Ethical Travel… Should you go?

It is always the less visited nations of the world that catch my attention when travelling. Roads less travelled, cities that never get a mention in the “must visit” lists, places my parents or friends would never dream of going.

When it comes to getting out there and choosing what countries to explore, should Ethics play its part? Are certain countries hard to get to for a reason? Can travelling to a corrupt country be seen as supporting a corrupt government or regime? Where do you draw the line between being adventurous and just being darn reckless?

Living within a ten minute drive of one of the most heavily armed borders in the world, that once crossed, lands you in what could well be the most isolated nation on Earth, can be very tempting for an adventurous soul like myself.

For many people, including fellow teachers I work with and probably all my friends back home, this would be viewed as a threat.  A downfall of life in South Korea. Playing with Fire. For me, however, I see it as an opportunity. What could be a once in a lifetime opportunity to get an inside peek at a nation   secrets and mysteries.

Within weeks of setting foot on Korean soil I had already leapt at a chance to see Punmunjeom and the army base with a group of American soldiers we had befriended in a local bar. It was a bizarre experience to be walking around no mans land….a little slice of American soil within the North/South Korean border.

Now I wonder to myself whether I want to go to North Korea or not. Adventure Korea is running a tour in July I believe for either a one day or weekend trip to a city just over the border. All tours would be heavily guarded and you normally only get to hear the propaganda filled spiel written by Kim Jong Il and his cronies and only get to see sites that will specifically shine a white light on all that is “good” about North Korea (known there as “Best Korea”). That aside, should I even be THINKING about travelling to one of the most corrupt nations on earth, feeding money into Kim Jong Il’s deadly regime?

While I write this my boyfriend is in Burma (now known as Myanmar) where he will be backpacking for 3 weeks or so. The Visa process can be quite tedious (although not as long as attempting to get one for North Korea I’m assured!) and as there are no ATMs in the country, tourists must bring a minimum of 250 dollars hard cash just to gain entry into the tiny nation.

According to the BBC factfile on Myanmar,

“It’s impossible to go there and not give money to the government. From the moment your plane hits the tarmac, you’re lining the military’s pockets. Much of the country’s tourist infrastructure is developed by the use of forced labour. People have been made to construct roads, airports and hotels, and thousands more have been forcibly relocated to make way for tourist areas. Tourism to Burma is helping to prolong the life of one of the most brutal and destructive regimes in the world”.

I can remember a few years ago hitch-hiking from Kenya to Sudan. Not because I wanted to volunteer there, or report on the devastating civil war that was in full swing but, for a much more selfish and contrived reason…I wanted that stamp in my passport. I wanted to go home and tell my friends and family how I had hitch-hiked to Sudan, had lunch then hitch-hiked back to my school in Kenya in time for work the next day. Not the most ethical travel by a long shot.

So with all this in mind, should the long line of people queuing for visas for Burma at the embassy in Bangkok really be there? Should people with money to burn be forking out 2-3000 dollars for a 10 day tour of North Korea? Should backpackers, myself included, think a little longer and a little deeper before making impulsive decisions to hitch a lift to Colombia or Sudan or Libya? By going to countries like this, are we being selfish and just looking at things from our point of view or does it really make the slightest difference?

So readers, what do YOU think?

  • Josh
    March 7, 2011 at 2:36 pm

    It’s a good question to bring up for sure.
    I love to go places “I shouldn’t” as well.
    As far as Panmunjin goes, I wouldn’t get TOO psyched as it’s really a special tax-free village just on the border with north korea. They are farmers…and super rich ones at that. Making about 100,000 a month or something from doing all the farming and having to pay no taxes. When I did the tour with them we just went to some tunnels and it was controlled by South Korea, not NOrth Korea.

    If you want to go into North Korea you must go through China. You are issued a special visa on a new passport (atleast for Americans?). After that you wait for the acceptance while in China..then they will wisk you away to North Korea and you will hear constant propaganda while staying on a nearly empty highrise hotel that is on an island in the middle of the river.
    There is this french photographer that has gone there and gotten some pretty amazing photos..and vicetv did an expose on it as well. I’ll look for the links.

    • intrepidtraveller
      March 7, 2011 at 2:45 pm

      You don’t have to go through China though. Adventure Korea has a few trips planned there this year just over a weekend and you go on a bus tour from seoul!! :) Is the photographer Yann Arthus Bertrand..that guy that takes all the shots from the air? He is awesome I have his book at home!

      • Josh
        March 7, 2011 at 3:23 pm

        Last I heard they closed all tours into North Korea last year after a South Korean tourist was killed when she didn’t stay on the marked path and ran when a soldier called her out.
        I was on the DMZ Panmunjin tour earlier. It’d be cool if they opened it up again though.

        Here is the photo gallery that I was talking about. His name is Eric Lafforgue.
        I envy his skills and access

      • intrepidtraveller
        March 7, 2011 at 3:38 pm

        Wow cool pics, he is pretty talented alright!

        I think all the tours appear to be up and running again, according to adventure Korea anyway, although they are high in demand and WAY over priced!

  • Josh
    March 7, 2011 at 6:38 pm

    There were not many tours before. Just one that I ever heard about and that was to visit a factory and hotel co-owned by both Koreas but mostly managed by South Koreans.

    Check this out

    • intrepidtraveller
      March 8, 2011 at 5:30 am

      Cool thanks for the link Josh! Ugh a joint owned Korean and fctory would SO not be worth forking out money to go see…!

  • happypoppeye
    March 7, 2011 at 9:29 pm

    “So with all this in mind, should the long line of people queuing for visas for Burma at the embassy in Bangkok really be there?”
    – In my opinion, yes, and no. If you want to go, than by all means go. From my experience, you can do more good than harm if you are just aware of the situation in that particular country. I also think that everyone is different, and I’m sure people go to these places for the “wrong” reasons, or better wording maybe going there “uninformed”. A case to case basis and tough to lump everyone into just a “long queue”.

    “Should people with money to burn be forking out 2-3000 dollars for a 10 day tour of North Korea?”
    – Absolutely not, and this is where the government makes money. It’s not wrong per say, but doing a “tour” in a country such as this has a higher percentage chance of supporting the government than individual travel does. If you don’t think you could do country like this independently, than you probably shouldn’t be there …just my opinion, and again, you have to look at it on a case to case basis.

    “Should backpackers, myself included, think a little longer and a little deeped before making impulsive decisions to hitch a lift to Comombia or Sudan or Libya? By going to countries like this, are we being selfish and just looking at things from our point of view or does it really make the slightest difference?”
    – I wouldn’t make an impulsive decision, but in my experience, going to countries like these does make a difference. The people in Myanmar were really interested in how the world works outside their borders. They were inquisitive, friendly and helped me understand what is going on in Myanmar. I take that with me and try to spread that thinking to anyone I can. In Afghanistan I saw a people that were, again, some of the most hospitable and freindly people I have met. Totally opposite of what is portrayed on TV throughout the states. Sudan …a great country, with great people.

    If you go, some of your money is going to support the government, no matter what you do. You just need to be aware of that and try your hardest to support the people there as much as possible, and not the government. Political and social issues and thinking is totally opposite in almost every country I’ve visited. Know the issues before you go and don’t become part of the problem. Do what you can to help the people, and take what can out of those borders and spread that throughout the world as much as you can. What other option is there? To just let the people become more isolated without foreign contact and thinking. I don’t think that will help as much as infusing the thinking of the poeple with outside thinking and experience.

    Good article,

    • intrepidtraveller
      March 8, 2011 at 5:28 am

      Hi John! Thanks for taking so much time to comment, I really appreciate it and your opinion. I see you have lots of great post about Myanmar on your blog, im going to go check it out now! Its great to see such debate over the NK question…lots of my friends have responded to the link via facebook…here are their comments;

      Chris: I would go. I’ve met the guy who used to run the UNICEF program in NK in a cafe in Bangkok. And I’ve read an article in Sri Lanka. In both those instances they’ve presented a far different picture of NK than western media does. However, I d…on’t know you’ll get a real picture of it as I’ve 2 Finnish friends who’ve gone there and you will be led to exactly where they want you to go.
      For Burma, I have a pretty strong opinion on that. I’ve been there twice and if you have any kind of travel experience it’s very easy to avoid a lot, not all, but a lot, of the tourist traps designed to get tourist ‘dollars’ into the hands of the government. You actually do hand real people real money if you use your brain and figure out how to do it. And by the way, the junta in Burma is doing just fine on the drug trade and gemstones, happy out driving in their flashy cars back and forth to their mansions that serve as military training ‘camps’. They don’t need you. And the poor people in the markets selling their wares, -do.

      Anna; I wouldn’t miss the chance to go to NK if I were you.
      Going to different countries is always exploration and curiosity, and down with all that political and ethical sh*t :)

      Kristy: interesting post Janet! I struggle with this one sometimes. If its a government thats very corrupt (ie. NK!) I refuse to go there and have my dollars support them.

  • Dale
    March 8, 2011 at 12:55 am

    I visited Mount Geumgangsan Mountain in 2007 for a one night two day trip when it was still open. I made a posting of that trip at my blog if you want to check out what to expect:

    • intrepidtraveller
      March 8, 2011 at 5:23 am

      Cool! I will check it out, thanks for sharing! :)

  • Dale
    March 8, 2011 at 5:36 am

    No problem. I thought some people would like a first hand account of what North Korea was like before it was locked down again in 2008.

    • intrepidtraveller
      March 8, 2011 at 6:56 am

      Yeah definetely…so many people have no clue of whta is going on there..both now and in the really is a mystery! Again, thanks for sharing! :)

  • TourAbsurd
    March 9, 2011 at 9:11 am

    I find personal boycotts pretty easy to follow, so I vote no. If I know that something I’m doing contributes to pain and suffering, I will change it. It’s why I only buy cruelty-free cosmetics and toiletries. I refuse to shop at one of the major supermarkets here in Ireland and blocked certain ads from my site because they support greyhound racing, an industry that is notorious for cruelty.

    I pick my battles, but not supporting a cruel regime seems like a no brainer to me.

    • intrepidtraveller
      March 9, 2011 at 11:56 am

      Well I know it seems like a no brainer but a lot of the time people are unsure if travelling to said country WILL actually be supporting the cruel regime or maybe if u are careful how and where u spend your money the people that need it most may be able to access it.

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    March 16, 2011 at 3:39 pm

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  • Vilma Paree
    March 21, 2011 at 2:50 am

    Hello. excellent job. I did not anticipate this. This is a impressive story. Thanks!

    • intrepidtraveller
      March 21, 2011 at 2:54 pm

      Glad you enjoyed it.

  • Roy
    March 29, 2011 at 10:25 pm

    It’s tricky and there are no easy answers.

    Wait, you hitch-hiked from Kenya to Sudan?? You are my hero Janet!!

    • intrepidtraveller
      March 30, 2011 at 2:09 am

      Haha thanks Roy…the joys of travel in Africa mean hitchhiking is often your only option!!

  • Elana Spiegler
    April 2, 2011 at 6:48 pm

    Hello.This post was really remarkable, especially because I was looking for thoughts on this issue last couple of days.

    • intrepidtraveller
      May 14, 2011 at 2:29 pm

      Thanks Elana. Im happy it was of use to you. Janet