My passport has got more than a few stamps from oppressive countries; Cuba, Libya, Mali, and pre-revolutionary Egypt. Burma isn’t one of them, but Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit to the UK might change that.
When I asked the Which? Travel team which oppressed countries they had visited, the list got longer. China, Fiji, Jordan, Malaysia, Mali, Oman, Russia, Thailand, Tunisia, and Turkey were all cited as examples of countries ruled by oppressive regimes that had provided enjoyable visits.
None of us has a stamp from Burma or Tibet, both of which are in the news as the first country opens up to tourism and the second is closed off.
Would you visit Burma or Tibet?
Tibet’s spiritual leader the Dalai Lama is visiting Manchester, London, and Edinburgh this week, while Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is in the UK addressing Oxford University Union and both houses of parliament, after being freed from 24 years under house arrest.
Suu Kyi’s visit to the UK comes as more tour operators start selling holidays to Burma after her party, the National League for Democracy, lifted its request for a boycott on tourism in 2010. Exodus and Wendy Wu Tours are both offering Burma holidays for the first time this year.
Previously tour operators which did go to Burma, like Audley Travel and Cox and Kings, were severely criticised by groups such as Tourism Concern because it was almost impossible to visit the country without contributing to the government, meaning visitors were indirectly supporting the military rulers.
The counter argument was that bringing tourists to Burma would provide some income to local people, allowing them to have contact with Westerners, and letting Westerners see conditions in the country for themselves.
While it may be more acceptable to visit Burma, the Dalai Lama’s visit marks a time when it’s more difficult for Westerners to see what is happening in Tibet for themselves.
China has effectively closed Tibet to foreign tourists, after months of protests against rule by Beijing, and British tour operators are cancelling visits planned for this year. So the Tibetans’ protests will not be seen first-hand by Westerners, if at all.
Holidaying in troubled countries
So should you take a chance and visit places with oppressive governments and bear witness to the struggles? Or stay away to avoid supporting the rulers, no matter how indirectly?
And where do you draw the line? I felt uncomfortable being in Libya, where the signs of a totalitarian state were all around, but not in Tunisia.
But a few years later one young man set himself alight in protest at Tunisian oppression – as Tibetans are doing in protest at Chinese rule – and started the Arab Spring.
The balance has tipped in Burma and now Tourism Concern says the question is not whether to go, but how to behave when you do go. Its answer is to make every effort possible to ensure none of your money goes to the government – including checking who owns the accommodation you will be using and if they are linked to the regime.
But you can’t force every visitor to behave ethically or even think about the issues. To my shame I didn’t think too much about Cuba’s political prisoners when I was on the beach or drinking Mojitos, and how many British tourists on the beaches of Turkey think much about its human rights record?
So can we be a force for good when we visit troubled countries? Or do most of us just ignore the problems and line the pockets of the oppressive regimes?
If you would like to visit Burma or another troubled region or country please check the advice issued by the Foreign Office.