can’t be expected to probe their host countries’ defects — quite often linked to their home countries’ hypocritical “foreign aid” programs. Undoubtedly, the tourists’ tacit (or unknowing) support for unjust regimes may fortify them. But how can we measure the value of our holiday spending to the tourism-dependent citizens of X, Y or Z? Moreover — and no less important — friendly, outgoing foreign visitors can do a lot for international relations at a grass-roots level. Where to draw the line? Or should any line be drawn? (Space constraints require me to ignore the elephant in this room; one day very soon a thick line must be drawn under budget-flight mass tourism.)

When the Chinese government opened Tibet to foreigners, everyone expected me to rush to Lhasa. But I didn’t want to go. My time working with Tibetan refugees in India and Nepal had drawn me close to their culture, and it would have deeply distressed me to see its vestiges superficially ‘restored’ as tourist bait. However, my motive for eschewing this ravaged country was personal and emotional, not a matter of principle. Should I be ashamed to admit that ethical scruples have never curbed my wanderlust? Or can we agree that this newish debate is best left to the individual’s conscience?”

Oshodi Bus Station in Lagos, Nigeria, 2013. (Alex Majoli/Magnum Photos)

Mehta is author of “This Land Is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto,” out this June from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 

“All nations are imperfect, but some are more imperfect than others. Should you boycott Myanmar because of its treatment of the Rohingya, or Israel because of its treatment of Palestinians? How about Slovakia for its treatment of the Roma, or the United States for its treatment of African-Americans? Which glass house do you live in, and where would you like to direct your stones?

I lived and taught in Abu Dhabi for a semester, not because I am in sympathy with the regime there, but because I am a reporter, and I wanted to see firsthand how the 88 percent of the nation’s population who are migrants are treated there. And I’ve written about their situation in my book. There’s a difference between a reporter going into a country with a troubled human rights record to write about the situation there and a tourist going to prop up a dictatorial regime with their hard currency.

But there’s a little bit of a reporter in every tourist. You might not like the policies of the Venezuelan junta, but you might want to witness firsthand the situation on the ground, unfiltered by media reports of whatever political orientation.

If you go to a country with an oppressive regime, you are morally obligated to step out from your five-star hotel, if you should choose to stay there, and speak to ordinary people, and carry the news back home to your friends and family — who might then call their representative or write a letter to an editor. You can’t just be there for the food and the sights because otherwise you really are funding tyranny. But if you mix in a little bit of reporting with the sightseeing, you can be, in your own way, an agent of change.”

Kulish has reported from more than 40 countries on five continents for The New York Times, as the Berlin bureau chief, an East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi and now as a member of the paper’s investigative team. He is the author of the novel “Last One In” and co-author of the history book “The Eternal Nazi.” 

“I confess I am largely numb to the question of when it is ethical to travel somewhere. As a foreign correspondent for The Times, you internalise the dictum “something bad happened; go there.” Terrorist attack? Civil war? Invasion? Catch the next flight. Revolt, protest, natural disaster? Get as close as you can and report back

So stumbling out of covering an insurgency in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, I didn’t ask myself whether I should be subsidizing President Paul Kagame’s orderly but repressive regime in Rwanda. I just wanted to see a silverback mountain gorilla double-bass-drum his chest before they went extinct. Should we have gone to Uganda, where the infamous Anti-Homosexuality Act of 2014 was about to pass, or back into war-torn eastern Congo? Those are the only three places you can visit these rare animals.

I was reluctant to pay entry at the Hezbollah Museum in southern Lebanon, but more out of fear of running afoul of American laws prohibiting material support for terrorism than any deep ethical examination I undertook. A friend paid the entry for our group. Once I had watched their videos, looked at the mannequins posed like life-size action figures in an underground bunker and spoken to the staff at the largely empty museum, a better understanding of their motivations, of their narrative, dawned on me. And while I can’t say whether arguing with the Hezbollah tour guide about the deaths of innocents had any effect on his views, it was better than not trying, wasn’t it?

None of us are pure until we’ve ditched the conflict minerals in our phones, ensured none of our vast array of Chinese products were made with forced labor and siphoned the Saudi petroleum from our gas tanks. Everyone has to set the priorities for their personal sanction regimes, whether that means dutifully checking Human Rights Watch and Freedom House each time before visiting Orbitz or just refusing to stay at the Beverly Hills Hotel until the Sultan of Brunei changes his tune on gay rights.

My wife and I decided not to include Myanmar on a trip to Southeast Asia. Sunset selfies with burning villages in the background went too far. But the Cambodian and Vietnamese governments benefiting from our visits to Angkor Wat and Halong Bay could not be described as wholly innocent either. Irresponsible travel is possible anywhere. I lived in Berlin during the heyday of dating app pics at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, inspiring Grindr Remembers and later Yolocaust.

Because of what I do, I have to believe in transparency, the exchange of ideas, the good that I can do by bearing witness, engaging and writing about it. But maybe I’ve just developed a blind spot, or more like a beautiful filter, to smooth away the flaws in the trips I’m already taking.”

The Enduring Power of a Low Bun

If it’s rare to see a person over a certain age wearing a topknot, it’s because it conveys a certain uncouth youthfulness.

Article by Hannah Goldfield

In the admittedly small taxonomy of buns, the topknot, or the high bun, is the bun that tends to hog the spotlight. “Look at my hair!” it screams, perched like a papal crown. It’s the universal symbol of ballerinas; of young starlets parading their sex appeal; of flight attendants going for a vaguely retro look (an attempt, perhaps, to evoke a time when air travel was glamorous); of a certain brand of self-consciously sensitive bro.

If it’s rare to see a person over a certain age wearing a topknot, it’s because it conveys a certain uncouth youthfulness, a sense of unseriousness, a need to provoke. In this regard, another bun — the low bun, with hair wound into a spiral or folded into a loop — might seem its polar opposite. In ancient China, the style was adorned with flowers or jewels, and while considered a status symbol, it was also thought to be matronly, literally — a look worn only by married women.

In Hollywood, there were many decades when the low bun was associated with a decidedly practical, puritanical, even schoolmarmish look: Think of Olivia de Havilland as the boringly sensible Melanie Hamilton in “Gone With the Wind” or sweet, frumpy Auntie Em in “The Wizard of Oz,” her weary face framed by wiry grey hair, pulled back and firmly coiled. It’s the sort of hairstyle that fits perfectly under a bonnet. (The Wicked Witch of the West’s bicycle-riding Kansas counterpart, Almira Gulch, wears one, too, jutting out beneath her stiff straw hat.) The low bun wasn’t just asexual: It was an erasure of femininity altogether.

Phioto by Daria Shevtsova.

In recent years, though, the low bun has been reclaimed, just as a certain kind of womanhood has: Why should looking like a wife or mother (or a woman who simply needs her hair out of her face) have a negative connotation? Who says it’s not sexy, or better yet, commanding? In a modern context, the low bun — worn loose or tidy, hastily done or carefully coifed — is a shortcut to elegance, conveying not stuffiness or seriousness so much as a hint of refreshing formality: sleek, chic and versatile, feminine without being fussy, drawing attention to the face without requesting attention outright.

In an age in which having a signature uniform conveys both style and ambition, a suggestion of having better things to do, the low bun is the fail-safe solution. If eyeglasses are a quick code for ‘smart’, the low bun, sometimes known as a chignon, has become the equivalent for ‘sophisticated’ — but unlike, say, the French twist, it offers the added benefit of not making you look like you’ve tried too hard.

The low bun looks good on everyone, and it’s also eminently achievable. It works on clean hair and greasy hair, straight hair and curly hair, long hair and relatively short hair, with a side part or with a part down the middle. It takes virtually no skill: You simply sweep the hair back at the nape of the neck (is there a body part more poetic or demurely beautiful, both in name and in form?) and use an elastic to twirl it around into a neat whorl. The idea of effortless beauty can seem like wishful thinking at best — but if there’s a single practice that comes close, it’s the low bun.

The low bun is also as fitting for an everyday power-dress uniform (Jenna Lyons, the Olsen twins) as it is for a glamorous affair (Gwyneth Paltrow’s iconic 1999 Oscars look) or even a funeral (Michelle Pfeiffer mourns stunningly in one in Darren Aronofsky’s controversial movie “Mother!”).

The low bun needs no ‘moment’; its moment is anytime, and always. Which, in a blink-and-it-changes culture, is the sign of real power.