Travel to Iran and Other Conflicted Areas: Is It Ethical?

As the world around us grows bigger and more destinations become accessible to more travellers, should we stop to think about the impact of our destination choices?

The problem with ethics and travel

When it comes to travelling, there are many points to consider from an ethical perspective. (That is, if you’re the type of person who cares about that – I bet many tourists never even give a second thought to the possible damage their holidays could cause.) Ethical issues ranging from emissions caused by flying to visiting overtouristed destinations, staying in Airbnb’s and photographing locals are a hot topic of discussion in the travel community.

One question that I have seen often raised is if all destinations in the world are an ethical choice for a holiday.

Example: In many Facebook group conversations and Instagram comments about Iran, I’ve seen people say they would “never travel there because of the human rights violations”. In Iran, women rank at some of the lowest places in international equality research, the government restricts your access to information, and you can get executed for denouncing Islam or being homosexual. I’ve heard similar sentiments directed at countries like Russia, Myanmar, North Korea and Saudi Arabia.

This, of course, puts us more offbeat travellers in a strange position. Can I travel or promote travel to countries with oppressive governments that practice dubious politics and commit human rights violations?

 

Yazd, Iran

This year, I’ve had to confront this question even more than usually as I’ve travelled to several areas that could be considered tumultuous: Iran, Artsakh or Nagorno-Karabakh and finally, Israel. A few more regions were on that list but got scrapped for one reason or another; a visit to Abkhazia turned into an extended week in Mestia after I never received my visa, and Iraqi Kurdistan got dropped simply because I was getting tired of travelling.

It might be that this post is just a justification for my travel decisions; but I have spent time thinking about these issues and pondered on them from many perspectives. What do you think? I’d love to hear your opinion in the comments!

So, is it ethical to travel to countries or regions with questionable politics?

Hiking Nagorno-Karabakh / Artsakh

1. Yes; because people are often separate from their country’s politics

I’ve been to many places that evoke xenophobic, prejudiced and judgmental thoughts in people. And there’s one thing that I’ve found out: 99% of the time, the people I meet do not represent the views of their governments.

A few years ago, when the genocide of Rohingya Muslims broke into the newscycle, suddenly travellers to Myanmar that was newly open for tourism had a tough ethical dilemma to crack. Could you still travel to a country that was actively committing genocide? The Rohingya crisis became a footnote in every narrative about Myanmar; like it had to be added there to take some responsibility off the writer’s shoulders, as if to say, ‘look, I don’t condone this thing but I had a good time still, now make your own judgements.’

When I travelled in Myanmar in 2016, though, there was yet no sign of the genocide. Instead, I found the friendliest, loveliest people I have still yet to meet – even friendlier than Iranians that are famed for their overwhelming hospitality. And I realised how far removed these people were from the horrible acts their government was committing. The regular farmers we passed hiking to Inle Lake, the rickshaw driver flying us through the empty streets of Yangoon at night, the tour guides and shopkeepers and hostel owners – they had nothing to do with the whims of people in power.

The same rang true for people in Iran. The tightening economic sanctions set by the USA were affecting normal people; you bet the most rich and powerful will always have access to things like medicine that many regular Iranians are struggling to find.

Tourism can really help people in economically vulnerable areas by strengthening local economy and bringing people there financial freedom. Travelling to conflicted areas can, at best, help the people who most need it.

Hiking Nagorno-Karabakh / Artsakh

 

Shiraz (left); Qom, Iran

2. Yes; because it promotes healthy cultural exchange

Even at risk of sounding too much like a white saviour: People in more closed-off countries can often benefit from foreign influence.

In Iran, the government has held a close eye to its citizens since the Islamic revolution in the 1970s. Iranians’ rights have been limited by legislation – especially if you’re a woman – and the government is trying to restrict their access to free information by having blocked several websites and social medias, including Facebook and Twitter. A study found that 35% of the world’s most popular websites were blocked in Iran, and the government has also blocked most VPN services that would normally help get access to the blocked websites.

A few years ago, they threatened to close down the only open social platform – Instagram – after they found out it was used for covert political activism, but they had to double back on that decision after young Iranians very nearly rioted.

It is beneficial for an oppressive government to keep its people ignorant; because as soon as people know that they could have it better, that is what they will demand. Western tourists bring Western values with them, and exposure to “the outside world” can help bring about change for a more liberal, free life.

We Are Our Mountains in Nagorno-Karabakh / Artsakh

Tourism also normalises encounters with foreigners and helps battle against xenophobia and racism on both sides – meaning, while travelling can help us realise that the people in those “scary countries” are the same as us, people there might also hold stereotypes about us. In addition, often people in developing countries don’t have many chances to travel, whether it’s because of a lack of finances or restrictions placed by their government. Meeting travellers could be a chance for them to practice foreign languages and learn about other cultures without actually travelling outside of their country.

In addition, as many countries realise the importance of tourism to their economy, they are willing to cater to tourists even in issues that might not be an option for locals. I’ve heard that because of queer travellers, some gay clubs have opened in Jordan where homosexuality is legal but still not accepted. While it sucks that foreigners could get granted different privileges than locals, the existence of these places and services gives locals an easier access to them, too.

Hiking near Kalaw, Myanmar
Kandovan, Iran

3. Maybe; if you make sure your money is going to the right places

Often the issue is not the countries we visit; but how we visit them.

The single most important thing tourists bring to another country is not some allegedly superior knowledge or an Instagram filter: it’s their money. Tourist dollars matter. Tourism gives people living in the country opportunities that they might not have had access to before, including affording schooling, healthcare, a house and travel. This is especially true in poorer countries where working in tourism can provide double or triple the salaries that people would get in “regular” jobs.

This is why it’s crucial to aim to spend your money ethically.

Recently, a group of Instagram influencers were invited on a press trip to Saudi Arabia as a part of the country’s new campaign to try to open it up for tourism. In the past, such campaigns have been successful to a fault: Iceland, that gained a ton of traction through influencer campaigns, is now thinking about restricting the number of its visitors as its most popular attractions fill with tourists. So these press trips do work.

There was just one problem: the whole trip was sponsored by the Saudi government.

From what I saw, these influencers got a lot of praise and heart-eye-emojis from their followers that thought they were so brave and so cool for visiting places that very few women had been able to access before. I only saw a little bit of criticism towards the influencers, but the ones that did dare to criticise them blamed them for being hypocritical, naive and tone-deaf.

Yazd, Iran
Golan heights, Israel

Similarly, a few years ago Adventurous Kate wrote a rather scathing piece about the TBEX conference – the biggest travel blogging conference – that was being organised in Zimbabwe and sponsored by a government-led organisation.

‘–when you attend a travel blogging conference, you’re not an independent traveler — you’re essentially a marketing consultant hired to promote their destination. And when you’re being hosted by the government, they are only allowing you to see what they want to see. When it’s a corrupt government in charge of your trip, they will likely only show you places that give them the most financial kickbacks,’ Kate writes.

In the same article, she also lists a few other countries that have hosted the conference over the years that have been sponsored by corrupt governments – and what is worse, countries that have minimal freedom of speech and where journalists are often jailed or persecuted.

This ties back to the influencer trip to Saudi Arabia. Saudi has a horrific rapport for freedom of speech. Remember that journalist Jamal Khashoggi that got assassinated maybe a year back for speaking against the government? These influencers enjoyed special privilege as the guests of the Saudi government but at the same time they might be putting future travellers at risk, showing them the joys of solo female travel in a country that only gave women the right to drive a car two years ago and documenting their trip without thinking that negative – or as we call to, honest – coverage of the country could put visiting bloggers and media personnel at risk.

Saudi Arabia is opening up to tourism now and who knows, maybe they are slowly changing. I’m not convinced, though. It will be a long time before local women will have the same rights as the possible future female backpackers; and when tourism there is still such a novelty, who is to know how much the government can still control your self-guided trip. If you’re interested in tourism in Saudi, I’d recommend to check out this piece by The New York Times.

Jerusalem, Israel

4. No; because if the people from those countries can’t safely travel back to their land, why should you?

The other side of the argument is probably the hardest for me to tackle because it’s full of blurred lines and grey areas. For me, it wouldn’t seem ethical to travel to an active war zone, especially one that is home to millions of refugees worldwide. Still, I’ve met a few people just this year who’ve travelled to places like Afghanistan or Syria or North Korea, and I wouldn’t want to bash their decision to do so. It might be that it’s some sort of a game of travel one-upmanship but I also think it’s unfair to reduce someone’s reasons to travel to a place to just “showing off”.

Of course, travelling to these places might not be as problematic as the way you do it or how you present your trip. Recently, on another notorious influencer trip, a few people with sizeable followings took a trip to Syria, posing in front of rubble and destruction like for any glamorous Insta shot. This, understandably, caused a lot of uproar. Cherene from Wandering Redhead Cher – an American-Syrian – wrote in an Instagram post:

Now is not the time to be promoting travel to a country where bombs are still dropping and 12 million refugees have lost their homes. – How trivializing for those who have suffered. They pose reflectively, serious expressions on face, in a window while racking up the likes and sycophantic comments about how cool and brave and “real” they are.’

Maybe a good line to draw would be to not go to places where it’s not safe for locals to return to. But this also quickly becomes a difficult thing to define. There are perfectly safe countries out there that others can’t return to for fear of persecution – maybe for a political stance or a sexual orientation – or just don’t have the financial means to go back.

Is it the danger to tourists that ultimately defines the ethics of the decision?

Kandovan, Iran

 

Bagan, Myanmar

 

Whatever you do, wherever you go, you have the responsibility to learn.

Travelling to areas with tumultuous politics should not be treated as just a regular holiday. You, as a visitor, have the responsibility to learn about the problems of the country you’re visiting, not only to have a more profound experience but also to come away with more knowledge and understanding. In places where politics define the social landscape of the lives the locals live, it is downright irresponsible to ignore them.

You don’t have to take sides. I’m not sure how I feel about the whole Israel-Palestine crisis yet. But I am doing my best to educate myself on it and enjoy the parts of the country that are great.

I wonder about the consequences of my actions a lot and sometimes I feel like I could be excused for not being perfect if I still acknowledge that I’m not. It could be a dangerous dead-end road that allows me to excuse my bad behaviour just because I’m aware of it. But isn’t it good that I’m doing the thinking anyway?

It might not be the perfect answer; but just like in high school maths tests, you also get points for showing your thinking, even if you can’t get the answer quite right.

 

Thanks for reading!

How do you feel about the topic? Are there places you wouldn’t travel to for ethical reasons, or places you feel shouldn’t be travel destinations?

Kalut desert (left); Tehran, Iran

 

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