Responsible Travel in the Third World
I live in the First World, but I am drawn to the Third. The countries
of the First World have values I have been raised with and life
styles I know. The United States, France and Japan are wealthy,
orderly and convenient, but, they don't summon me to travel, as
Third World countries do.
Third World countries intrigue me. They have fascinating customs,
colorful traditions and histories measured in centuries and sometimes
in millennia. Some countries were born out of the bloody sweeps
of Mongol armies from the plains of Asia, others arose along the
routes of Toureg camel caravans in the deserts of North Africa,
while still others grew from the military campaigns of ancient
Mayans across what is now Central America. In the 13th and 14th
centuries, they were the destinations of de Gama, Magellan, and
Polo, and they were the places explored by Hedin, Younghusband,
and Burton in the 18th and 19th centuries. They are places of
the imagination. They are where fairy tales were born.
Third World countries are found in Asia, Africa and the Americas,
and on the archipelagos and islands in the oceans among the continents.
I have been to some of these places and have become enchanted
by them. I am entranced by their customs, enthralled by their
histories, and beguiled by their beauty. Squeezed between China
and India, Nepal is a land-locked Himalayan kingdom of spectacular
mountains, rushing rivers, and hardy but gentle people. The Indonesian
island of Bali has a unique culture that combines Hinduism and
animism into a calm beauty that has traveled little-changed through
the centuries. In Kenya, farmers work their small plots 6,000
feet above the sea, while nearby wildebeest, lions, and zebra
roam the East Africa savannas . The Galapagos Islands, isolated
in the great expanse of the Pacific Ocean 600 miles from the coast
of Ecuador, have a diversity of birds and reptiles unique in the
But, while most Third World countries are fascinating, they are
usually not free. People in most countries in the Third World
have few of the rights to which we are accustomed. In some cases,
they have no freedom at all. In much of Asia, Africa, and Central
and South America, people have little say about who rules them;
elections are either not free and fair or they do not exist at
all. Rulers are usually military officers or representatives of
the country's wealthy elite, supported by the military. Criticism
of the government is commonly forbidden, and people may be imprisoned,
tortured, and killed for having political beliefs in opposition
to those of the rulers. For most of the people in these countries,
life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is only a dream.
Although people in many rarely-visited Third World countries suffer
violations of their human rights, some of the Third World's most
popular vacation destinations have repressive governments as well.
Bhutan, the idyllic Buddhist kingdom in the Himalayas, is an absolute
monarchy with a-less-than-stellar human rights record toward its
own Bhutanese population, and which since 1985 has been persecuting
the ethnic Nepalese population in the south. Burma is growing
in popularity as a tourist destination, but its military dictatorship,
the SLORC, has kept opposition leader and Noble Peace Prize winner
Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest since 1989, violently suppressed
popular demonstrations following the 1990 elections, and continues
to rule the country by terror. In Thailand, the military controls
the drug trade with Burma, and child prostitution is rampant.
Indonesian troops under the dictatorial regime of General Suharto,
invaded independent East Timor in 1975 killing an estimated 200,000
people. The government forces of Turkey have arrested, tortured,
and murdered political activists, journalists, intellectuals,
and ordinary citizens in its war against its Kurdish minority.
The thought of vacationing in countries where torture and murder
are officially sanctioned, repels some travelers. In addition
to the moral questions, these travelers avoid visiting countries
that violate the rights of their citizens in order to deny the
repressive governments the hard currency that tourist dollars
provide. Traveling responsibly for them means not going to countries
that are not free.
But, if travelers stay home, their good intentions may isolate
not only a repressive government, but the people as well. If they
avoid a country, they will never know it. If they do not see the
people, they will not understand their values. If they do not
meet them, they won't develop a bond, and the people will never
know about other possibilities for their lives. If they do not
travel there, the country and its people are out of site. Out
of site, out of mind. If no one sees them, who will care.
If responsible travelers do not experience first-hand what it
means to live lives without rights in countries without freedom,
who in the world will care. It is wrong for Kenya's autocratic
president to imprison those who disagree with his policies, but
if no one outside of Kenya knows about it, who will be concerned.
It is wrong for Guatemala's government to sanction the murders
of thousands of civilians whose only crime is a desire for democracy,
but if no one visits Guatemala, who will know. It is wrong for
the illegitimate government of Burma to torture and murder thousands
of Burmese who peacefully protest against repression, but if no
one goes to Burma and sees its people, who will care.
Although the challenge for responsible travelers is to learn the
truth about life in the Third World, where do we go to get the
facts? Travel agents and tour companies don't talk about jailed
prisoners of conscience or kleptomaniac presidents. Travel books
don't mention torture or government sanctioned slave labor or
stolen elections. In fact, the books and magazines and travel
companies that we look to for travel information avoid discussing
human rights at all, for fear that the truth might keep us away.
Traveling responsibly forces us to understand that our vacation
destination is another person's home. Traveling responsibly requires
that we make an effort to know more about a country than the location
of its monuments and the bargains in its bazaars; it charges us
to have a better understanding of the reality of peoples' lives.
Before we go, we need to get the truth about abuses of human rights,
absence of women's rights, and restrictions of civil liberties.
If we cannot get the facts through traditional channels, we must
search for other sources of information. At minimum, this effort
will make us more enlightened individuals and will differentiate
us from uninformed "tourists". At best, the endeavor
may improve the lives of people in the Third World.