Why we should visit countries ruled by dictators
"Now opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has dropped her opposition to tourism, Myanmar has become hip."
Any minute now, we’ll start seeing “I’ve Been to Burma Too” t-shirts. Now opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has dropped her opposition to tourism, Myanmar (as the country is now officially known) has become hip. My only question is: what took so long?
When I booked my ticket to Myanmar last year, I was amazed not just by how many people seemed to support the tourism boycott, but how few of them were able to articulate why Myanmar’s military government is worse than the governments of such trendy destinations as Cuba or even China – neither of which gets a great rap from Amnesty International.
Personally, I don’t believe in tourism boycotts. Sure, by going to Myanmar, I put some money in government coffers – but I also put money into the hands of starving locals who suffer chronic underemployment. Every single local I spoke to wanted more visitors to come – even those who weren’t benefiting economically. These people all supported Aung San Suu Kyi generally: they just thought, on this issue, she was wrong.
Women entering a mosque in the Holy city of Qom, Iran.
That’s one reason I don’t like the idea of no-go zones: I want to find out for myself. Having been to both Myanmar and China, for instance, I can tell you that the average Myanmar citizen may not like the military junta, but they’re not cowed by it. They’re quite happy to tell you precisely what the government is doing wrong. By contrast, I’ve found that if you ask the average Chinese about their government’s worst excesses, they’ll turn pale and silent.
I can also tell you that in Myanmar – as in just about every one of the dozen or so dictatorships I’ve been to – people are desperate for visitors. Trapped in a country where information is controlled by the government, they long for some kind of contact with the outside world.
When I first visited Iran, more than a decade ago, the second Palestinian intifada had just begun and the Middle East was aflame with anti-Western protests. I was concerned about the welcome I would get – but the locals couldn’t have been friendlier.
I was unable to walk down the street without someone starting a conversation with me. Not a “come into my carpet shop” conversation – they just wanted to talk to someone from “outside”. Far from vilifying the United States, most of them actively admired the country. That trip taught me that what you see on the news is only ever part of the story.
Of course, everyone has the right not to visit a particular destination. Some of my gay friends won’t go to countries that vilify homosexuals, and that’s fair enough. By that logic, I should avoid the Middle East, where many countries curtail the freedoms of women. But I like to think that by being there, I’m giving local women a look at an alternative way of living.
Maybe I’m naïve, but perhaps the sight of a woman who goes where she wants, when she wants, without male permission or accompaniment, may give some women hope. Certainly I’ve had some exciting, inspiring conversations with women throughout the Middle East. In every despotic regime, there are a few brave individuals who fight for change in ways big and small. Every little piece of inspiration helps.
But if there’s one reason above all others why I think it’s important to visit countries ruled by tyrants and dictators, it’s this. The first thing many dictators do is lock their citizens in. They don’t want their people know what the rest of the world is like. Isn’t that the best reason on earth to go to them?
Do you have a personal travel blacklist? Which countries are on it, and why?