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How to travel ethically without supporting governments that have bad human rights records. 

When thinking of places to travel, chances are the type of government and the human rights policies within the country are low on your list of decision-factors. After all, when there’s a cheap flight available, why not take that trip to Turkey and enjoy some warmer weather? This can lead to what seems like a sense of cognitive dissonance as you post a picture on a sunny beach while mere miles away journalists are being persecuted. However, it’s not too late to dig a little deeper into your travel plans and aims and really think about what it means to be a tourist. Here are some ethical questions to think about before planning your next vacation. 

First and foremost, ask where your money is going — will it support the local population and their endeavours or merely fund the government and their less-than-ideal policies? Tourism in general has a problem with leakage. In other words, money that should be going to the local population instead goes to outside actors — tour companies based in other countries, or the government regime. There are ways to combat this, however. For example, you could stay in bed and breakfasts or homestays as opposed to hotel chains. You can shop local, focusing on independently owned brands, and eat at restaurants that focus on local and sustainable ingredients. It might take a little more research, but the benefits highly outweigh the cost. 

"It might take a little more research, but the benefits highly outweigh the cost."

Another question is one of privilege. There is a good chance that as a tourist, especially depending on the country whose citizenship you hold, you have more freedom and power than the citizens of the country you are visiting. Just look at the UK student who was evacuated from Afghanistan after deciding to visit just as the Taliban seized control. This came at the same time as hundreds of local residents tried to flee on the last flights out of the country, leading to multiple deaths. While this is an extreme case, it is important to recognise the privilege you hold as a tourist, a privilege that should not be abused just because you want to visit somewhere “extreme”. Even in less drastic situations, you should consider the fact that you can even travel to the country in question — for the many political refugees of Belarus, travelling home to see their family and friends is not possible. Just because you can, doesn’t necessarily mean that you should.

Above all, think about how you are travelling. There is a big difference between spending your whole trip in an enclosed five-star resort, only interacting with the locals when they serve you your next cocktail, and being on the ground talking to real people and experiencing the authentic culture and situation as it stands. It is important to recognize that people are not the same as their governments, and by connecting with the local population, you can do a lot of good. For example, tourism can be one of the only ways people can make contact with the outside and explore different viewpoints. It can also be a way for them to get their story out to an audience, helping to bring about change. But this can only happen if authentic communication occurs and only if the local population actually wants you to be there. This latter aspect is a valid concern even in western Europe — for example, look at Venice, where locals are now being priced out of their city as landlords increasingly rent short-term on Airbnb.

At the end of the day, the final decision of whether to travel somewhere or not is up to the individual and their conscience. What one person draws the line at may be miles ahead of another, and it is important to recognise that fact. Before taking your next vacation, just spend a few minutes asking yourself these ethical questions. Whatever you decide, enjoy the experience and make the most of your time away.


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