Holiday with a dictator: Helpful or immoral?

Holiday with a dictator: Helpful or immoral?

Germans question vacations in countries ruled by authoritarian regimes

BERLIN — Fascinating travel destinations such as China, Cuba or Iran are home to some of the world's greatest cultural sites.

Many German travellers wonder, however, if it is morally acceptable to spend a carefree holiday in countries ruled by authoritarian regimes, knowing that freedom of expression is curtailed and opposition figures languish in squalid prison cells.

In this Feb 25 photo, tourists look for souvenirs at a shop also selling postcards and books on Cuban revolutionary hero Ernesto "Che" Guevara, in Trinidad, southern Cuba. Already this year, more foreigners are roaming Cuba's cobble stoned streets. The country saw a 16% increase in visitors in January compared with a year earlier. (AP photo)

"Tourism makes encounters possible and helps countries open up to the outside world," responds Wolf-Dieter Zumpfort, chairman of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, a liberal political institution in Germany. "Your decision to visit or not can't be reduced to a simple right or wrong answer."

It is worthwhile investigating all options, as not every trip to a dictatorship should be dismissed as selfish and irresponsible. On the contrary, your presence might have a beneficial effect.

"Tourism offers people living in a dictatorship a small window to the outside world," believes Peter-Mario Kubsch, chief executive of Studiosus, a travel agency that promotes sustainable tourism.

One of the pickup trucks used to transport tourists to Javaher Dasht is seen in Gilan province of Iran Aug 8, 2013. For those who prefer to bundle up rather than strip down in summer, Iran's highland pastures offer something cooler than the usual coastal retreats. Javaher Dasht, which translates as "jewelled plains," is 2,000m above the Caspian Sea. (Reuters photo)

The lives of people living in a dictatorship can be changed for the better over the long term by publicity, an exchange of ideas, meeting others and sharing ideas.

This view is shared by Hartmut Rein, a professor at the Eberswalde School of Sustainable Development in eastern Germany.

"A lot of systems have been changed through contact with foreign visitors," he says. "The possibility of encounters happening is a good thing."

It is also important to remember that there is no set formula for visiting dictatorships, as authoritarian states tend not to be directly comparable.

North Korea is a Stalinist torture regime, China is a hierarchical one-party state and Myanmar is a post-military dictatorship struggling to bed down a democratic structure. None is like the other two.

"The question is what you believe an authoritarian state to be," says Ury Steinweg, chief executive of Gebeco, a tour operator that offers packages to non-democratic countries such as China, Vietnam, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, Cuba, Iran and Myanmar.

An intending visitor could ask themself who will benefit more from their trip, the regime or the local population?

The visitor's indirect financial support to the regime could be reduced by not using any of the tourist infrastructure run by the state and instead seeking encounters with the local populace rather than simply touring the usual cultural sights.

Tourists visit the Hamel Alley as a Cuban woman smokes a cigar in the background, in Havana March 22. Tourism to Cuba is up sharply in the months since Washington and Havana announced in December that they would move toward a historic rapprochement. (AP photo)

Obviously there are limits to what a tourist can and should do in a dictatorship where freedom of expression is strictly curtailed.

"The tourists who don't go round loudly declaring their political or religious views won't usually notice restrictions," says Mr Steinweg. It would be an unusually brave or foolhardy visitor who goes down to the town square and publicly calls for the oppressor to be overthrown.

"Dictatorships should not be the destination of choice if you are simply looking for a sun and sand holiday, but responsible tourism does such countries good," says Petra Thomas of the German sustainable-tour operators' association Forum Anders Reisen.

Travellers should ask their tour operator what the exact itinerary of their trip will be and how it benefits local people along the way.

Ethnic Kayan women celebrate the Myanmar New Year in Panpet village, Demoso township of Kayah state April 16. Some ethnic Kayan women, also known as Padaung, begin wearing the bronze rings on their neck and legs from young. (Reuters photo)

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