Tourists with an eye on human rights
can make a difference
William F. Schulz
The Nation magazine, October 6, 1997
"Nothing happens in Burma," wrote Paul Theroux in
his travel memoir The Great Railway Bazaar, "but then nothing
is expected to happen." Nothing, that is, except the arrest
of thousands of pro-democracy dissidents; the use of dog kennels
as prison cells and the forced labor and relocation of more than
100,000 members of ethnic minorities. But then how would visitors
know all that, preoccupied as they are with the sights of Mandalay
and Yangon? And if they did, should they give revenue and legitimacy
to a government that perpetrates such atrocities?
The decision as to whether to spend tourist time and money
in a country like Burma, now Myanmar, is a complex one, made more
confusing by the terms in which the argument is usually joined.
Does economic growth fueled by tourism really improve the chances
of human rights being respected? In some cases, like Singapore,
a booming economy and tourist trade has not been enough to guarantee
respect for individual liberty. Will boycotting a country harm
already impoverished workers more than it will corporate or government
titans? Or are the short term economic penalties more than offset
by the ultimate benefits of change?
For many people who care about human rights the choice turns
on the advice of local activists. In the case of Myanmar, the
repressive government has made the attraction of tourists a major
element in its push for international respectability; consequently,
the leader of the pro-democracy movement there, Daw Aung San Suu
Kyi, has discouraged visitors from making the journey. Though
Amnesty International takes no position on boycotts, I personally
would boycott Myanmar because Aung San Suu Kyi asks that we do
so. In other countries with abysmal human rights records, however,
local rights leaders encourage tourism not just for the capital
it introduces to the economy but because foreign eyes offer a
measure of protection and an opportunity to get their story out.
Just as responsible eco-tourism has generated enthusiastic support
for the environmental movement, so human rights conscious travel
can make a positive contribution to the struggle for a civil world.
Then, too, if travelers were to avoid every country that violates
somebody's rights, itineraries would be remarkably short. Only
one country-Iceland-has never been cited for a serious human rights
abuse. And while the Blue Lagoon and Thingvellir are magnificent
sites, their novelty, to say nothing of their tranquillity, would
quickly disappear if the world' s tourists were to limit themselves
to that politically pristine place.
So how are we to decide whether to visit a nation? It may
be appropriate to avoid a country that is the object of international
opprobrium, as was apartheid-era South Africa, particularly if
a travel boycott is part of a larger package of pressure tactics
designed to isolate a government or change its behavior. But if
one visits a repressive state like China or Indonesia, Peru or
Syria, it is possible to make the trip rewarding both personally
The key factor is accessibility. Will you have the opportunity
to be in touch with people and events on the ground- those whose
lives are directly affected by policies and politics- or will
you be limited to representatives of government tourist bureaus
and other officialdom? Will you be allowed to roam freely around
the country, chatting with whomever you like, or will your steps
be monitored? Those with business contacts may have more opportunity
to interact with local citizens, but even the average tourist
can be a witness for human rights. What is required first of all
is to know what to look for, and that requires preparation. What
kind of government is in power in the country? Who, if anyone,
is getting hurt? What is the labor situation? How are ethnic minorities,
gays and lesbians, and women being treated? Is there a free press
or religious freedom? This kind of information can be gathered
by accessing Amnesty International's country reports (www.amnesty-usa.org/ann-rpt.html)
or the State Department's annual human rights country reports
A visitor can make a big difference after arriving in the
country. People under threat cannot help but be buoyed by contact
with a sympathetic outside world. This can take any number of
forms, from prearranged professional meetings with counterparts
in the country to attendance at religious services to casual encounters
in cafes or in the street. Contact with journalists and teachers
is often fruitful, and students are almost always eager to talk
with those from overseas, if for no other reason than to practice
language skills. Such encounters provide opportunities not only
for exchanging information but sometimes for delivering messages
to relatives, friends or contacts in the United States that might
otherwise not get through.
Naturally the average tourist or business traveler is unlikely
to stumble across an incident of torture, and most casual travelers
would prefer to avoid prisons. Human rights conscious travel requires
common sense; no police force in the world takes kindly to being
lectured. But when governments learn that foreigners have an interest
in a particular group or situation, that often gives them pause.
When I was head of a U.S. religious denomination during the eighties,
I visited Romania several times before the fall of the dictator
Nicolae Ceausescu. I always made it a point to embrace my local
co-religionists as enthusiastically and publicly as I could- a
gesture that, they later testified, had not exempted them from
harassment but had certainly mitigated it. Tyrants, no matter
how apparently powerful, always hate having their tyranny exposed.
If by chance one should run across a public demonstration
and physical circumstances safely allow it, a simple, quiet witness
of the action from the sidelines can have a profound effect upon
both the demonstrators (who are likely to chant louder in the
presence of a foreigner) and the police or military (who will
probably be more restrained).
How and where one spends one's money can also be important.
In many countries the crafts of indigenous people provide one
of their few steady sources of income. Contact and purchases can
lend sustenance to the arts community, which is often on the cutting
edge of political criticism. It's worth checking out dissenting
newspapers and supporting their advertisers who are worthy of
encouragement. Tourists might also want to seek out locally run
schools and missions, micro-credit agencies and women's cooperatives
independent of the government.
It is when a visitor returns home, of course, that all these
experiences can best be put to use. There's nothing like the words
"Well, I was there." In addition to comments about the
weather and accommodations, a well-chosen word on the troubles
one has learned about and the heroism one has glimpsed-in a letter
to the editor or a presentation before a group-can bring the human
rights situation to life for people, including those in power,
who have not been there (including the many G.O.P. Congressional
freshmen who boast of not even having a passport).
But perhaps the most valuable reward of traveling with politically
open eyes is the appreciation for freedom it engenders. On one
of those trips to Ceausescu's Romania, my traveling colleague
complained to her husband in the presumed privacy of her hotel
room, "I can't stand the wood chips in this toilet paper.
What I wouldn't give for some Western paper!" And the next
day, in her room-but not in mine!-was smooth Western toilet paper.
("I'd love a good, thick, juicy steak!" I shouted that
night into the lampshade, but somehow it did no good.)
At the time, that toilet paper was welcome, but the way it
was ordered became a symbol of all that our Romanian friends had
lost. A conscious effort to incorporate a human rights witness
into our traveling is one small way to help return a measure of
freedom to those who have none.
William F. Schulz is the executive director of Amnesty International