Conscientious Travel

Earlier this month I was chatting with two other ladies about our holiday and year-end plans. The conversation naturally drifted towards the subject of travel. The two other ladies – I’ll call them Helen and Beatrice – had visited quite a few countries in their lifetimes and were comparing notes while I listened intently.

Beatrice seemed like the adventurous type; the list of countries she had visited during her younger years ranged from the most popular touristy destinations to the exotic. It was as if she had used National Geographic as her guidebook.

Helen, on the other hand, was the type who had fallen in love with a few select countries for various reasons – the food, the people, the atmosphere, the vibe – and often revisits those places year in, year out.

Beatrice then recounted a bad experience she and her partner had while visiting a few countries in a particular region; a combination of food poisoning, unfavourable encounters with the locals as well as poor service had unfortunately left a bad taste in their mouths. She then qualified herself by noting that it had been many years ago.

Maybe you were just unlucky. Or maybe things are better now, I said.

Beatrice agreed. Even so, she wasn’t keen on revisiting those countries any time soon. Not because she was prejudiced, but because of the political turmoil that had beset the region.

I nodded my head knowingly, thinking I understood her.

It isn’t safe anymore, I said.

Beatrice shook her head. It isn’t about personal safety, she said. It’s the principle of it – how could she possibly go on holiday in a country beset by economic disparity and political strife? How could she, in good conscience, sunbathe among moneyed foreigners on a private beach while local employees go through daily security checks and are forbidden to speak to the very guests they are serving?

As long as there is no peace or some semblance of social equality in a country, I can’t bring myself to go there on holiday, she insisted.

Helen countered Beatrice’s argument. But sometimes the country needs the tourist dollars. You’d be helping the economy, Helen said. For some countries, tourism is a major economic activity. In some cases, it’s effectively the only economic activity.

Beatrice shook her head, unconvinced. The money rarely goes to those who need it, she said. It won’t change things. 

I felt slightly ashamed of myself. There I was, assuming that Beatrice shared my selfish concern for personal safety when her actual concern had been larger.

At this point, Helen shrugged her shoulders and cocked her head, acknowledging in part Beatrice’s argument.

Beatrice had to leave then; the three of us were actually volunteering at Centrepoint, a community centre for expats in Basel, and she had to attend to something else.

I was left with Helen, and soon our conversation turned to other things.

That earlier conversation with Beatrice, however, stuck in my mind.

Up until then, if I had to list down all the countries I wouldn’t step foot in, my main consideration would be personal safety. It would be a list guided by fear.

It would be a list of places I wouldn’t dare go to.

But what if I could take away the element of fear? What if I had to list down those countries which my conscience barred me from visiting?

I had never given it that much thought.

What was worse, I realised, was that my conscience had never been that strong a determinant. 

I suppose the question then is:  Should it?

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