Around three years ago today both Franca and I were at home sitting at our computers trying to tick off all of the last tasks we needed to complete before started our new life of full-time travel.
In just over a fortnight we’d be sitting on board the first flight of our new life of travel, heading in the direction of Eastern Europe and the Trans-Mongolian Railway.
We’d spent most of the past year building up to this point, learning all we could about the best way to apply for a Russian visa, and had decided to take a route via Kyiv to Moscow from where we’d start a month long trip across the country and on to Mongolia, before reaching our terminal station in China.
Unfortunately, we were unable to obtain a Russian visa – yet whilst a part of me was highly disappointed, another part wondered if that it was best to avoid a country which was so controversial.
Maybe avoiding Russia and it’s disdain for the LGBT community was actually a positive, and not a negative?
Did I really want to visit and spend my money in a country where people are persecuted for their natural desires?
"I never want to visit Russia, or any country for that matter where people are treated so disrespectfully, and so violently"
Whenever the subject of travelling to countries like Russia, China, and Israel came up I’d always bluntly explain that I’d never visit any country where human rights and animal rights are ignored at a cultural level, where the response to outside criticism by the people who lived there was, "This is the way it is. It’s our culture. It’s tradition.".
But do we help or do we hinder by avoiding travel to controversial countries?
Last week we shared an article on our Facebook page which listed ten reasons why we should all be travelling to Iran immediately.
Within the past eighteen months Iran has become one of the biggest target destinations for travellers as life continues to change under the new leadership of President Hassan Rouhani, and for every traveller who returns and shares their thoughts and photos, both Franca and I feel our wanderlust expand and reach the point of explosion.
The article was well received between the friends who follow our page, yet there was one comment that stood out and really made me sit back and think a little.
Should we avoid spending our money in countries where human rights abuse is rife?
Should we be encouraging others to travel to a country where women are second class citizens?
Three years prior I would have been the first to say, "Yes!", avoid Iran, and join those protesting against the country for the 14 children executed in 2014 for their crimes; not forgetting all of the other distressing problems monitored by Human Rights Watch.
Yet today I won’t say that.
Today I won’t say, "Don’t go".
Today I’m encouraging you to go.
That comment and the thoughts that led to my eventually reply to it were in such contrast to how I felt three years previously.
It made me question again; Is it right for us to avoid travel to controversial countries?
Does not going help to further change or to hinder it?
Yes, we stand up for human rights by theoretically not contributing to the problem by keeping our money away from corruption and away from the machine that produces violations such as child exploitation and animal abuse. Yes, we can show our support as a collective through petitions and international pressure – but when have you personally ever made a change because someone put you under constant pressure and put you down?
This week I finished a book called, "How To Win Friends and Influence People" by Dale Carnegie. It came recommended to me by the team at Buffer, who I greatly admire.
Within its pages there are several sections which draw on this same observation, that no one likes to be criticised or chastised – especially in front of others; so why should we point our fingers at other countries because they believe in something so different to you and I?
But what about the thousands who die every year due to cultural oppression?
No public shaming from afar will stop that. Only discussion can help, held directly at the source.
We Don’t Want To Change Minds, We Want Them To Change On Their Own
One common mistaken thought of people in the West is that we must convince other to change their ways. It’s our duty to remind them that the way they treat men, women, children, and animals must change and be more in keeping with our culture and own way of life.
Why must it? Who are we to tell them to convert their ways?
Can we not have the best of both of our worlds?
If we have a duty it’s to inform and promote change through choice, not through pressure.
The rights of all and the quality of life in which they live should be improved the world over. As enlightened beings on this planet it’s our duty to improve life for all and remove the worst parts of everyone’s society, especially in the cases of oppression – but must we push to eradicate all the parts of what makes one culture so different to our own?
It’s the differences between us that make us so unique, special, and worth travelling the world for.
Differences should be celebrated, not eradicated.
Real change must come from the heart.
A couple of weeks ago an nameless creative designer put together a powerful image targeted at Coca-Cola to question their support of the thousands of deaths related to the * Qatar Fifa World Cup* bid of 2022.
It’s an incredibly striking image that went viral within just a few short hours and is still highly visible around almost every social media network – but did it work to its intended end?
The aim was to have Coca-Cola withdraw its sponsorship and funding from the clearly troubled country which has so much blood on its hands, with more people dying by the day; however, all of that attention and all of that pressure to withhold money from being spent in the country has done little more than result in a short (and completely empty of worth) press release.
It’s the officials and personnel now flying to the country for talks that will have the biggest impression and the longest impact (yet unfortunately too late for the more than 1200 workers who’ve already died).
Change is brought through discussion, not abstention.
Keeping your few hundred dollars away from the market stalls of Doha won’t bring about change, but talking with the market stall owners may do.
Only sitting at a table and having a discussion with someone brings change. Only through an open dialogue can advances be made towards eradicating the issues within controversial countries.
My not going to Russia will not stop the percussion of the LGBT community, but my travel there to share my own observations of how the LGBT community is supported back home may help in some way – and I’m only one person, one voice.
People don’t change because of pressure.
People change only after they’ve listened, learned, and chosen to make an educated decision because they want to.
I want to see Russia.
I also want to visit Israel and Palestine – all countries under the eye of the international community and – understandably – deemed as controversial countries that many people will avoid spending their hard earned holiday fund in, yet whilst I once would have been amongst them, I now want to go and understand their cultures for myself, hopefully as one small cog within a larger machine that could bring about a change that preserves human rights for all.
I also want to visit China, a country where not only human rights are in question, but also animal rights.
Eighteen months ago I wouldn’t have step foot into a country that has dog meat upon the menu, yet how can I bring about change by complaining about it in a blog post or in front of my laptop screen?
How can I understand the cultural aspect to the dog meat industry without being there to discuss it directly and hopefully help people to choose for themselves to make a change? A change that I want as a vegan and as someone who tries to stand for animal rights.
I’ll visit China one day, but I won’t do it to shout and scream in peoples faces. I’ll do it to learn and understand their thinking and perhaps open up a dialogue in which both myself and my new Chinese friend enlighten each other and (hopefully) become better together rather than apart.
Lastly, why should anyone listen to me whilst my own home country has problems of its own?
No country is perfect. Even in the Western world people live in poverty, are part of a global problem of human trafficking, or are persecuted for their colour of skin or choice of partner.
Through travel and discussion surely we can all better ourselves, yet protect that which makes us unique?
We are one, but we’re better together.
Travel is one of the great unifiers in the world. We learn and become better images of ourselves through travel. Let’s see if through travel we can become better together.
I encourage everyone to visit a country they’d normally avoid and help to bring about a change that combines the best of both of our cultures.
I’m more than happy to reverse how I felt those few years ago and hope that travelling to controversial countries like Russia will help me not only to learn, but to help tackle problems through attendance, not absence.
Thanks to Bret, Talon, Pedro, Aaron and Tim (in his own unique way) for helping me choose the title for this post. Another example of the healthy collaborative side to the travel blogging community.
I’d also like to thank Clemens of Anekdotique for the article "The Dilemma of Travel to Countries That Violate Human Rights" for the contribution it made to my thoughts.
Which controversial country would you travel to tomorrow?