Should You Travel to Countries With Awful Human Rights Records?

The ethics of traveling to certain parts of the world — places where human rights aren’t respected, where a sex trade exists (perhaps illegal but unfettered) or where ‘guest workers’ have their passports taken on arrival and have little choice but to toil in unsafe conditions – can be complicated.

I think it’s difficult, and certainly uncomfortable, for a world traveler to ponder how their choices affect the people they meet. And it’s even tougher to ponder the signals their choices send — does visiting Turkmenistan endorse that regime? Does it provide hard currency that sustains the regime? Is your tourism in some way fostering terrible conditions that people live under?

Sometimes that might be the case, although rarely does one person’s decisions materially affect the situations of people on the ground and rarely would one person’s decisions prop up or undermine an abusive structure.

Still, don’t we have some obligation just not to participate or at least not to derive enjoyment from situations and places that generate misery for others?

Here’s the Freedom House: Freedom in the World 2015 list of ‘Worst of the Worst’:

Without endorsing all of the particulars of this list, since I don’t have sufficient knowledge of each of the countries on this list, it’s certainly eye opening to note the countries on it that I’ve personally visited.

The more I think about it, though, the more I tend to believe that if we are aware of our surroundings, if we pay attention and learn and enrich ourselves through our travel, that may just be the very best way that we can contribute to improving the world and lives of the people we interact with along the way.

There are terrible things that governments do — such as providing weapons to oppressive regimes, giving governments the tools to abuse their citizens, such as propping up those regimes. Learning about the conditions in those countries, bringing that knowledge back home, undermining support for policies of a traveler’s government which support abusive governments, seems like a strong approach.

Traveling increases awareness, if you keep your eyes open. And bringing resources, raising standards of living, tends to correlate with greater freedoms as well. Saying you don’t want to spend your money in an oppressive country doesn’t obviously make the oppressed better off. Sometimes the oppression gets worse when there’s little surplus resources.

Interacting with locals and sharing your own experiences — that there are different social arrangements, that those other arrangements don’t lead to societal destruction but rather prosperity, helps make change from the ground up in those countries thinkable.

What do we owe as travelers? I’d reframe the question away from what we owe, though certainly not to take advantage of systems that allow abuse ourselves, that much goes without saying (don’t go to Thailand looking for underage prostitutes). Instead, what can we do that makes the most difference?

Simply ‘staying away’ and refusing to visit countries with abusive human rights practices seems counterproductive. Sure you don’t want to give your resources directly to oppressive governments. But I think if we want to make a difference then we:

  • Pay attention, learn about the places we visit, get to know the conditions on the ground
  • Get to know the people in the places we travel to, learn their stories and share your own back. Exchange knowledge about how their world works, and how the rest of the world works.
  • Bring back that increased understanding, and use it to inform your own politics and what policies of your government you do and don’t support.

I’m not naïve enough to believe that my travel will change the world, or that my political voice will. I’m also not naïve enough to think that my voice is so important that if I deny my tourism to a country that I will somehow change its policies.

Instead the best I can do is learn about the world around me, use what I learn in forming my opinions and beliefs, and speak out about what I see along the way. I don’t always do this, I’ll be the first to acknowledge that I can fail to measure up. But I can try to be more aware with each trip.

Am I thinking about the ethics of travel the right way? Do you take these issues into account in your own travels?

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. […] So, basically they fail on every issue. Still, there are decent arguments to make as to why the poor human rights record of a country shouldn’t keep you from going there. I think Gary of View From the Wing makes many of them in his recent thoughtful post: […]


  1. Frankly, it sounds like you’re trying to create a reason/excuse to justify your actions.

    If you’ve been to an ‘eye-opening’ number of places on that list, I pretty much am unaware of those visits after being a fairly regular reader of your blog for 5 years (you’ve been to China and…?). So I would not say you are bringing back “that increased understanding, and use it to inform your own politics and what policies of your government you do and don’t support.”
    I would think that if that were what you were doing it, it would come through in your blog, and one would be able to easily figure that out by reading your blog.

    SO while you may think that’s how you think about the ethics of your travel, but if a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

  2. This is absurd, the worst mix of naive libertarianism and even-more-naive liberalism.

    In a previous post from earlier this week you highlight how individual choices don’t move the needle in terms of affecting an airline’s decisions, but rather “a series of changes influences a consumer’s view”. Citizens are consumers of government. As a GMU libertarian you must be well aware of the problems the Public Choice school brings up, most importantly that of concentrated benefits and diffused costs. What does the Public Choice school tell you to expect about the possibilities for change in the sphere of international relations? Furthermore, what does your experience as an American adult in your 50s tell you about the same?

    You say:
    “Bring back that increased understanding, and use it to inform your own politics and what policies of your government you do and don’t support.”
    1 in 3 Americans even have a passport. How many of those read your blog, and how many of that subset would consider wasting their vacation days to travel to any of the hellholes on that list? (for that matter, why don’t you tell us which of the countries on that list you have visited?—10-to-1 odds it wasn’t North Korea.) And how many of those would then prioritize above all else the interactions of the US government with that of those other governments when they go to vote, instead of, say, taxes, immigration, social issues, etc. So absurd!

    This notion of “increasing awareness” and exporting knowledge of different social arrangements, especially to places that may not be suited to the same social arrangements we enjoy in the West, is the most harmful and self-serving yet. Of course everyone knows that exporting democracy (a social arrangement) to the Arab world worked out so well for all the people enjoying the sunny, warm, warming sun of the Arab Spring [/sarcasm]

    Listen, man: you travel to wherever you want to travel, and you don’t have to justify that to anyone, nor even tell anyone about it. But please don’t come all up in your weblog signaling your superiority pretending that your international travel is somehow benefiting the poor oppressed masses of the third-world, or that peddling that same lifestyle to your readers is going to do the same thing. Just tell us why we should get the Chase Sapphire Preferred one more time.

  3. A thoughtful piece, and something that I think about. Not ready to go to Myanmar because of the bad guy ownership of the hotels, but to be honest, not taking credit cards is a consideration as well.

    I felt very bad about the incredibly harsh punishment of a rape victim in the Maldives, but I am going back.

    I certainly feel that it’s a useful blog post – conciousness is always a plus.

  4. I think you raise a very legitimate issue – more nuanced than space would allow. Like so many commercial transactions, our own views temper our “purchase” decisions. One need look only at Chick-fil-A. Why not the same for travel?

    In terms of Tibet, for example, the repression is imposed on the Tibetan people by China. By visiting Tibet (an incredibly beautiful and moving destination) we undoubtedly added revenue to the government coffers, but we were able to appreciate – and talk about later – the repression we saw.

    We are going gorilla-trekking next summer. We chose Rwanda (which admittedly has governmental issues of its own) over Uganda in response to Uganda’s anti-gay legislation. Heck, people do this in the United States by moving conference venues in light of the position on social issues taken by various states. If I can make even an incremental difference in terms of consequences of social policies to which I am opposed by my travel decisions, I am happy to do that.

    There is more to travel than getting good deals and sitting in premium cabins. There is a moral component to our choices as destinations and what we do when we arrive. I, for one, appreciate your raising those issues.

  5. This is something that is going to vary with each person, and with each country, too. For example, given the current situation in Ukraine, I have no desire whatsoever to visit Russia, but would probably go to China given the chance. And I would love to visit Israel, but have no desire to set foot in an Arab country (except possibly Egypt). Other people may make the exact opposite choices, and that’s probably OK. Each person’s comfort level is going to be different, and that’s something no one can really dictate to you.

  6. As with many things, it’s a nasty quandary. I try to avoid the places above partially because they hold limited interest, and partially because of moral objections to contributing money that helps prop up, say, the North Korean government.

  7. As someone that works in Saudi Arabia and has doffed many hookers in Bahrain I feel uniquely qualified to tell the lot of you to sod off. The typical American quandary, no sense of your own insignificance whilst pondering how your travel effects the world.

    The people you meet don’t care about your angst in making your travel choices. They only want your money, then they want you to leave. Get over yourself.

  8. @Drew – so does that mean you’re fine going on trips to North Korea, where your hard currency helps pay for lavish sushi dinners and drunken orgies for the elite while everyone else starves?

    Gary, is there any country in the world that you would not visit due to ethical concerns? Your post reads a lot like an attempt to self-rationalize behavior you want to keep on doing – the logic is strained and it doesn’t read like you’re really being honest with yourself.

  9. I’m not sure I follow the criticism of this post. Why can’t this be a sincere concern of Gary’s? I think this is an important topic and am glad he posted about it.

    I’ve been to China, Cuba and Laos, and am considering a visit to Belarus. I think about the ethics of visiting countries with poor human rights records and hope my minimal impact is, overall, positve, but I know that may be wishful thinking. At the same time, I think our own human rights record is arguably a bit spotty even if we tend to do relatively well in rankings like these. No where is perfect.

  10. If I limited my travel to avoid travel to places where the government doesn’t behave like a saint, then to where can I travel? I wouldn’t even be able to return home to the US. If I could even go abroad …. given most commercially-scheduled, international flights from the US go to countries with a recent history of government violations of some human rights or civil liberties.

    Governments are no saints.

  11. @Kevin S – my point wasn’t to endorse Freedom House, or this particular list, it’s one grouping of countries for illustrative purposes.

  12. When I was in China I had a private tour with just a driver and guide for a day. The guide was surprisingly open and talkative, describing the forced seminar he needs to attend each year, which is mostly political indoctrination, in order to be able to have his job. I asked him what percentage of the Chinese people believe in Communism today. His response was, “Not even the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party still believes in Communism. It’s just a vehicle for staying in power.”

    Of course the fact that he felt safe to say those things to me, a stranger, with a driver he assumed knew no English, means China has advanced just a bit (as shown on your list) compared to what it once was.

  13. I find this topic on-point and one that I have experienced for my charity travel. Not all travel is for vacations, I have been to Uganda 3 times in the past two years. Uganda is a country that is so backwards politically, it’s hard to understand. The stance on homosexuality and views toward women are views that I in no way support. As a mother of a gay daughter, I did think about how my traveling to a country where homeosexuality is “illegal” and anyone suspected is thrown in jail, would impact my work there.

    Ultimately, I made the personal choice to not hold the citizens of Uganda responsible for the backward thinking of their government. My travel there is with children in a school deep in the bush. My presence there and my honest conversations might just have an impact on those children’s thoughts and reasoning in the future.

    For me, I am comfortable with my decision and will continue my travels there. The people are really quite beautiful, generous, and joyful. My life is so much richer for knowing them. Whether I were traveling for a charitable purpose or for my own life experience, I believe my decision would remain the same. I am as careful as I can be regarding my personal safety. Other than that, no country is off limits to me.

  14. I visited the Soviet Union during the mid 1980s as a tourist, and learned more about that country from two weeks there than I had learned from any American high school textbook, which at the time sounded like Ronald Reagan cheerleader manuals. Many friends and colleagues were mortified that I could go there, but I had similar, open conversations with many, many people as DaveS had in China. These are the rare exchange of ideas in oppressive countries that are not monitored by the government, nor filtered by an ideological newsmedia. In that way, they are nothing but helpful.

    As a gay man in some of these countries, I think my role is even more important. Ten years ago, the U.S. was equally oppressive with the LGBT community, locking them up (Texas), ignoring their health crises (AIDS), and failing to provide us our constitutional rights (everywhere – but changing). I know that change can be made, but it takes that exchange of ideas that governments can’t control. The gay venues that I have been to in Malaysia, Russia, Jordan, and Indonesia are important to identity, to solidarity, and to the locals who yearn to learn.

    I do think there are heinous governments that deserve nothing but our contempt, and many of those places will not be on my future travel list for political and other reasons. But like academic or cultural boycotts and sanctions, however well-intentioned, boycotting travel prevents one of the few ways to remove the state from the exchange of ideas.

    There are no hard and fast rules, and everyone has to live with their choices. But when my friends say to me that they won’t visit the United States because of the disproportional number of African Americans incarcerated by the state, or because of American policies in some part of the world, or the fact that until very recently people with HIV were banned from entering the country, I hope that they change their mind. They are always surprised that the U.S. government does not always represent the views of its population, either.

  15. Brody’s got friends in every town and village from here to the Sudan, he speaks a dozen languages, knows every local custom, he’ll blend in, disappear, you’ll never see him again. With any luck, he’s got the grail already.

  16. I like countries where I feel comfortable. Knowing many in the local population are being oppressed and that I can only watch it makes me uncomfortable, especially in a country that is going in the wrong direction like Thailand.

  17. @Joe – 10 years ago the USA was equally oppressive compared to which country? And what friends say to you they wont visit the USA because of the disproportionate rate of incarceration of African Americans? Let me guess – they are Europeans.

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