World's Most Controversial Vacations
Lush 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.
And 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?
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 their plight.
“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.
Since 1959, when the Dalai Lama government was forced into exile in India, the Chinese government has kept an iron grip on Tibet, known as the “roof of the world” and the spiritual home of Tibetan Buddhism. By traveling here, say some activists, you are nearly assured of putting money in the Chinese government’s hands. Before you land in Lhasa, familiarize yourself with the issues. One good resource is Students for a Free Tibet, a global group that has campaigned for Tibetan rights since 1994.
The civil war waged by the separatist Tamil Tigers may have officially ended in 2009, but accusations linger of wartime genocide by the ruling government. And several human rights watchdog groups, including UNICEF and Amnesty International, worry for the safety of Tamil refugees. At the same time, tourism to the lovely, lush island off India’s southeast coast is exploding, thanks in part to publicity campaigns that promote the country’s natural beauty and cultural heritage.
Having determined that rampant, unregulated tourism was harming the area’s unique plant and animal life, UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee placed the Galápagos on its list of endangered sites in 2007. The good news is, just three years later, Ecuador’s most famous tourist attraction is off that list. It’s too soon to celebrate. Environmentalist Brian Merchant says, “If anything...the problems have only grown more complex and fundamental.” Some tour operators are accused of “greenwashing” (overstating or misrepresenting their eco-friendly practices), and invasive species still threaten local animal populations.
Just six years ago, a vacation in Libya wasn’t just controversial—it was impossible. Only in 2004 did the U.S. government lift its travel restrictions, and more Americans have vacationed in the land of Muammar al-Qaddafi. Though for many the name “Qaddafi” is synonymous with terrorism, the Libyan government is aggressively courting American travelers—most recently, with its Sands of Time campaign highlighting the country’s ancient archaeological sites. Libya may be tomorrow’s vacation hot spot, but it’s still a destination fraught with controversy.
The specter of Communism may seem quaint to 21st-century Americans, but Fidel Castro’s government still holds true to policies that have displaced millions. Since 1963, travel to Cuba has been illegal for most Americans. Still, for decades, untold thousands have snuck in through Mexico and Canada to enjoy a low-key Cuban vacation. Though the restrictions are slowly loosening up, the Castro regime remains in power—and still benefits from those vacation dollars.
Though Zimbabwe was partially cleared by the Kimberly Process—the diamond industry’s regulatory scheme—few would say the country’s stones are mined responsibly. Of course, travelers continue to trek to spectacular Victoria Falls in the country’s northwest corner. Here, avoiding controversy is simple: visit the falls via Zimbabwe’s neighbor, Zambia.
To keep money away from Burma’s military rulers, high-profile travel boycotts have been issued and subsequently heeded. Though opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was recently released from her prolonged house arrest, the ruling government has no plans to turn over a new leaf. So, should you go? Derek Tonkin, chairman of Network Myanmar (a group dedicated to improving conditions for Burmese), suggests avoiding State-owned hotels (lists are available online). That way, vacationers can put their dollars where they’re needed: in working people’s hands.
Democratic Republic of Congo
For decades, rebel groups and armed militias have fought for control of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s mines, forests, and other natural resources. Yet vacationers continue to visit the Virunga National Park for a glimpse of rare (and endangered) mountain gorillas. At the same time, the rebels and militias are indiscriminately poaching these animals and tearing up their habitats for valuable ore. Activists hope boycotts and other political pressure will prompt the government to improve its environmental record. Until then, spotting rare gorillas in the Congo remains controversial.
If anyone expected Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez to adopt a softer tone toward America when President Bush left office, they were surely disappointed. If anything, Chavez has amped up his anti-U.S. rhetoric—prompting widespread boycotts against all things Venezuelan. Still, vacationers continue to speak fondly of Los Roques Archipelago National Park and the hard-to-reach Angel Falls, the world’s highest waterfall, hidden away in the dense jungle.