In the last couple weeks, I’ve seen a handful of news stories about incidents that illustrate why travelers should know more about their destinations than what beach to visit. One is the recent international attention to the local government in Maldives—an island chain known for its ultra-luxe resorts—for its treatment of sexual assault victims among its own people. In this case, a 15-year-old victim of sexual assault was publicly beaten for the crime of pre-marital sex. Is it acceptable for wealthy travelers to visit a place like this, to lounge on perfect private beaches while the people carrying their bags and serving their drinks are beaten and even killed by their own government?
Unpleasant realities abound in many otherwise exotic, exciting destinations. I’ve personally spent a lot of time in Papua New Guinea, where I became infatuated by the wild landscapes and “primitive” cultures, but there’s an undercurrent of violence that doesn’t gel with the “happy native” stereotypes that are on display to the majority of travelers here. Recent reports from the country detail a growing proclivity towards witch burnings, usually directed at women who have already been marginalized by their villages. In addition, violent crimes like robbery and rape grow more common as people leave their rural villages, and their remote lands are increasing encroached upon by multinational companies like Exxon-Mobil, which pillage PNG’s abundant oil, minerals and lumber.
Even modern countries aren’t immune. Take Israel for example, where a growing streak of Jewish extremism has led to heartbreaking incidents, like an 8-year-old girl being spit on and called a prostitue for not wearing appropriate clothing and the Women of the Wall, whose protests for equal access at the Wailing Wall are met with hurled insults, rocks and even women being detained by police for infractions like wearing the wrong type of prayer shawl.
I experienced this in my own (very small) way when I visited the Wailing Wall. As a secular gentile, I had no religious intentions as I walked toward the ancient structure. But on approach, I was stopped by a young, armed Israeli soldier who handed me a disposable, nylon yarmulke, the skull caps many Jewish people wear on the top of their heads. Being of American WASP stock, I didn’t want to make a scene, despite my discomfort with wearing religious clothing that I don’t believe in. When I recounted the story later to my Jewish/Israeli fiance, she offered a poignant explanation. “He didn’t give it you because he cared about your religion,” she said. “He gave it to you for your own protection, to keep you from getting hurt by the fanatics.”
Stories like this raise serious questions in my mind. What sort of roles and responsibilities do travelers have in visiting destinations that suffer from serious political, economic or environment turmoil? Is it better to give support and tourism dollars to more stable countries? Or does increased exposure bring with it opportunities for change? I can neither pretend to have answers to these questions, nor do I have any illusions that a simple one exists. But they are often in my mind as I set out into the world. Feel free to weigh in with your own opinions in the comments.