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Thursday, April 12, 2012

Ethics and Tourism

In just a few weeks, I’ll be heading off on a big trip that will include two weeks in Vietnam and Cambodia.  Of course, as a prawf, I’m incapable of simply planning an enjoying a trip to new and exciting places.  Instead, I find myself fretting over the various ethical considerations involved in visiting developing nations.  More on this after the jump.

I trace much of my uneasiness to a trip I took to Bosnia in 2006.  I went to Sarajevo that year to visit a Bosnian woman I had befriended while studying in Germany.  I had always wanted to visit the former Yugoslavia, and having a local friend to host me seemed like a perfect opportunity. 

Of course, as an American, almost all of what I knew about Bosnia had to do with the recent wars, with a little bit of Marshal Tito and the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand thrown in.  Nevertheless, I was determined to show my friend and her family and peers that I was interested in Bosnia for its own sake, and that I had not come to voyeuristically experience a recent war zone or to gawk at poverty.  I was acutely aware of the fact that men and women who were my peers had lived through an unimaginably horrific war.  I recall being deeply ashamed when my friend’s sister asked what it was like to be in New York on 9/11, as if my story of temporary displacement could ever compare to what it must have been like to be a teenager in 1990s Sarajevo.

With that uneasiness in mind, I set out with my camera and my journal to document a country that could have been captioned “Bosnia: Not a Warzone!”  I snapped pictures of the gorgeous mountains, of the charming Turkish quarter and the stately Austrian quarter in Sarajevo, of the new bridge and beautiful hillside houses in Mostar, and of the almost comical “ruins” of an ancient “pyramid” of dubious provenance.  I chronicled my adventures eating cevapi on the most delicious fresh bread I have ever tasted, and enjoying an afternoon coffee in a perfectly landscaped Sarajevo square. 

But there were many things that I took fewer pictures of, namely, the bombed out buildings, large cemeteries with too many recent graves, the countless- street-side memorials to urban terrorist attacks, and the appalling interior condition of even “luxury” high-rise apartment buildings.  I came back brimming with stories about the warmth and hospitality of the people I met, but was much less forthcoming about some of the daily hardships that I saw them face.

In the years since I visited Bosnia, I have travelled to several other developing countries, each time with an uneasy sense that the poverty and suffering of others is not there for my entertainment or “cultural experience,” but that ignoring this aspect of life would be to leave without a complete sense of the land I have visited.

So, on this trip, I hope to achieve as much balance as possible.  Will I see the Vietnam of napalm, of My Lai, and the Cu-Chi tunnels?  Or the Vietnam of a rich history that is so much more than colonial occupation and resistance.  Will I allow myself to see the Cambodia killing fields, or confine myself to the tourist haven of Angkor Wat?  Will I marvel at economic revival in Vietnam or allow myself to confront the reality of continued poverty in developing nations?

Tell me, Prawfs readers: which trip is most respectful to myself and to the nations I am visiting?  Is there any way to experience the reality of war or poverty without being exploitative, condescending, or voyeuristic?



Posted by Robin Effron on April 12, 2012 at 03:56 PM | Permalink


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I visited Vietnam last year and Cambodia this year. The Vietnamese love Americans. I was in taxicabs where the driver had American flag decals on the dashboard. Chinese, they don't like so much. China is the big neighborhood bully, and they all look to America for protection. I found the drive by the old American air base at Danang very moving (the old quonset huts are still there) as well as the visit to the old imperial palace at Hue, where the walls still have the bullet holes from the Tet offensive of 1968. It occurred to me often how much better off Vietnam would have been had the US won the war; Vietnam, at least the southern part of it, would be like South Korea today, instead of a struggling third world country that is just starting on the capitalist road to development.
Cambodia was also fascinating. How can such a gentle people have committed such atrocities against themselves? Of course, Pol Pot was the logical end point of the quest for perfect equality. Do people understand that?
The temple complex at Angkor is one of the great wonders of the world. You could easily spend a week there and see something new and exciting every day.
The other thing to keep in mind is that as former French colonies, both Vietnam and Cambodia have great food. There are excellent "fusion" restaurants, world class, in both countries. Vietnamese sandwiches on French baguettes are world famous.

You'll have a great time, just leave the guilt at home.

Posted by: Douglas | Apr 13, 2012 8:18:43 PM

Only you can decide what is most respectful to yourself, and I'm not sure what it means to be respectful to an entire country. But as long as you are respectful to the actual people you meet there, you'll be fine.

Plus, the tourist infrastructure in Cambodia and Vietnam is so well-developed (all the places you mention are on the tourist trail) that it's unlikely that you will "experience the reality of war or poverty" in those countries, unless you get pretty far off the beaten path.

Instead, try to see a lot of different things and just accept that, no matter what you do, you will only get a tiny and very incomplete glimpse of two very interesting countries with rich and complicated histories.

Posted by: J.D. | Apr 13, 2012 12:58:36 AM

My own view is that whether you are exploitative, condescending, or voyeuristic depends upon your attitude, not your itinerary. And as long as you pump lots of money into the local economy, I suspect the nations you are visiting will be appreciative.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Apr 12, 2012 5:08:15 PM

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