Would you Go To Zimbabwe?

Last week it was announced that TBEX – one of the largest conventions for Travel Bloggers and Travel Brands, attracting around 500 attendees per pop, would be hosting their 2018 International Conference in Harare, Zimbabwe.

Yep, Zimbabwe.

The announcement has needless to say raised more than a few heckles within the travel world, and many a debate amongst travel bloggers. The question being: would you go? Why?

Earlier this year I wrote about the places I can’t-not-visit this year. Now, I want to talk about the countries we should leave off our lists.

Reading through a chat in one of my favourite facebook bloggers groups, Travel Blog Success, this morning, it became clear to me that the discussion is about far more than visiting Zimbabwe.

It’s a discussion, ultimately, about the impact of tourism. It’s a discussion about whether we should visit countries with corrupt regimes. It’s a discussion about which countries we wouldn’t visit.

countries i wouldn't visit - soul travel blog

The Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. Tempting? Image via Flickr / Julien Lagarde

Exposing the Double Standard.

Essentially, the arguments for and against visiting Zimbabwe fall into two camps. On the one hand, those not wanting to visit because they would not want to support Mugabe’s dictatorial regime which has seen the genocide of tens of thousands of people and land seizures from white farmers in the country. On the other hand people wanting to visit (although not necessarily as part of TBEX, which i’ll come to later) – from the belief that a country is its people, not its government.

But the arguments have also thrown up the huge double standard which I believe many of us (myself included) are used to operating under.

The thing is, I am from a country which is the Second Largest Arms Dealer in the World. A country whose decision to partition India (after centuries of subjection to colonial rule) in 1947 directly caused the displacement of 14 million people. Yet London is one of the most visited cities in the world.

Returning to Zimbabwe, neighbouring South Africa’s political situation and integrity of government is far-from-perfect, and yet South Africa receives over 10 million tourists every year. Thailand has long been criticised for its mistreatment of ethnic minorities (such as the Karen people), abuse of migrant workers, ignorance of animal exploitation in tourism and lack of any balanced judicial system. Yet we all flock there in our droves for sun, sea and cheap street food.

We seem to have decided that these are all “acceptable” places to go. On the other hand, mention that you’re travelling to Iran, Russia, or even (god forbid) North Korea, and you’ll find yourself met with raised eyebrows, expressions of concern, and not a little bit of judgement. Where I come from at least.

The countries i wouldn't visit

The DMZ, North Korea – Image Flickr  

Does Tourism Cause Harm or Good? 

In my view, the question comes down to this.

Is tourism a force for good in this world? Or does tourism just help corrupt and unethical governments stay in power?

Of course the answer to that question depends on how “tourism” is done.

It ultimately depends on how we spend our money.

Life in the slow lane, Myanmar – Image Flickr / PM Loeff

One of the reasons Lonely Planet, and others cautioned against travel to Myanmar/Burma before 2012, was the fact that it was virtually impossible to travel to Myanmar without directly supporting the military regime – they owned most of the hotels, restaurants and tour companies, not to mention the direct visa and guide fees. When I went in 2013, part of my money certainly went to the government (visa fees), but I also know that a lot of it went to local restaurants, craft shops, markets, hotels, and in short to local people.

Today the Myanmar government is still persecuting Muslims (the Rohingya people) in the west of country in a barbaric way, but travel to Myanmar is arguably more possible in a way that a) does not support the government as much and b) recognises that most people you’ll meet in Myanmar are some of the kindest and friendliest souls you’ll come across.

On the other hand, going anywhere (regardless of political problems) and staying in an all inclusive resort without leaving it for 1-2 weeks benefits hardly anyone. Except for the already rich developer who just destroyed a spot of beach/forest so he could make some more money, and the usually international hotel chain that operates it.

Because in my view, what decides on whether tourism causes harm or good, is the amount of positive interaction we can have with a country’s people (rather than its government), and the amount of money we spend that directly reaches a country’s people rather than large, international companies.

We’re at a time where we really really need more tourism in the world. Not the type of all inclusive lounging tourism, but the type of tourism where we get out of our comfort zones, meet people from different cultures on our travels, learn a few words of a different language, or a bit about a new religion.

Because in today’s world we really need to start understanding one another better. And tourism can be an amazing force for that. 

the countries I wouldn't visit

At a market in Myanmar in 2013

It’s Hard to be Perfect

“Have no fear of perfection, you’ll never reach it” ~ Dali

What matters, is awareness of the bigger picture, the impact of our choices, and making conscious travel decisions.

I don’t have anywhere I regret visiting as such, but I do know that I’ve visited a lot of places that can be questioned on various grounds. Thailand is just the start of it. I’ve been a frequent visitor to Dubai – a place openly attacked for its abuse of migrant workers in the construction industry and cultural destruction, and I also visited the Philippines for TBEX in 2016.

I don’t regret visiting any of these places, but I was hosted for 3 days by the Philippines tourism board during my trip there, the ministry of tourism being part of the Philippines government of course. And we know what their record has been of late. In hindsight I would have travelled the Philippines 100% independently, instead of being part of TBEX.

Countries I wouldn't Visit

It’s not all pretty in the Philippines – kids jumping into the polluted Pasig river in Manila.

A Duty of Bloggers and Journalists

I do believe that as bloggers and travel journalists that we have a duty to not only tell things as they are, but to openly acknowledge and discuss about the ethics of visiting countries. From the UAE to the UK to Zimbabwe and Russia, we should openly discuss the impact of tourism and our visiting there.

The Countries I Wouldn’t Visit

I will not be going to Zimbabwe for TBEX. But that’s not because I’m against going to Zimbabwe per se, if the right type of travel (i.e. independent travel) was possible. It’s rather because TBEX is being sponsored by the Zimbabwean tourism Board, part of the Zimbabwean government.

Ultimately, whether it is right to visit a country or not has to be an individual decision.

There are some other countries I wouldn’t visit: those that are active war zones. I’ve read about a couple of attempts of bloggers to go to Syria in recent months, and honestly? I don’t agree with that. Countries that are ravaged by war don’t need tourists, they need peace.

Once peace has settled, then tourism can play a part in rebuilding the rubble of their economies and spirit.

What do you think about travelling to countries with less than democratic governments? Are the certain places you will not go? What do you think about going to Zimbabwe? Let me know in the comments below!