October 01, 2006

Tourism in a dictatorial regime.

This evening on the Radio 4 program Feedback Sandi Toksvig the comedian and presenter was interviewed about a travel program that she did for the BBC about the Sudan. Toksvig had sold the idea of people going to Khartoum, the capitol of the Sudan (a version of the travel item is available on the website linked to above) and the program was concerned with whether you should sell the idea of people going to a place like Khartoum during a time like this- when massacres are happening in Darfur.

What was interesting about the broadcast was the issue which has become of increasing salience over the last couple of decades as transportation networks have improved, how should we travel? Should we only holiday in those places that are ethical to holiday in or does it not matter? There is a problem here- many governments in the past and now have relied upon the foreign currency that tourists bring with them- consequently through the dollars and pounds brought into a country tourists subsidise the regime. Furthermore they can become the willing stooges of a government committed to propaganda. Aung Sung Suu Kyi gave another important reason in an interview saying that the local people had built resources that they couldn't use.

Naturally there are problems with going to countries with bad human rights records but I would argue that even there, there are merits in going which outweigh the bad things noted above. Firstly isolation breeds support for dictatorships- dictators need enemies and thrive upon them as a means to create support so conversely the more people see Westerners or others around, the less easy it is to demonise the governments or peoples when they criticise the regime for human rights abuses. Secondly visitors who discuss things can open up avenues to residents of a country- the vision of a man who doesn't beleive in God I know stunned Iranians when a friend of mine visited last year, they didn't know that such a thing existed and was not a devil. Thirdly the foreign currency brought in might enrich the government but it also does two other things: it binds the government into world networks for whom participation means increased human rights and secondly it does profit local people.

All of these criteria vary from country to country- going to a society with free speech but no human rights is different from going to North Korea. So what we have is a scalar- obviously Toksvig speaks ludicrously when she says that she would have gone to Sudan but not to South Africa (Darfur is probably worse than Soweto) yet her underlying principle is right- this blog ends up sitting firmly on the fence- travel is a matter of nuance.