When, if Ever, Is It Unethical to Visit a Country?

The first principle of travel is that people are not the same as their governments; indeed, even in the free world, they’re often the victims of those governments. Walking down the streets of Havana on the 28th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution, I inevitably drew toward me all those who longed to complain about their rulers, to escape them (or, in a few cases, to spy on me on their behalf). What I encountered was the same response that war photographers everywhere report: In times of terrible grief, people want their stories to be taken to the larger world, because otherwise the suffering will go on behind closed doors, possibly forever. “Tell your country what’s going on here,” people say. “And tell us, please, what it’s like everywhere else.”

The first time I went to Myanmar (then Burma), in 1985, tourists were scarce and the locals I met could not have seemed more blue-skied and undefended. Even as I chafed against the constraints of a seven-day visa and any number of arbitrary restrictions, their whole lives were spent in such a state. A bar of chocolate, a photo of my homeland, a piece of the larger world was all they craved — and the chance to tell me what they were going through.

I wrote about one friend, a humble trishaw driver I encountered, in my first book, “Video Night in Kathmandu,” worried about the consequences for him. Over the next 30 years, I’ve heard from my friend again and again: “Thank you, thank you for coming to visit us in our prison. And thank you for sharing my story with the world. I sometimes think it’s all I have.”

Murphy lives in Lismore, Ireland. Her many books have recently been recognized by the Royal Geographical Society, which, in June, will present her with the Ness Award for travelers who have successfully popularized geography and the wider understanding of our world and its environments.

Is it a generational thing? In my remote youth, travel was rarely inhibited by ethical considerations. The Iron Curtain of course imposed restraints; otherwise, we applied for visas and roamed lightheartedly.

In 1953, when I set off to cycle around Francoist Spain, no one reprimanded me for condoning fascism. Eight years later, my plan to cycle through the shah’s Iran, en route to India, provoked no shocked protests about Savak. Nor did references to tyrannical emperors disturb my three-month trek through Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia. True, those journeys predated mass tourism, which so many contemporary governments are so keen to promote.

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