Skip to navigationSkip to content

The Otto Warmbier tragedy is the latest example of tourists being used as pawns in Asian politics

Otto Frederick Warmbier, a University of Virginia student who has been detained in North Korea since early January, attends a news conference in Pyongyang, North Korea, in this photo released by Kyodo February 29, 2016.
Otto Frederick Warmbier.
By Steve Mollman
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

The American student Otto Warmbier was looking for a bit of fun when he signed up for a five-day trip to North Korea in late 2015. Instead, he was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for allegedly taking a banner from his hotel. This week his parents reported he died at the age of 22 at a Cincinnati medical center, days after being returned by North Korea in a vegetative state.

For years, tensions have been running high between Pyongyang and Washington over North Korea’s missile and nuclear tests, which have continued in defiance of international pressure and sanctions. It’s hard not to see geopolitical undertones in Warmbier’s treatment.

The Warmbier tragedy comes as politics and tourism keep becoming tangled in Asia—his death might be seen as an extreme example of it. From Indonesia to Taiwan to South Korea to the Philippines, politics are affecting tourists and local economies, and posing ethical questions to those in charge of selling trips or promoting destinations.

It’s safe here, really

In the Philippines last summer, president Rodrigo Duterte launched a violent war on drugs soon after taking office. International criticism followed after it became clear the crackdown was encouraging vigilantism and claiming innocent lives.

Wanda Teo, the nation’s tourism secretary, complained that negative coverage of the campaign made it “really difficult for me to sell the Philippines, especially when extrajudicial killings becomes the topic.” She asked Filipino journalists to “tone down” such coverage to make her job easier. That drew a reaction from UN special rapporteur Agnes Callamar, who suggested Teo should instead ask authorities to stop the extrajudicial killings.

Last month, Duterte declared martial law over the southern island of Mindanao, which has suffered from piracy and hostage-taking for decades, after Islamist militants staged a siege on the city of Marawi. Nearly 350 people have died since the siege began.

Nearby Malaysia and Indonesia, fearing the lawlessness could spread beyond Mindanao, started nearby joint sea patrols with the Philippines in an attempt to maintain security. Teo said she would continue to promote Mindanao as a safe destination, Marawi excepted.

Tourists as a weapon

China is proving adept at sending or withholding its tourists to support its political aims. Beijing has been known to give tour operators instructions urging them to not send groups to particular destinations. Chinese tourists spent over $260 billion last year, and their sudden absence can hurt local economies.

South Korea angered China last summer by announcing it would allow the US deployment of a THAAD antimissile system on its soil. Though the US maintains that the system is meant to defend against North Korean missiles, Beijing says it also presents problems for its own military operations.

It didn’t take long for the number of Chinese tourists visiting South Korea to start dropping. By April the figure was down by more than half from a year earlier. The resort island of Jeju has been hit particularly hard, with the number of Chinese tourists down by as much as 80% from the previous year.

Such negative developments can result in unexpected good news elsewhere. Last month Japan welcomed an 85% surge in visits by South Koreans, many of whom felt uneasy about visiting China.

Taiwan has also seen Beijing’s wrath expressed through tourism. Last year Taiwan elected the independence-leaning Tsai Ing-wen as its president. That’s a problem for Beijing, which considers Taiwan a wayward province and not an independent nation.

Not long after, the number of mainland Chinese tourists visiting Taiwan began to fall. In the five months after the election, the total fell by nearly 30% year-over-year. Taiwan made up for the loss by attracting travelers from Southeast Asia—no doubt further annoying Beijing.

In the South China Sea, Beijing has also used its tourists in another way: to bolster its territorial claims to contested islands and, indeed, to nearly the entire waterway. Patriotic passenger cruises to the Paracel archipelago, which is occupied by China but also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan, have been available from Hainan Island since 2013.

A contested sea.

The number of Chinese tourists to the Paracels rose nearly 50% last year to over 12,000. Authorities plan to launch tourist flights, as well. By 2020 they intend to send cruises to the more remote—and even more hotly contested—Spratly islands.

China isn’t alone in trying to “civilianize” its presence in the Spratlys. The Philippines has claims of its own there and it is upgrading facilities on one of its islands in order to eventually accept domestic tourists. Vietnam, Taiwan, and Malaysia also make claims over the islands.

Gay-marriage tourism

The politics surrounding same-sex marriage has also affected tourism. Bali has long attracted LGBT travelers, but in recent years a strong anti-gay sentiment has swept through the rest of Indonesia, making the legalization of same-sex marriage unlikely anytime soon. In late 2015 photos of a same-sex marriage ceremony in Bali caused an uproar after spreading on social media. Meanwhile in May, two men caught having sex were publicly caned in the ultra-conservative Aceh province.

At the other end of the spectrum, last month Taiwan’s top court ruled same-sex marriage is a constitutional right. That added to a list of progressive measures setting Taiwan apart from China. Providers of wedding-related goods and services in Taiwan cheered news of the verdict, as did tour operators who can now look forward to arranging trips for same-sex couples from around the region and the world.

New ethical questions for the tourism industry

Politics is playing an outsize role in today’s Asia tourism, but there are also earlier examples. In 2000 two British organizations—Tourism Concern and the Burma Campaign UK—called for a boycott of all Lonely Planet publications after the publisher released a new travel guide to Myanmar, then under the control of an oppressive military junta.

In a joint statement, the organizations argued that the “income generated through tourism helps to sustain one of the most brutal military regimes in the world.” Tourism Concern, which focuses on ethical travel, quoted Aung San Suu Kyi, who argued in 1999:

“Guide book writers should listen to their consciences and be honest about their motivations. Profit is clearly their agenda… If tourists really wanted to find out what’s happening in Burma—it’s better if they stay at home and read some of the many human rights reports there are.”

For his part, Lonely Planet publisher Tony Wheeler defended the decision to publish the guide. He argued it was possible to support non-government-sponsored tourism by, for example, staying at privately owned hotels and using public transport.

This month, in light of Warmbier’s treatment, tour operators offering trips to North Korea face ethical decisions of their own about whether to continue selling the country as a destination.

Warmbier booked his trip through the China-based tour operator Young Pioneer Tours, which offers ”budget tours to destinations your mother would rather you stayed away from.” This week the agency, founded in 2008 by a British man, Gareth Johnson, issued a statement saying it will stop accepting US customers:

The devastating loss of Otto Warmbier’s life has led us to reconsider our position on accepting American tourists. There had not been any previous detainment in North Korea that has ended with such tragic finality and we have been struggling to process the result. Now, the assessment of risk for Americans visiting North Korea has become too high.

Back in Ohio, Warmbier’s father criticized tour operators for “luring” Americans into the rogue nation. The result, he said, was “my son happened to become fodder for the North Koreans.”

📬 A periodic dispatch from the annual session of the United Nations General Assembly in NYC.

By providing your email, you agree to the Quartz Privacy Policy.