World's Most Controversial Vacations
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boycotts to embargoes, these destinations promise more than just rest and
rainforests, 1,000-year-old Buddhist temples, a laid-back city: Myanmar holds
plenty of compelling treasures within its borders. But visiting the country
formerly known as Burma comes with controversy. To protest the military
government’s iron-fist policies, many activists urge travelers to stay away.
Myanmar is hardly the only destination to stir up debate. Political, economic,
even ecological issues in countries around the world have spurred calls for
boycotts. But these issues, which rarely come in clear shades of black and
white, raise an important question: in these controversial destinations, is
tourism beneficial or not?
everyone agrees that a holiday in Burma is a bad thing. “There was a
case for discouraging tourism during the 1990s when forced labor was used to
support ‘Visit Myanmar Year, 1996,’” says Derek Tonkin, chairman of Network
Myanmar, a group dedicated to improving conditions for the Burmese people. But
now, tourism “provides employment directly to some 650,000 Burmese, and
indirectly to as many again.... To boycott tourism is to undermine their
ability to earn a living.”
Burma is not the world’s only
controversial vacation destination. Consider Cuba. The Caribbean nation 90
miles from Florida once attracted America’s highest-rolling vacationers—from Hollywood A-listers
to flashy mobsters. That ended when Fidel Castro took power during the Cuban
Revolution (as immortalized in the second Godfather movie). In 1963,
when the U.S. government restricted travel to the Caribbean island for nearly
all Americans, a new controversial vacation destination was born.
During the embargo’s nearly 50
years, untold thousands of Americans have clandestinely entered Cuba (typically
via Canada or Mexico). For them, the controversy surrounding this Communist
nation was trumped by the prospect of unexplored beaches, affordable hotels,
and that mellow and colorful Cuban culture.
Of course, just because a
destination is controversial doesn’t mean travelers should avoid it. In the
case of Myanmar, travelers can bring much-needed news of the outside world. And
when the vacation is over, they return home with stories of the warm,
wonderful, and welcoming Burmese people—thereby helping raise awareness of
“What Myanmar needs is more, not
less international exposure,” says Network Myanmar’s Tonkin. The same can be
said for most controversial vacation destinations—the more travelers are aware,
the more responsible they can make their trip.