Should we care about the human rights record of the country whose beaches we’re about to bake ourselves on? That is the question posed by the latest issue of the Index on Censorship, which pokes a light into the murkier side of some popular tourist destinations. Mexico’s drugs war and murder rate cast a shadow over its idyllic beaches; Sri Lanka has renewed powers to jail journalists; the Maldives has allowed radical Islam to flourish and democratic gains to wither.
A panel of travel journalists explored the ethics of travel journalism, and whether glossy, picture-led features should also mention a country’s dirty laundry. The popular format of ‘Ten Mexican resorts on a budget’ was considered too narrow a format to get into such things. In the discussion that followed it emerged that the flowers and candles left in Valletta in memory of the assassinated Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia have been cleared away at least 12 times; the number of tourists visiting Turkey not fallen since President Erdogan has clamped down on press freedom; in Sri Lanka efforts to offer tourists the experience of life on a tea plantation backfired when the local press savaged an initiative whereby tourists could spend a night in the home of a poorly paid, marginalised tea picker.
One problem panellists identified was in challenging a deeply carved narrative. Picking tea is not romantic. If section editors (and fat-walleted advertisers) want sun and flip-flops then they won’t want a piece complicated by mention of human rights abuses. Conversely, a section editor who believed Cambodia = genocide, an example cited by Harriet Fitch Little, was reluctant to hear how the country has stabilised over the last 20 years. Then there was the charge of “pink-washing”, mentioned in relation to Tel Aviv – where a destination’s self-promotion as gay-friendly distracts attention away from a complicated human rights record, in this instance Israel’s in the Palestinian Territories.
Benji Lanyado, the male panellist, recommended using Airbnb and spending time chatting to locals to find out what they considered to be the big local issues. In many cultures this is far more straightforward and less risky if you are male. Sri Lankan-born Meera Selva added that offering to listen to someone’s story can do more harm than good if you hear a tale of hardship, thank them and walk away.
Engagement is challenging. But among panellists and audience there was a strong desire for ethical, thoughtful travel that left consumerist escapism far behind.
Many holidays are marketed as one or two weeks of sunshine / pool / peace and quiet or [fill in the blank] in a mythical paradise which could be anywhere hot and affordable. But commodifying a place reduces it to its heat, its beach, its clubs. The people who live there become almost immaterial, reduced to staff, strangers or threats. Engaging with a place helps to ensure the people who live there are not dehumanised. True, it’s not easy to strike up conversation with a stranger that goes beyond directions or sales – especially across a language barrier. But such a conversation allows the humanising process to go both ways; Westerns are not just cash cows (however daft we get when we don a sun hat).
The most meaningful place I’ve found for engaging with people in a holiday destination was on a particularly difficult overseas trip. I was with my father, we had run out of motivation to be away, and on the Sunday we went to the local church, and stayed for its pot luck lunch. It was by far the best meal of the trip, though I couldn’t tell you what we ate. I do, however, remember home-cooked food from people who accepted us as we were. I’ve repeated that experiment on happier trips, and even without the free lunch, a humble, ordinary church service has offered a snapshot of a community and a way of hearing its concerns. But you don’t have to go to church; for me talking to a restaurant owner on a struggling Greek island in 2015 made the country’s economic crisis tangible.
So five things, if you like:
Before you go, look up a destination’s human or religious rights record (the consensus was against boycotting countries because engagement was considered more valuable). There might be heroes to celebrate, as well as white-washed narratives to look out for.
When you’re there, buy a local paper, assuming it’s in a language you can just about understand.
Don’t depress yourself with disaster memorials you’re not in the mood for but do stimulate your brain with a curiosity for what’s around you.
Try the local church/synagogue/mosque – whatever you’d attend at home.
Look for ways to have more meaningful conversations and let me know where you find them.