Ethical travel

Thanks to Trump my big autumn project – a trip to Iran – is now off the agenda. I had been so looking forward to this visit. I love Islamic architecture and Iran is stacked full of history and beautiful buildings.

There were always lots of reasons not to go to Iran. It would have been the most expensive holiday of my lifetime, not least because even before the new, serious eruption in diplomatic relations, I would have been unable to travel independently. Because of Britain’s alignment with American foreign policy, British tourists were already covered by the same requirement to either travel in an officially accepted group (someone I would not want to do) or to employ a ‘guide’ at all times.

My family was concerned that the trip would not have been safe. I was less concerned by this. I am used to travelling on my own; I know when to keep my mouth shut (at least when travelling!); at 76 I don’t risk the unwelcome advances that younger women might face; and if I get ill, there are good hospitals in Iran (and I would have taken out repatriation insurance). I do acknowledge that I could always run the risk of losing my papers or money. That is a growing risk wherever I am!

More serious was the criticism that travelling to Iran would be visiting a country with serious human rights issues and would be implicitly validating the regime. That is the most complex of the objections and one for which there is no easy answer.

Should one not visit a country whose governance one disapproves of, whose values are not your own? Should one boycott countries which have serious abuses of human rights, which treat women unfairly, which persecute minority groups, which employ child labour, which have the death penalty, which imprison people without trial, which govern secretively and inject fear in their citizens, which do untold damage to the future of the planet (eg destroying forests)? What countries are left? Do I want to visit them? What is the impact of tourists not visiting these countries?

Perhaps one should just stay at home? After all, the other argument against travel is that going anywhere is likely to involve energy issues, particularly if you fly. (It was so much easier in the days before mass tourism, when to travel was a minority interest, and flying was not doing serious damage to our planet.)

My problem is I love travelling. I even like the actual process of going from one country to another (though I draw the line at enjoying airports). I love seeing other ways of living, meeting different people, eating different food and enjoying the history and architecture of other countries.

I would have liked to have travelled more during my life, but was constrained, like most people, by lack of cash and demands of family and work. Further, Chris did not like travelling. When the children were young, once we arrived at the campsite every summer, he was happy not to budge another inch. Again, in retirement he was content to stay put. Since he died I have had a series of health issues which have inhibited my wanderlust, though I have of course been to Italy a couple of times, Istanbul, and this year, Lisbon and Barcelona.

Because I love travelling I am tempted to play the devil’s advocate when faced with objections about the ethicality of going somewhere. I find it is not a black and white question, there are nuances.

It matters, for example, if you can distinguish between the behaviour of a regime and the attitudes of a significant number of its citizens. So when we went to Istanbul I considered that much of its population were not Erdogan supporters and did not deserve to be boycotted.

There are other instances when most citizens side with the regime. You could argue that this was the case in South Africa in the days of apartheid, and in Israel and Myanmar.

I have to confess that aged 23 I did in fact go round South Africa, at the start of my journey through the continent. My friend, Wenol, and I went in order to see apartheid for ourselves, and compare it with Nigeria, where we had been living and working. Indeed, we had the good fortune to meet some of the leading opponents to apartheid and to see for ourselves some of the worst aspects of the regime, but still, I wonder now if I should have gone.

You could argue that I should go to Israel and Myanmar for similar reasons, to see for myself. But I think I would be too uncomfortable with this. I would feel that going would be condoning systems to which I am totally opposed. In these three cases I think the value of a general boycott to demonstrate disapproval does bear some weight.

So if there is a line of places where I should not visit and those where it is OK, where is the cut-off point? It is completely subjective, I think. If you boycott all places with one of the no-noes on my list, there are few places left in the world. So for me it is a question of being comfortable with my visit not being seen as condoning the abuses.

So I suppose if Israel and Myanmar are at one end of the scale (with China and the US not far behind) and Finland, say, at the other, Istanbul, Iran- and indeed now India with its Hindu nationalism – are in an uncomfortable position in the middle. I would visit these countries so long as my visit was not seen as validating a regime or principles to which I am opposed and so long as I expected the people I met to be largely welcoming and open to other ideas.

So what now in the Autumn? I am thinking of going to Morocco.

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