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A little while ago, in endlessly scrolling through Instagram—as you do—I came across beautiful pictures of Myanmar, posted by a well-known travel blogger.
I have never been personally interested in visiting Myanmar, but the scenery—luscious, colorful, and styled to perfection—was very appealing.
That feeling, however, was quickly destroyed when I started reading the comments: while some praised the imagery, many found it tasteless that the blogger was showing off the beautiful, luxurious (and mostly fabricated) sides of Myanmar, while not uttering a single word of the atrocities happening to the Rohingya population. A quick Google search revealed exactly what they were talking about: the religious persecution of the Muslim Rohingya population in Myanmar has been well-documented and painful to read. The German Ministry of Foreign Affairs even warns against traveling to certain parts of the country because of violent conflicts between the military and militant rebel groups. And yet, the blogger chose to not mention it at all.
Seeing the discussion on Instagram made me wonder: is it morally wrong to present edited, glamorized pictures of a country in such political turmoil?
One commenter darkly pointed to the ethnic cleansing that was probably going on just out of frame. Is it responsible to invest money in a country whose government is committing horrific human rights violations? And, as a travel blogger or influencer, is it fair to present an "unpolitical" view on a destination to an audience that trusts in your word?
Under the Influence
Blogging is certainly not a new fad. With 2 million blog posts written each and every day, it's fair to say that the art of blogging as well as the occupation of "blogger" has become almost commonplace.
In its essence, blogging is the everyman's (and everywoman's!) artform; anyone can open a blog for free, there's no need for a specific social or educational background, and the blogger may share their opinion and experience however they desire, with no editor to censor their word.
This especially has drawn mistrust and even mockery from the longstanding tradition of journalism that prides itself on being based on fact and research rather than on emotion and experience. That elitist thinking leads many people to ignore that blogging has already become an established form of reporting, for better or for worse.
Well-known bloggers, influencers, espouse, as the term already suggests, a certain measure of influence on their audience. While I disagree that the average person will jump up and run to the store anytime an influencer shows a new face cream on Instagram, influencers do have the unique ability to directly connect to their audience and thus have a credible impact on their consumerism. What they may or may not do with that influence, however, is not yet clearly established.
Influence & Responsibility
Some travel bloggers (e.g. Drew Binsky) have come under fire for accepting paid press trips to North Korea (operated by Koryo Tours) despite the severe human rights violations committed by the country's government.
In his video on the trip, Binsky emphasized that it was not meant to be political; that the viewer is supposed to take what he says and shows "with a grain of salt."
While some may take this as his attempt at presenting balanced views on a controversial issue, it sounds much more like a refusal to take full responsibility for his content. What does a travel blogger do if not inform about the location they visit? What purpose does their work serve otherwise? Considering the massive restrictions he's been put under, it makes me think that not only did he fail to inform his audience on the realities of travel to and life in North Korea, he sold his work to the government as cheap and insincere marketing. As a travel enthusiast and consumer, I don't feel informed, I feel cheated out of an authentic report.
On the one hand: being political all the time isn't fun. Reporting on human rights violations, genocide, and environmental destruction isn't fun.
On the other hand: being "non-political" is a stance you can only allow yourself if you're not directly or immediately affected by the atrocities committed. Deciding not to think or act politically is a privilege given to those with enough power and money to protect themselves and their loved ones from the repercussions.
If you're not affected by it, or maybe even benefit from it in some way, you are likely less interested in standing against political oppression.
This type of thinking is especially harmful from the mouths of people that have a certain measure of influence. By being "non-political," you not only allow yourself to openly disregard the plight of people in dire need of support, you also deliberately mislead your audience.
So what now? Is the only morally right way to boycott any destinations that have a politically precarious past or present? That would put many, if not most countries worldwide on the red list. And do boycotts even do any good?
Travel to Politically Precarious Destinations: An Ethical Minefield?
Contra: Boycott as political commentary
How we spend our money defines our moral values, what we believe is right and wrong. Will you go out of your way to save on plastic while grocery shopping or will you just chuck your fruit and veggies into a little baggy and call it a day? Will you buy that minced meat for less than 3 euros per 500 grams, pay three times the price at a local butcher, or decide to completely go without?
Considering how much money we spend when traveling, those decisions become more and more important. And the question is: do you feel comfortable throwing money at a government that has forced an entire people to flee their homes under the threat of violence?
Jess Harling of Jess Travels argues that the tourism sector of North Korea is so small that it's highly unlikely that the little money that does enter the country through tourists will be spent on nuclear power. And while that may be true, you do end up giving money to a government you probably don't support.
By traveling to Myanmar, in one way or another, your money will inevitably fund violence against the Rohingya.
Pro: Engaging through tourism
But while traveling Myanmar does put money in the pockets of a brutal government, responsible travel can support locals who are much less fortunate than the average European citizen. A statistic by the WTTC (World Travel and Tourism Council) from 2016 says that tourism makes up about 4% of overall employment, as well as about 7% of the country's GDP (Gross Domestic Product). When tourism slows to a crawl, the locals working in this industry suffer the consequences much more directly than the government does. The government may lose income, but the people of Myanmar lose their livelihood.
In an interview with Good Travel, Dr. Andrea Valentin, Founder and Director of Tourism Transparency, pleaded with tourists to keep an eye on Myanmar through the means of travel:
Tourism helps draw international eyes on Myanmar, which will hopefully have a positive effect on the human rights violations enacted by the government.
Phil Sylvester of World Nomads even believes that giving attention to troubled countries such as Myanmar through travel is a way of fighting oppression:
Oppressors need secrecy and compliance to conduct their oppression. By turning the spotlight on them, by exposing their actions to the eyes of visitors, they are less likely to do their evil. (…) The oppressed desperately need someone to hear their stories. They need their plight to be known.
As tourists, our choice of travel destination can make or break a country and its people. Deciding to shun Myanmar may lower the government's income, but more than anything, it draws attention away from a continuing issue. The war against the Rohingya has been going on for a long time.
It has only become more well-known internationally in the last few years, and much of that has to do with Condé Nast putting a spotlight on Myanmar as a beautiful country to visit.
By drawing attention to Myanmar as a vacation spot, it has become more well-known in general and people started talking about it.
That's the power of travel—establishing communication.
A single traveler may not be able to change the laws of Myanmar or do anything about this longstanding conflict, but we can at least talk about it, inform about it, engage with it. Communication won't solve all problems, but at the very least, people become aware that there even is a problem. And if travel can achieve that at least, it has done something to help the Rohingya.
There isn't one correct answer in dealing with the moral implications of traveling to destinations such as Myanmar and North Korea. Whether you choose to fight the government by not giving them any more money or by drawing attention to their actions, it's important to engage at all.
The phrase "I'm not political" is infuriating—not because anybody really likes to talk about politics, but because it's a refusal to face real-life issues. They might not have an immediate impact on this person at this moment, but it does have a very real impact on other people who are not fortunate enough to be protected by their government, wealth, or privilege.
A single person does not have the ability to solve a whole country's problems, but empathy should drive each and every one of us to at least do what little we can do, even if it's just posting on social media about it.
If you have any power or influence at all and actively refuse to use it to help people in need, aren't you just fueling ignorance against real-life violence? And really—are paid press trips and goody bags worth it?