Can I Travel to a Country With Bad Human Rights?

BY Hajar

Trippin suitcase with passport, laptop and sticker.


What are human rights?

Like any aspect of human life, travel is constantly subject to discussions about ethics, responsibilities and obligations. The average conscientious traveller is concerned about everything from the environmental impact of their trip to their potential contribution to inhumane practices. And so, unsurprisingly, the internet has spat out a variety of tools to quell all these concerns, rating countries and their human rights abuses and breezily summarising a nation’s ethical stances in the space of a short listicle entry.

Although digestible, these answers are limited and occasionally short-sighted, with the same handful of countries cropping up in lists repeatedly (think Egypt, China, Saudi Arabia, etc.). And while these countries have muddy ethical legacies, Western nations are conspicuously absent despite their recurrent human rights abuses. From France’s suppression of religious minorities to the U.S.’s disproportionate incarceration rate of ethnic minorities, abundant evidence points to blatant international human rights abuses. This suggests that the desire to champion human rights, and the travel recommendations they inform, are often subject to the same political agendas present in other conversations about humanitarian intervention.

Often the term ‘human rights’ in everyday conversation is directly synonymous with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document published in 1948 that established the 30 rights and freedoms to which all humans are entitled. These include everything from a right to education to freedom of thought and religion. However, countries are free to pick and choose which rights and liberties they transform into legislation, so each nation’s domestic stance differs.

As a result, interpretations of human rights are a lot more varied and context-dependent; there’s no singular one-size-fits-all definition. When the phrase is bandied about on travel websites, it’s often not exclusively in reference to the UDHR but instead a broader set of beliefs that also encompasses the author’s personal ethical views.

Can I Travel to A Country with Bad Human Rights
Human rights and travel

When it comes to travel, concern for the wellbeing of communities internationally has prompted effective and significant boycotts. From the 30-year Anti-Apartheid Movement that boycotted South Africa to Boycott, Divest Sanctions that boycotted and continues to boycott Israel/Occupied Palestine and even the boycott of Burma requested by Aung San Suu Kyi, boycotts remain impressive tools of mass resistance and solidarity. In an ideal context, debilitating a state (or an entity) in an economic, reputational and even cultural capacity enables community members to apply significant pressure on regimes, despots and military forces.

As travel becomes an industry that promises cultural immersion alongside the opportunity to contribute to social change, travellers are reluctant to travel to locations where their money or their presence appears to disrupt the lives of these local communities. Although internalising a sense of personal responsibility is a valuable approach to travel, it is essential to remember that travelling to a location does not necessarily equate to a political endorsement of the nation’s stances or transgressions.

With tourism boycotts, travellers must ensure they are well-informed and understand what they are boycotting and the end goal of the boycott itself. Unless a community explicitly calls for a tourism boycott, tourists can inadvertently harm locals dependent on tourism by depriving them of tourism dollars and further enshrining the country in mystery and ambiguity. The travel industry is responsible for 1 in every ten jobs internationally. Travellers only need to look at the aftermath of the Covid-19 lockdowns to see the harm no travel can cause to a country.

Additionally, boycotts are not universally and progressive movements despite their radical left-wing origins. For example, in 2017, a Saudi Arabia-led coalition initiated a boycott of Qatar due to their alleged support of terrorist activities and, specifically, the nation’s relationship with Iran. And while Qatar is a resource-rich country not dependent on tourism, it’s a perfect demonstration of how boycotts are used to apply political pressure internationally. Similarly, although initially posed as humanitarian stances, embargos against Cuba and sanctions imposed against Iran often shroud more calculated political intentions to destabilise a country financially.

So what should i do?

When well-planned and well-researched, tourism can bring under-supported communities the much-needed revenue and even publicity that they need. Travel is an ideal opportunity for personal and cultural exchange and is testimony to how first-hand experience can entirely transform opinions and mindsets. No matter how well-versed an individual is on a subject, visiting the location and interacting with the people can offer an insight inaccessible from abroad.

However, boycotts are essential tools of non-violent mass resistance and are some of the most powerful acts of solidarity. Listening to local communities when they request tourism boycotts bolsters their voices and allows travellers to tap into the spirit of humane travel and political solidarity.

Truthfully, there is no utopia where all humans are afforded equal rights; instead, it’s up to the individual traveller to use their moral compasses to decide where and how to spend their money. So Trippin suggests travellers ensure the boycotts they’re following stem from legitimate movements by checking sources such as Human Rights Watch, a solid foundation for increasing your awareness of current affairs internationally.  Also, keep an open mind while travelling around and talking to locals, allowing yourself to access the full range of political opinions to better understand the society around you.

Imposing a rigid moral and ethical framework on travel destinations is excessive and not necessarily the best option, instead substituting vague blanket boycotts for conscientious spending and support is an excellent place to begin. In fact, Trippin has created a travel tool that is a perfect starting point for increasing the financial sustainability of travel.

Can I Travel to A Country with Bad Human Rights?

Photography by Tim Gouw, Miko Guziuk & Mati Manego