NEW YORK — It's not easy to see the world today the real world, that is, not the Disneyland version. I can still hear my mother's worries as I headed out to travel the world at age 26: fevers from African mosquitoes, white slavery in a Muslim harem in the Middle East, 16-foot pythons at Asian archaeological sites.
There is legitimate cause for concern when 10 scuba divers can be taken hostage in Borneo, as happened two years ago, birders get kidnapped in Ecuador (last year), and, most recently, pilgrims to Bethlehem find themselves in the crossfire.
A wise traveler takes the pulse of international news and pays attention to State Department travel advisories. The relatively democratic kingdom of Botswana is certainly a better choice for safari these days than Robert Mugabe's violent, repressive Zimbabwe.
But what about a trip to Burma for the same dazzle Marco Polo got in the 12th century, surveying thousands of snow-white Buddhist temples on the plains of Pagan? Burma also produces the most exquisite crafts, and is remarkably cheap. I met a Canadian backpacker on my flight home who had lived on $1 a day for a month, and looked happy and healthy.
That's one perspective. Here's another. Burma is ruled by one of the most repressive military regimes in the world, known for arrest and torture, child and slave labor, drug dealing, keeping Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest until recently, and killing more pro-democracy students in 1988 than the thousands who were murdered in Tiananmen Square a year later.
Should you go? Should you spend your valuable foreign exchange in a country guilty of such outrages? Do you not have a moral and/or patriotic obligation as an American citizen to avoid a country where your government has embargoed trade, as has the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, and to a large extent, the United Nations? Having written passionately about human rights in the past, did I betray my principles for some picture-postcard experiences?
Here's my conclusion: It may be criminal to make someone slave away at a silk loom for 35 cents a day, but if a tourist doesn't buy the product an elegant scarf for $20 that worker would not have a job or meals or a roof over her head.
"It's very foolish for people to stand on their high horse and stay home," agrees Alan Rabinowitz of the Wildlife Conservation Society. A natural scientist, he spent years in the remote mountainous north of Burma to create the Hkakabo Razi National Park, now one of Southeast Asia's largest protected areas.
Or take Tanzania, which not too long ago had 4,000 meandering rhinoceroses. Now there are only 20, because a rhino horn can fetch a cool $100,000 on the black market in a country with a $300-and-change per capita income. Tourists contribute to both wildlife and paychecks by employing locals as guides, drivers, and lodge staff for adventure travel like walking safaris or camping in the remote Katavi National Park to observe chimpanzees in the wild.
You can beat systemic graft by avoiding government-run transportation where possible (the ruling elite often get part of your ticket price) as well as package tours conducted by state tourist agencies. Hiring independent local tour operators pretty much guarantees that your dollars will land in the palms of those who need them most. Also, stay in small private hotels. Frequent folk markets and buy directly from artisans.
Are these not real-life examples of that chic thing called sustainable development?
"I don't think there'd be any game parks in East Africa if it weren't for tourism," affirms New York-based tour director Marcia Gordon. Her company sends tourists to Kenya, despite despotic President Daniel arap Moi, but has pulled out of Zimbabwe a move anathema to many world travelers who oppose all boycotts.
Indeed, would Indonesia's sad history of slaughter, human rights abuses, and corruption be altered by a boycott of its tourist mecca, Bali? Alas, where you and I decide to spend our vacations hardly determines national destinies. Look at Cuba, where the US boycott of trade and tourism hasn't toppled Fidel Castro after 40 years. Rather than hurt the wrong people, let us engage in responsible travel in a spirit of communication, cooperation, and contribution.
Andrea M. Couture is a widely traveled writer.