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
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 Act—which 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.