It’s a bold move: traveling to a politically fraught country where human rights violations are de rigueur, all for a good time and a few Instagrams. It’s not necessarily unsafe to visit these places.
Many ostensibly dangerous places are welcoming of tourists because tourism is one of the more honest income streams available to the local communities living under corrupt, troubled governments. Whether it’s ethical to vacation there is another question, the answer to which depends on the choices travelers make along the way. With conscientious planning and forethought, we can travel ethically and safely within fraught regions—potentially, to the benefit of the people who reside there.
Some tourists visiting complicated countries tend to ignore what's going on behind the scenes. People still go to Tel Aviv for their world-renowned restaurant and nightlife scene, in spite of the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine; and to Colombia for drug tourism, despite the well-documented harm the cocaine trade has caused; and to the Philippines to party on the beach, in spite of the bloody civil drug war. But to avoid traveling to these places also misses the point.
Photo by Rana Sawalha on Unsplash
Ethical tourism in these areas is not only possible, it can provide a valuable income stream for many communities. It may never be entirely free of exploitative dynamics; those who have the means to invest in tourist attractions, especially in developing countries and conflict areas, are typically wealthier, more powerful, and more privileged than the general population. But going off the beaten path when you travel, and being thoughtful about where and how you spend your money there, can certainly make a positive impact.
Patronizing the locals directly can help stimulate the hyperlocal economies of the most vulnerable populations, while enriching the traveler with the authentic experience of engaging with their way of life. When photographer Jord Hammond visited Sri Lanka in 2019, before the tragic Easter bombings that killed nearly 300 people, he set out to redefine the long-aggrieved island nation as a travel destination. From its twenty-six-year-long civil war to the 2004 tsunami that killed some 35,000 people, the tide of political extremism echoing the Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte’s bloody drug war, and most recently, the Easter Sunday suicide bombings, Sri Lanka reasonably appears to be an intimidating destination to visit.
Hammond’s photography and footage from his journey portrays Sri Lanka and its people in a very different light. After landing in the capital city of Colombo, he went to Sigiriya, a dazzling Buddhist temple built into the top of a gargantuan rock formation. He rode the train from Kandy across the gorgeous pastoral landscape en route to Ella, capturing intimate portraits of the agrarian people he met along the way. Upon reaching the southern beaches, he didn’t decamp to a resort—he cavorted with fishermen, perched on stilts in the shoals with poles and nets, awaiting a catch as the sun sank into the horizon.
There is so much beauty to behold behind the façade of imminent danger. One way to defy violence and take a stand against oppression, even as a foreigner on a brief visit, is to seek the beauty and light of the good people simply trying to live their lives, in spite of any violence or political turmoil.