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Ethical tourism: “voting with your money”

A vague title for an important topic, one that is rarely talked about in the travel community: what influence has our traveling, and thus our money, on the politics of the country we visit? What does entail “ethical tourism”?

The idea for this article sparked from a discussion on travel_inhershoes IG, which is embedded below:

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It took me a while to decide if I should accept the invitation of @gatewayksa and visit Saudi Arabia. I asked myself: Do I judge a country by its people or the government? Am I willing and capable of visiting a place that has gotten a lot of negative press in Western media and see it and its people with an open heart and mind? ::::: I’ll share with you my impressions of Saudi in the next few days so stay tuned and in the meantime let me know what you would ask a local Saudi person if you got a chance to chat with them over a cup of Arabic coffee? How much do you know about Saudi in general? I’m curious! ::::: ***’Disclaimer: ‘Please note that the sites of Madain Saleh are currently closed to the public whilst the Royal Commission develops the area to allow for future tourism. I received an official invitation allowing me to film and document these sites to share it with you’. ::::: @gatewayksa is a NGO not assosicted with the KSA, all views are my own. Photo by @moliverallen ::::: #DiscoverAlUla #LivingMuseum #AlUla @gatewayksa #gatewayKSA #saudiArabia #saudi #abaya

A post shared by AGGIE LAL (@travel_inhershoes) on

For those who never heard of her before, she is a popular (over 800000 followers on Instagram) travel blogger and “influencer”. She was invited by a NGO to Saudi Arabia and, obviously, went to the most beautiful places in the country. Thus, showing the prettier face of the kingdom, while we are all well aware of the ugly face of it: the Saudi intervention in the Yemen war, the restriction of civil rights, the only recently lifted ban for women to drive, the strict religious observance and, last but not least, the killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. It is a quite controversial country, let’s put it this way. On Aggie’s IG plenty blamed her for showing only the positives of Saudi Arabia or even to have accepted going there and indirectly promoting the country, touristically. Aggie defended herself by pointing out her trip was not sponsored in any way by the local government and all the views expressed are her personal one. Plus, she cited the issues women are facing yet in Saudi Arabia a few days later the first picture.

Understandably. Unfortunately the NGO that invited her is run by the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies, whose chairman is none other than a member of the reigning family, Turki bin Faisal Al Saud . Whatever she will end up saying about Saudi Arabia, hers is hardly a trip that wasn’t subject to some “sponsoring” from the government.

In any case, the discussion is extremely interesting and very important to me, we should care more where we put our money in, “voting with our money”, what are our responsibilities as tourists. I believe the topic is three-faced.

Visiting is not endorsing

It seems obvious but it is worth repeating: if I travel to a country it doesn’t automatically mean I agree with all the policies enacted by the local government. There are plenty of dictatorships in the world, and a growing number of “failed democracies” too, and that would mean your travels would be restricted to the actual, functioning, democracies. At the same time, a specific government in charge of a democracy may have passed a few laws that you disagree with, and so what, are we going to stop traveling anywhere?

That makes no sense. A bit like artists not touring to countries whose policies they disagree with, a recent example being Israel, a pure visit is not automatically an endorsement for the government. Otherwise we shouldn’t even live in a country whenever there’s a new government we voted against. We should move abroad every few elections. Absurd.

Black and white ballot
Photo by Element5 Digital from Pexels

Yet I believe we should be all aware of the consequences of our travels. I do agree that traveling on the cheap, being hosted by locals, eating at local places instead of the big chains, shopping at local markets instead of supermarkets and going a bit off the most touristic path is a great way to actually help the local population, despite what the government may or may not do for them, we also should acknowledge that by the simple act of visiting a country we are putting money into the pockets of the local politicians. That is done through taxes, VAT, paying the local flight company that is perhaps government-sponsored, promoting further tourism by showing off the best pictures of the trip on our IG and so on. No matter how much we are trying to travel without being political, by pouring money in the country we are visiting inevitably it means helping its economy and increasing the taxes’ revenues for the government. That’s unavoidable.

Traveling shouldn’t be stopped by political considerations

That’s my stance. No matter how horrible the government of a country is, we shouldn’t stop traveling there if we want. Their lack of freedom for their citizens shouldn’t also become a lack of our freedom to travel.

If not for this, at least for our ability to greatly humanize and make it known the people of a country that is probably being demonized in our own because of the local politicians. Putin may be horrible but not all russians are. Orban may be a fascists but not all hungarians are. We as tourists, with our blogs and pictures, may show a reality of the local community that is mostly ignored by mass media, perhaps naively by assuming that is known to anybody already. Yes, probably is but it is worth repeating that there are also normal people, good-willing people, in countries that have been put in a negative light for decades by tv and our own, western, governments like Iran or North Korea. I bet many people unconsciously consider the inhabitants of those countries as religious or political fanatics.

Explorers' monks statue in Budapest

Which is untrue. Yet that’s why I would advocate going to those countries if you can, to actually show the reality of the normal, commoner’s life, and reduce the stigma we may unconsciously have towards them. That is “ethical tourism” also.

It’s unethical to hide

With that said, the very opposite is also true: we shouldn’t depict all as moonlight and roses. No country is obviously perfect but let’s face it, there are countries with more issues, and often more evident, than others. Traveling to Switzerland will hardly show you any poverty or political oppression or injustice. Traveling to China will be a quite different experience, the issues will be more prominent and if we close an eye to them, we are responsible for the continuation of those issues, even if in a infinitesimally tiny part. This is where we enter unethical territory.

Woman wearing blue vest in mosque
Photo by Oliver Sjöström from Pexels

Being in Saudi Arabia and not noticing the restrictions women face day to day or the lack of religious freedom is either stupid or colluding with the local government. We don’t have the responsibility of a journalist in showing all the truth, hard or not, yet we with the social media and our blogs do show the world what a country is through our travels, through our memories and enhanced pictures. If we don’t even cite or remind our followers that there are social issues in a country that are worth fighting for, we end up just promoting tourism in that country, which in the end means more money for the government and more chances to keep controlling the local population by having more means to express their power over them.

I don’t want to make it more tragic than needed. A trip doesn’t equate to one more innocent imprisoned or such. That would be an exaggeration. What we do are responsible for is not ending up promoting countries that don’t show the basic respect for their own citizens, their own environment (an example would be African countries that don’t actively forbid poaching and hunting wild animals) and nature as a whole. That is profoundly unethical to me.

Don’t hide then. We don’t need to be journalist to write about poverty, civil restrictions or illegal acts during our trips. Tell us what you saw, every bit of it, without restrictions and fear of being persecuted. We have the precious gift of freedom, we can write what we want on our blogs and social media accounts. Let’s use it in full. That won’t prevent us to post the best pictures of the most instagrammable places we saw but doesn’t prevent us also to write a few words about something terrible we saw, noticed or heard about.

That is part of ethical tourism and what being a true ethic tourist means

Cover photo by icon0.com from Pexels

Neapolitan programmer, traveller and metalhead, co-author of PaperSounds blog.

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