The battle between wanderlust and conscience is a tricky one. Is it ever OK to visit oppressive or occupied countries?
Sometimes the most secretive regimes or the countries that are hardest to get into are the ones we most want to try out. It’s the forbidden fruit syndrome. Who wouldn’t like to take a peek behind the curtain in North Korea or wander the streets of Palestine or Tibet?
But is it OK to visit occupied regions or countries run by authoritarian regimes like this, when often the controlling power will be the one that benefits most?
The Argument AGAINST
China have opened up Tibet and are currently pushing it more and more as a tourist destination. If you know your history you’ll know that Tibet was occupied illegally by China in 1950 and that the international community has never really stood up for the freedom of the occupied Tibetan people. Contrast that with the Palestine question or even Western Sahara and it brings up a few tricky questions, like; should we support a regime that has invaded and occupied another sovereign nation?
Visiting these regions does provide validity to the occupying force. Often any service that you use such as hotels, transport or tours will be provided by the occupying government or their supporters.
When Burma/Myanmar was still being run by the army (it mostly still is but they’ve let Aung Sun Su Kyi out at least…) it was very much not the done thing to visit Burma and provide money to the regime. The same for the apartheid regime of South Africa or the communist state of Cuba (if you’re an American).
The international community’s shunning of these countries has bought about change. In some cases, not complete change, but change nonetheless.
It is this that stands out as the main reason for tourists not to visit occupied or countries run by authoritarian regimes. Giving your money and recognition to the controlling power is like giving validity and an all clear to them.
The Argument FOR
Most countries with an oppressive regime or occupying power still carry on as normal. If you can get in with a visa and there isn’t a high possibility of dying or being abducted then why not come as normal and give over your tourist money?
The man in the street still needs to eat and provide for his family. And, in fact, in an oppressed environment perhaps they need your money more than ever.
Sure, the state sanctioned hotel you stay in will probably return all profits to the government; but by buying food and supplies, visiting sites and interacting with people you’re letting them live on as normal. You’re letting them know the world hasn’t forgotten them.
Most of the pressure is at state level anyway. Sanctions and restrictions apply to big business and state entities, so your purchase of a snack from a street vendor or using a local taxi is not going to ruin all the hard work that the UN is doing.
Go to Palestine… Western Sahara… North Korea… Cuba… Eritrea… Tibet… Enjoy the country, the people, the cuisine and let them know that life goes on.
Don’t flaunt your riches, be culturally considerate, spend your money generously (but still don’t get ripped off!) and where possible support the little man.
Where Are The World’s Occupied Countries/Authoritarian Regimes (2017)
- Tibet: Occupied by China since 1950. Persecution of native Tibetans and attempts to ethnically cleanse the region by mass importation of Chinese.
- North Korea: Run by the Kim family as a secretive police state since around 1945. Massive violation of human rights.
- Cuba: Communist state run by Fidel Castro. Some relaxation of restrictions since Raul Castro has taken over.
- Iran: Run by hard line Islamic clerics who censor media and personal and religious freedom.
- Belarus: The last dictatorship in Europe, subject to sanctions due to communist police state and violation of human rights.
- Bahrain: Royal family run the state like a dictatorship. Human rights abuses and oppression of dissidents came to a head during Arab spring uprisings.
- Saudi Arabia: Extremely hard line Islamic regime which has some of the most oppressive rules for women in the world. No freedom of media and very little freedom of expression.
- Sudan and South Sudan: Both countries are a mess as a result of years of wars, oppressive military regimes and ethnic cleansing.
- Israel/Palestine: Probably the most complex issue with regards to occupation of land. The Israeli government continue to illegally build on Palestinian land and often react to provocation in a massively disproportionate manner.
- Morocco/Western Sahara: Western Sahara has been occupied by Morocco since 1976 despite the proclamation of a sovereign state in the same year.
- Uzbekistan/Turkmenistan/Azerbaijan: The ‘stans, as the central Asian states are often called, are pretty much all ruled by hardline dictators who suppress media, personal freedom and any opposition.
- Syria: Still in the throes of a bloody civil war, the government continues to systematically abuse the populace with indiscriminate use of chemical weapons or heavy bombing. Still not safe to visit for most.
- Turkey: Hard line president has recently consolidated his powers. Media freedom is severely restricted, secular nation is slipping back state of religious singularity, oppression of Kurdish minority and refusal to accept responsibility for Armenian genocide.
- Eritrea: Run by a brutal dictator who has been accused of supporting terrorist groups in neighbouring countries.
Before heading to any of these countries it is wise to check travel advice with the FCO.
If you do go to any of these countries, do your best to avoid supporting the regime directly, although in many cases it will be inevitable. As we mentioned above, do your best to support the little man and spend your tourist cash with independents where possible.
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