Conscientious Projectors

Tourists with an eye on human rights
can make a difference

William F. Schulz

The Nation magazine, October 6, 1997


"Nothing happens in Burma," wrote Paul Theroux in his travel memoir The Great Railway Bazaar, "but then nothing is expected to happen." Nothing, that is, except the arrest of thousands of pro-democracy dissidents; the use of dog kennels as prison cells and the forced labor and relocation of more than 100,000 members of ethnic minorities. But then how would visitors know all that, preoccupied as they are with the sights of Mandalay and Yangon? And if they did, should they give revenue and legitimacy to a government that perpetrates such atrocities?

The decision as to whether to spend tourist time and money in a country like Burma, now Myanmar, is a complex one, made more confusing by the terms in which the argument is usually joined. Does economic growth fueled by tourism really improve the chances of human rights being respected? In some cases, like Singapore, a booming economy and tourist trade has not been enough to guarantee respect for individual liberty. Will boycotting a country harm already impoverished workers more than it will corporate or government titans? Or are the short term economic penalties more than offset by the ultimate benefits of change?

For many people who care about human rights the choice turns on the advice of local activists. In the case of Myanmar, the repressive government has made the attraction of tourists a major element in its push for international respectability; consequently, the leader of the pro-democracy movement there, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, has discouraged visitors from making the journey. Though Amnesty International takes no position on boycotts, I personally would boycott Myanmar because Aung San Suu Kyi asks that we do so. In other countries with abysmal human rights records, however, local rights leaders encourage tourism not just for the capital it introduces to the economy but because foreign eyes offer a measure of protection and an opportunity to get their story out. Just as responsible eco-tourism has generated enthusiastic support for the environmental movement, so human rights conscious travel can make a positive contribution to the struggle for a civil world.

Then, too, if travelers were to avoid every country that violates somebody's rights, itineraries would be remarkably short. Only one country-Iceland-has never been cited for a serious human rights abuse. And while the Blue Lagoon and Thingvellir are magnificent sites, their novelty, to say nothing of their tranquillity, would quickly disappear if the world' s tourists were to limit themselves to that politically pristine place.

So how are we to decide whether to visit a nation? It may be appropriate to avoid a country that is the object of international opprobrium, as was apartheid-era South Africa, particularly if a travel boycott is part of a larger package of pressure tactics designed to isolate a government or change its behavior. But if one visits a repressive state like China or Indonesia, Peru or Syria, it is possible to make the trip rewarding both personally and politically.

The key factor is accessibility. Will you have the opportunity to be in touch with people and events on the ground- those whose lives are directly affected by policies and politics- or will you be limited to representatives of government tourist bureaus and other officialdom? Will you be allowed to roam freely around the country, chatting with whomever you like, or will your steps be monitored? Those with business contacts may have more opportunity to interact with local citizens, but even the average tourist can be a witness for human rights. What is required first of all is to know what to look for, and that requires preparation. What kind of government is in power in the country? Who, if anyone, is getting hurt? What is the labor situation? How are ethnic minorities, gays and lesbians, and women being treated? Is there a free press or religious freedom? This kind of information can be gathered by accessing Amnesty International's country reports ( or the State Department's annual human rights country reports (

A visitor can make a big difference after arriving in the country. People under threat cannot help but be buoyed by contact with a sympathetic outside world. This can take any number of forms, from prearranged professional meetings with counterparts in the country to attendance at religious services to casual encounters in cafes or in the street. Contact with journalists and teachers is often fruitful, and students are almost always eager to talk with those from overseas, if for no other reason than to practice language skills. Such encounters provide opportunities not only for exchanging information but sometimes for delivering messages to relatives, friends or contacts in the United States that might otherwise not get through.

Naturally the average tourist or business traveler is unlikely to stumble across an incident of torture, and most casual travelers would prefer to avoid prisons. Human rights conscious travel requires common sense; no police force in the world takes kindly to being lectured. But when governments learn that foreigners have an interest in a particular group or situation, that often gives them pause. When I was head of a U.S. religious denomination during the eighties, I visited Romania several times before the fall of the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. I always made it a point to embrace my local co-religionists as enthusiastically and publicly as I could- a gesture that, they later testified, had not exempted them from harassment but had certainly mitigated it. Tyrants, no matter how apparently powerful, always hate having their tyranny exposed.

If by chance one should run across a public demonstration and physical circumstances safely allow it, a simple, quiet witness of the action from the sidelines can have a profound effect upon both the demonstrators (who are likely to chant louder in the presence of a foreigner) and the police or military (who will probably be more restrained).

How and where one spends one's money can also be important. In many countries the crafts of indigenous people provide one of their few steady sources of income. Contact and purchases can lend sustenance to the arts community, which is often on the cutting edge of political criticism. It's worth checking out dissenting newspapers and supporting their advertisers who are worthy of encouragement. Tourists might also want to seek out locally run schools and missions, micro-credit agencies and women's cooperatives independent of the government.

It is when a visitor returns home, of course, that all these experiences can best be put to use. There's nothing like the words "Well, I was there." In addition to comments about the weather and accommodations, a well-chosen word on the troubles one has learned about and the heroism one has glimpsed-in a letter to the editor or a presentation before a group-can bring the human rights situation to life for people, including those in power, who have not been there (including the many G.O.P. Congressional freshmen who boast of not even having a passport).

But perhaps the most valuable reward of traveling with politically open eyes is the appreciation for freedom it engenders. On one of those trips to Ceausescu's Romania, my traveling colleague complained to her husband in the presumed privacy of her hotel room, "I can't stand the wood chips in this toilet paper. What I wouldn't give for some Western paper!" And the next day, in her room-but not in mine!-was smooth Western toilet paper. ("I'd love a good, thick, juicy steak!" I shouted that night into the lampshade, but somehow it did no good.)

At the time, that toilet paper was welcome, but the way it was ordered became a symbol of all that our Romanian friends had lost. A conscious effort to incorporate a human rights witness into our traveling is one small way to help return a measure of freedom to those who have none.


William F. Schulz is the executive director of Amnesty International USA.

Third World Travel