The Politics of Travel

The North Korean dictatorship now sees tourists on cruises as the best way to generate some foreign currency with which they can keep buying western luxury goods for themselves. Fifty-four pictures here.

Do the mostly Chinese tourists have no conscience? Don’t they realize they’re propping up the most heinous dictatorship in the world?

Easy to rip them I suppose, harder to reflect on the ways our travels sometimes negatively impact the people and cultures we visit.

When teaching and living in Ethiopia, I took what I thought at the time was an excellent picture that captured the harsh reality of poverty in the developing world. It was of two young girls who had hiked up to the top of the hills north of the capital city, Addis Ababa, with a huge thicket of wood branches on their tiny arched backs. Technically it was National Geo-like, and even more impressive after the excellent matting and framing job. After having it hanging in our home for quite a few years, the haunting, absent look on the girls’ faces started to trouble me. Despite being someone who values my privacy, I hadn’t asked for their permission. I raised my camera with my fancy zoom lens, pointed it right at them, and snapped.

There was no reciprocity in our interaction, no balance. I’ve since taken it down and use it as a discussion starter when teaching about cultural globalization.

I have other similarly unflattering travel stories. We don’t like to think about, let alone tell those stories though, opting instead for innocuous ones as if our travels are apolitical.

Our travel negatively impacts the physical environment; our physical presence inevitably changes the cultural environment; and our loding, dining, and recreational decision making tends to create distant economic winners and local losers.

To mitigate our negative impact, maybe we should travel less often, over shorter distances. And when we do travel far afield, we should strive to do so as global citizens, not amoral global tourists like the damn Chinese on the North Korean cruises.

5 thoughts on “The Politics of Travel

  1. There is the opposite effect. I traveled several times to East Germany and befriended someone there. We were chatting with him behind The Curtain before the Wall came down and he said “Thank you for spending your money and visiting, it helps break down walls between peoples” The next year we met him in West Berlin! I think the kind of travel where your really meet people is very valuable. Hardy’s (my “DDR” friend’s) comment is what instigated me to work as a high school teacher in Madagascar.

    • I agree, but found it’s hard to “really meet people” when living and/or traveling in developing countries. The real and perceived resource differences often complicate things. I was befriended often only to learn that the person simply wanted me to help them get to the U.S.

  2. I think it all depends on how the visit is structured. I would agree in saying that most of my Madagascar friends were “formal” friends (vous instead of tu), but it did allow for a deeper understanding. I also did bring one friend home with me! She’s an awesome wife.

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