12 OCT 2018: The world is clearly going gaga and many a conscientious traveller or girl guide group is registering their disgust by avoiding offending destinations – hello, Donald Trump’s America! – or staying home all together. Far be it from me to question anyone’s travel morals in such matters, or how they spend or don’t spend their moolah, but I do wonder whether the sentiment might cause more harm than good.

The United Nations World Tourism Organization recently reported that international tourism created US$1.3 trillion in receipts in destinations in 2017, about a fifth of that generated by international travellers, while at the same time, the Air Transport Action Group says the airline industry alone supports 65.5 million jobs globally. All of which is to say that travel and tourism supports not just objectional governments but individuals too: airport workers, small business owners, maids, taxi drivers, students, travel writers!

A couple of years ago in New Orleans, a colleague dropped into a barbershop for a shave and ventured to ask its (black) patrons if they feared that Trump would be elected. Didn’t matter, they replied, because history suggested to them that a government of any stripe would do little for them.

This prompts the question: Should individuals more concerned about the system than the individual perpetrators of it be indirectly penalized when a visitor’s shave stays home?

And should individuals, or large denominations of them, pay a personal price for the actions of neighbours, or worse still, countrymen and women who may live thousands of miles away? Is it fair to punish New Yorkers or Hawaiians, who overwhelmingly opposed Trump, because some Texans and Oklahomans didn’t?

Believe me, many of these people hate the regimes they’re stuck with more than any potential visitor possibly could.

Outrage, of course, is in eye of the beholder, and is hardly confined to the US. Many countries around the world easily serve up a recipe for moral outrage: Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Hungary, Poland, the Philippines, Zimbabwe – the list goes on. And what about Canada? Do you oppose oil pipelines, the appalling treatment of our indigenous peoples, Doug Ford? If so, best be cancelling the next trip to Niagara Falls.

Eliminate every district that, through government, military or religion, oppresses its population, marginalizes minorities, terrorizes its neighbours, befouls the planet, or commits other indignities, and there would be few places left to visit. The penguins in Antarctica are inoffensive, I’ve heard, though they do poop a lot.

One of the most discussed moral dilemmas of a recent tourism vintage concerned Myanmar (Burma) during the days of the junta. (The more things change…) The argument went something like this:

If a tourist were to visit the shuttered southeast Asian nation, would it imply endorsement of the repressive military regime, or, perhaps more to the point, indirectly financially support and sustain the government?

Some argued that it was in fact incumbent upon travellers to continue to go there as a way of spreading their own democratic ideals and to show residents exactly the kind of freedom they lacked (as an incentive to rise up themselves).

Most people stayed away, though Myanmar was conveniently no Miami Beach in terms of popularity and accessibility. But, for those influenced by their conscience, almost 50 years of dictatorship (1962-2011) suggests their choices had little outward effect and the only ones to suffer were rickshaw drivers, who could have used a few more fares, and others dependent on tourism to make a living.

Selfishly, it could be said that the potential visitor is also a victim. Is it right that one should feel compelled to shun the opportunity to visit the spectacular Schwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, or the Grand Canyon for that matter, because a particular government (or majority of a population who may have put them there) has ignited a moral imperative to stay away? On the latter point, sometimes the majority may not support, or even know, the ultimate direction of the government they elected, but instead had ulterior motives, such as simply getting the previous bums out.

There’s also the be-careful-what-you-wish-for caveat. Has the support (and, indeed, direct activity) of western nations (and perhaps well-meaning tourists) in encouraging and supporting democratic reform in middle eastern and north African countries made a better world there? Perhaps in the long run; but ask an Iraqi or Syrian mother who lost a child, or any other innocent victim of the wars, whether it’s a price they were willing to pay for the ouster of Saddam Hussein or Bashar al-Assad. Easy for us to say on this side of the TV screen.

The bottom line is that one’s travel morality is certainly personal, but there’s plenty of room for grey between the black and the white. For me, it hurts my head sometimes, but my default position will ultimately be to think of the little guy who’s just trying to get by and who shouldn’t have to pay for my disapproval of a regime for whom he or she may not even have voted, or perhaps was never given the opportunity to vote out.

At the same time, as a citizen of the earth I’ll reserve the right to go where I please, ensuring that I do my part in little ways to help make the rock a better place along the way.

Travel is about getting out of the arm chair and, nowadays, beyond the sucking Internet and social media vortex, to discover other places and other people’s stories and perspectives, at the same time sharing one’s own.

Staying home, in my way of thinking, merely ensures that the guys I think are bad, win.

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