Travel Writing as a Political Act

Speaker's Corner: Lonely Planet writer Robert Reid explores the role of travel writers in a complex world

06.02.09 | 10:39 AM ET

REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco

Last summer, while updating a guidebook in Bulgaria, I found myself surrounded by two bouts of midnight humping on either side of my thinly walled hotel room. I’d been so happy to find a clean, cheap and convenient place late on a rainy night that I missed the reception area’s tiny sign pricing one-hour “rest stays” (marking it as prostitute-turf). As I turned up my iPod, I wondered if I should cut the hotel from the guidebook or just let readers know what they’d find.

I cut it. It wasn’t the hardest decision I’ve made in the couple dozen guidebooks I’ve written. But I realize it’s an example of the murky intersection of travel and politics in a shrinking world.

Recently, the broader topic was explored in detail by Rick Steves—the self-described “normal guy” TV host and guidebook vet. His new book Travel as a Political Actwhich he recently spoke to World Hum about—is a photo-filled, 216-page account of his experiences at Dutch “coffeebars,” filming in Iran and visiting El Salvador. His message: Such experiences can smarten you up.

I liked it, even if he keeps the focus on what the traveler gets out of a trip, not necessarily what potential good a traveler can have for the destination. The latter is my interest here—and it’s where travel writers can perform political acts by questioning outside perceptions and helping ensure the ever-expanding realm of world tourism never becomes a one-way relationship in which only travelers enjoy any benefits.

I’ve wrestled with politics and travel many times, sometimes going to places that I felt had an unfair reputation abroad. In the mid-’90s, my Vietnamese-American wife and I moved to Vietnam despite her father’s protests that we’d be brainwashed. A few years ago, I flew to Colombia to try to show a different side to a country often unfairly branded as a “cocaine and kidnapping capital.”

No place I’ve been is more tangled in politics and travel than Myanmar (Burma). In 2004, when Lonely Planet asked me to be the lead author of its controversial guidebook to the country, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be involved. Its xenophobic military junta had used forced labor to ready tourist sites for a “Visit Myanmar Year” in 1996, ushering in a compelling tourism boycott. Wary of automatically linking any trip with a political endorsement, though, I spoke with people on both sides of the debate and happened to meet the exiled Burmese author Pascal Khoo Thwe, who escaped the fallout of the 1988 protests by crossing into Thailand on foot. He told me that if anyone wanted to go individually (and not on a package tour which would benefit the government more), “they should go.” I took the job.

I suppose that puts me, along with Lonely Planet (and some multibillion-dollar oil companies), on the “dirty list” of pro-boycott groups for, in their view, “helping to finance one of the most brutal regimes of the world.” But after updating the book twice, I consider it to be not just a useful resource, but a critical one.

Travelers do go to Burma, and it’s the only complete guidebook that shows them how to keep the bulk of their money in local hands, not the junta’s. As part of a three-author team, I traveled anonymously on tourist visas and kept scribbled notes out of view from potential “spies.” I sought out guesthouses and travel services in the growing private sector and flagged government-run businesses to avoid.

Because the boycott is so hotly discussed outside the country, I tried everywhere to find a local who supported the boycott to quote in the book’s lead-off “Should You Go?” chapter. I never could find one. Typically people cherished outside contact. One old man invited me for tea and then later said tearfully, “I will remember you for eternity.”

The ethical question of whether to travel to a place like Burma is not black and white, and it’s important to tell potential visitors that no visit is apolitical. At least a portion of one’s expenses will make it to the government—through visa fees, site entrance fees and taxes on most purchases. This is part of the case against travel as stated in “Should You Go?” which goes on to warn visitors to keep their politics to themselves. This is important. Failing to do so can get travelers jailed and, worse, implicate locals around them.

We’ve seen how a visitor’s impact can go terribly wrong in recent weeks. After an American tourist swam to the lakeside Yangon home of Aung San Suu Kyi, the democracy leader (who has spent 13 of the past 19 years under house arrest) was relocated to the notorious Insein Prison and has been put on trial.

My experience in Burma has heightened my awareness of the implications of all travel, and in particular, travel writing. But Burma is just one example.

Amidst the panicky “swine flu” coverage, Mexico—a country as big as Western Europe—was clumsily treated as a single zone of outbreak. It was sad seeing cruise lines rerouted from Mexican ports with no reported flu cases (like Cabo San Lucas and Cozumel) to U.S. ports with reported cases.

Writer Philip Gourevitch recently profiled the nation of Rwanda in The New Yorker. He revealed the poor, once-war-torn country, which has such a dangerous reputation, to be one of Africa’s safest.

If not reporters, travel writers are in a position to fill information gaps and ask overlooked questions. I’m sure Rick Steves would be the first to agree.

Robert Reid, the U.S. Travel Editor for Lonely Planet, lives in Brooklyn. He was the subject of a World Hum interview.

6 Comments for Travel Writing as a Political Act

Dan 06.02.09 | 7:00 PM ET

Your article reminds me of an ethical dilemma that followed Hurricane Katrina, as local sightseeing companies began offering bus tours of the devastation in New Orleans. A lot of people were outraged initially, and outrage was certainly my first instinct. But the tours served three essential purposes. They helped keep those local tourist businesses afloat in the midst of a dire threat to their livelihoods; they provided local employment; and most important, they allowed people to see what really happened in New Orleans. Each devastation tourist saw something they never believed could happen in an American city, and they told others. I don’t believe it was unethical; indeed, I think it was essential.

It’s the same with Burma, a country that makes the media coverage of New Orleans seem absolutely robust. The Burmese people need tourists. They need to know they haven’t been forgotten, and more outsiders need to see the country and its people up close. For most of us,  the simple act of “going there” makes a place more important to us. We pay attention when it’s in the news, and we have a better understanding of what the issues are. If the junta is ever to be deprived of its power, the Burmese people will need a lot more of those people who care about the country.

Sophia Dembling 06.03.09 | 1:47 PM ET

The ethics and politics of travel and travel writing are endlessly fascinating. I reviewed a book once, wish I could remember the name, about ethical travel in developing nations. Among the things I remember best were the authors cautioning about providing over-the-counter remedies to people you meet, since they typically won’t cure illnesses and might inspire mistrust of medical assistance, and the ethical issues involved in haggling or not.

As for politics—I labored long and hard over whether to visit the Wailing Wall tunnel shortly after it was opened, spurring riots because Muslims felt it was too close to their holy sites.

In the end, I visited the tunnel but my story focused on my internal debate (and even discussion with a friend who was a professor of journalism ethics at the time) and why it’s important to think about such things. Tourism is an enormous economic and cultural force. We as writers and tourists have to think hard about the decisions we make.

Rick Steves 06.03.09 | 5:02 PM ET

You are correct. I would agree.

Cate 06.04.09 | 9:53 AM ET

The trouble with politics is that it seems to find its way into every nook and cranny:sports, business, medicine.

Robert’s comments on Burma took me back to my trip through the country in 2005. Having used the LP guide and internet as research, I carefully planned where to go and where to avoid. What the material in both the book and internet didn’t advise me was how to respond to the local Burmese questions;“Why don’t people come to our country?”, “Don’t people like us?”,“Please tell your friends to come, not to worry about the government”. I didn’t know what to think or say and who to believe.

There were no ethical issues in my decision to go to Burma. I had to see and experience it for myself. I don’t regret going in fact if anything it has educated me and given me the information needed to speak about the country. The media only paints one kind of picture.

Like Dan mentioned, by not going to places like Burma can give an impression that we don’t care, that we have forgotten about them. Travellers are the eyes and ears, we write, talk ,and blog.Tourism may channel money to juntas and dictators, bring about ethical issues, but it can also build businesses, generate income, feed people and educate. It can if done correctly, empower those who need empowering.

I agree with Sophia, we do need to think hard about our decisions and act responsibly, it doesn’t mean we have to forget or hide our heads in the sand.

Robert Reid 06.04.09 | 5:26 PM ET

Great comments here. Thanks to all.

Singapore Ads 06.24.09 | 11:15 AM ET

This really isn’t as simple as acting responsibly or follow your heart sort. There are far too many things you need to consider. While you will think that the writing can help people, it might at the same time hurts them more.

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