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 world.

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.


Third World Travel