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Is the Trip Worth the Risk?


© St. Petersburg Times

We were a few hundred travel writers and public relations people enveloped in the cocoon of a convention in Boise, Idaho, when the other side of the world became an issue.

"I certainly hope the society will reconsider and not offer post-convention trips to Myanmar," said one of our colleagues when we reached the "New Business" portion of the agenda for the Society of American Travel Writers.

Myanmar -- an Asian nation that used to be called Burma -- is a repressive country, he reminded us. By visiting Myanmar during our next convention (which is to be in neighboring Thailand), we would be providing the Myanmar military government a measure of legitimacy, he said.

He didn't say so, but his statements suggested that any members who went to Myanmar were likely to be kept from seeing anything the dictators did not want us to see. (Half the nation is off-limits to travelers.) So any stories we would write about the country would be skewed, perhaps in an effort to provide "balance" for the coverage of Aung San Suu Kyi.

She is the Burmese woman awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for rallying opposition to the generals who seized control in 1988. They kept her under house arrest for six years and still confine her public appearances and harass her supporters.

These are not the actions of a nation that most of us would feel comfortable visiting. It is enough of an adventure -- or a challenge -- to go to a place vastly different in culture, language, cuisine, history and even the color of the citizens' skin without having to wonder about political prisoners or martial law.

The five-day trip into Myanmar is scheduled as part of the convention that will take place in October in Bangkok, but it is optional.

Similar issues face travelers surprisingly often.

If it is not a fierce dictatorship, perhaps it is the threat of violence. For instance, the society had its 1994 convention in Dublin and cautioned members not to visit the six counties of Northern Ireland.

When I read that warning, I did some research and learned that despite more than 3,000 deaths during a quarter-century of terrorist activity between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland, no tourist had ever been a victim. Nor did our State Department warn citizens against visiting either country.

I decided that Northern Ireland would be a worthwhile destination and made my reservations. I arrived days after the latest cease-fire had gone into effect. I spent a delightful week in Ulster. Afterward, during my days in Dublin, I was astonished by the number of women begging for money. And I was shocked that two members of our group lost their purses in daylight muggings outside the city's best hotel.

Last month, I considered not publishing two articles written by Westerners about their return after many years to Israel and Lebanon. For decades the two nations have attacked each other and have suffered from either terrorism or civil war. Violence in civilian areas -- including tourist destinations -- is much more likely than in the Irelands.

But the stories provided a telling picture of changes in two societies that Americans are free to visit.

Within two weeks of publishing those articles, terrorist bombs were set off in Israel, and there was military conflict between the countries.

More than a year ago I accepted an article written by a Pinellas woman relating how much she enjoyed two vacations in Haiti, probably the most impoverished nation in the Western Hemisphere. Despite U.S. military intervention to restore democracy in 1995, Haitians continue to suffer human rights abuses and civil violence. The article had seemed timeless -- it could be published almost any Sunday. But as it turned out, her visits occurred in calmer times and no longer reflect what a typical trip might now be.

Travelers also face issues created by natural events. Consider Montserrat. Not a place most travelers would go today for a relaxing vacation. But about two years ago, a public relations executive tried to persuade me to write about the Caribbean island. Nope, I told her; the island's volcano has been active.

But it had not erupted, she countered.

When it does, I told her, I hope the only people around to see it are vulcanologists, not vacationing tourists.

In the past few weeks, Times reporter David Adams has told us what Montserrat looks like covered by a few feet of volcanic ash. Not a vacation paradise.

Such issues, of course, create an internal debate:

Will travelers' presence boost the legitimacy of a repressive government -- such as Myanmar, China or Iraq? Or will it expose the country's citizens to Western ways and perhaps challenge allegiance to the rulers?

If civil or international war is unlikely but the social climate is threatening, should travelers stay away to be safe? Or will visiting cut through the filter of a controlled media and help create understanding of the area's problems?

Do we visit only places where the residents speak our language, eat food similar to ours and wear clothing like ours? Or do we dare to venture out, get off the tour bus and talk to people to learn more about them?

The maxim that travel is educational is true only if we understand that the world's people are likely to be different -- not less -- than we are. There are obstacles on that road to understanding, many created by people we set off to meet. Each traveler must decide whether the trip is worth that risk.

Originally published September 21, 1997

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