Is it ethical to travel to controversial destinations?

20th December 2019

If you’ve been following our journey for some time, you’ll already know that here at Wild Frontiers, we’ve never shied away from travelling to or setting up tours in controversial destinations. By this point, we’re more than used to getting comments on some of the more eyebrow-raising destinations.

Which is fine, we all travel for different reasons. But we are also just as frequently receive comments from people who have travelled out of their comfort zone to discover something they never expected in countries that so often get a bad rep. And that’s why we do this. Because we know that rarely, if ever, do governments or leaders represent an entire population.

It's understandable, and important, to question the ethical implications of travelling to controversial destinations, to ask yourself if your travel dollars might be lining the pockets of tyrants, endorsing human rights abuses or contributing to the suffering of others?

We believe that real travel often does, and should, raise difficult ethical questions.

The motivation to explore this topic, probably unsurprisingly, comes from our most recent addition of tours to none other than Saudi Arabia. We were somewhat prepared for the backlash. Saudi Arabia is a complex country, but it’s also fascinating, home to some of the world’s finest desert scenery as well as a plethora of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. It’s also closed off to the outside world and its population at the mercy of media reportage and an extreme government. Not to say that it isn’t justified, but things change. Perhaps it’s time we see for ourselves. Of course, it is a niche destination, but our intrigue is clearly shared: it was the highest clicked destination on our website over the last few months and generated more interest than any destination we’ve launched.

But our reasons for visiting do go deeper than just intrigue, or wanting to be ‘that company’ who goes to controversial destinations.

Saudi society is going through some major changes at the moment, with the launch of ‘Vision 2030’, a wide-ranging programme of reform initiated by the Saudi government. This covers everything from society to sport to the economy, housing and the arts. Being part of this in the very early days of tourism is exciting, but the Kingdom remains a deeply conservative country and is likely to be different from any other destination anyone may have visited before.

That does appeal to the adventurous traveller because there are few parts of our world left like this anymore, with mass tourism being so commonplace. Tourism, other than for religious purposes, is a new concept for the Kingdom. Tourism is notoriously limited or non-existent in countries with bad human rights records and we aren’t choosing to ignore that. The decision to travel to these countries shouldn’t be taken lightly but it also shouldn’t be considered an endorsement of governmental policy.

But on the other side of the coin, tourism so often benefits the majority of regular citizens living and working under these governments, who potentially suffer as it is. Tourism, if done correctly, can provide the people most in need of an income with the chance to earn it for themselves. But, maybe even more importantly, it provides a link to the outside world.

Countries like North Korea, or in the past, Myanmar and countless others, rely on being cut off from the world to rule unchallenged. If you limit people’s access to global ideas, news, ideologies - either through media or personal interaction - you can control the narrative and create a dichotomy of power, sometimes through fear, sometimes through reverence. Tourism exposes both the world to those closed off societies, making them aware of atrocities that have been committed behind closed doors and those isolated societies to new ideas, and that’s when the seed of change can be planted.

The very fact that Saudi Arabia is opening up to tourism already signifies a shift. We’ve been assured that eventually we will be able to use female guides and that there will be plenty of opportunities for genuine interaction with locals. There are also no current restrictions on adult women travelling solo and no requirements for women to wear the abaya (the long back dress covering the body from shoulders to feet) or cover their hair. Small but significant steps in the right direction.

If we begin to boycott tourism to countries because we don’t agree with their human rights, where do we stop? In certain countries it’s illegal to be homosexual, FGM is legal, women don’t have equal rights to men, ethnic cleansing still occurs, slavery is still commonplace and these issues aren’t always confined to ‘developing countries’ - you can’t turn a corner in this world without occasionally questioning where the humanity is.

That doesn’t mean we don’t stand up for what is right, it just means we take into consideration how best to do that. The question isn’t should we travel to certain places but what are our motivations for doing so, how can we travel in a responsible way and what can we do, in our small but never insignificant way, to help? Is it simply by giving places a chance to do better, spurred on by the watchful eyes of the world? Is it by listening to the people on the ground and giving their voice a platform? Is it by consciously choosing to spend money in family-run guesthouses, hiring local guides, buying souvenirs from local artisans, so your tourist dollars line the right pockets? These are ways you can travel to controversial destinations and make a positive difference. Sometimes your very presence is enough and will make an impact you might not even be aware of.

Hayley Cleeter

Hayley would have to thank the multi-culturalism of London for first sparking her interest in travel. She remembers dressing up in saris from India, e…

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