Is it ethical to vacation in a country during a political crisis?

Crystal blue water and civil unrest.
Crystal blue water and civil unrest.
Image: Reuters/Dinuka Liyanawatte
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

If you ask the average traveler what comes to mind when they think of the Maldives, the answer will probably include the tropical islands’ white sand beaches and startlingly clear water. But last week, the Indian Ocean nation came to international attention for another reason: A political crisis that prompted a 15-day state of emergency, giving President Abdulla Yameen sweeping powers to quash political opponents.

President Yameen’s decision to defy a Supreme Court ruling and begin detaining political opponents has been roundly criticized by human rights organizations. Prior to the current uptick in tensions, the country has long had a troubled human rights record, and its first democratically elected president is now publicly pleading for an international intervention amidst what he has called “martial law” [paywall].

In the international tourism industry, what happened next followed an increasingly familiar script. Officials publicly insisted that the islands are still safe for tourists. The UK’s Foreign Office updated its guidance to warn travelers to exercise caution if in the capital, Malé, but noting that resorts and outlying islands were deemed safe. The US State Department said to avoid public gatherings and protests in the capital. A spate of articles wondered “Is it safe to visit the Maldives?” and concluded that yes, it is—so long as you don’t veer off the tourist’s well-trodden path.

But even if it’s safe enough for a tourist, should you go? There is no easy answer to this conundrum. The Maldives’ economy is disproportionately dependent on tourists. According to data from the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC), the total contribution of travel and tourism to the Maldives GDP in 2016 was 79.4%—the third highest percentage share in the world.

It’s understandable that personal safety is many travelers’ paramount concern when going abroad. But the ethics of vacationing in a country that’s in the midst of a political crisis are often ignored in the should-I-stay-or-should-I-go calculation. Traveling to a country after a terrorist attack is often praised as an expression of solidarity or an effort to help a country when it’s down. The decision of whether to visit after a natural disaster is framed in terms of availability of resources and the current state of recovery efforts. But arriving while a country’s government is at odds with its people—or in violation of universal human rights standards—often isn’t acknowledged at all.

This presents travelers with an imperfect choice—one that’s not unique to the Maldives. Should you withhold much-needed tourist dollars because of a government’s human rights abuses? Or travel to a country that requires you to figuratively, and perhaps literally, look the other way—be it from an acute political crisis or from more chronic injustice, corruption, or brutal inequality?

Of course, it’s hard to justify visiting a country purely for tourism when the government is undertaking repugnant large-scale ethnic violence—Apartheid-era South Africa, for example, or the state of Rakhine in Myanmar, where evidence of a recent genocide against the Rohingya is emerging. But there’s plenty of grey area, and nearly no nation on earth is completely beyond reproach when it comes to human rights.

Focusing on planning a responsible holiday, rather than visiting a perfect country, is a tactic that the organization Responsible Travel advises, noting that “it would be hard to find a single destination which has a clean record when it comes to the environment, animal welfare and human rights.”

And while it’s impossible for travelers to avoid at least some of their vacation spend ending up in government coffers, it is possible to plan and carry out a trip with responsibility in mind. The first step is to do thorough research before traveling, according to Luke McMillan, the general manager of London-based charity Tourism Concern.

“I would research into whether drastic changes have taken place in order to accommodate tourism,” he said. “Have people been put out of business in order to build hotels? Have tenants been evicted in order to turn houses into home-stays?”

He also recommends researching the specific accommodation options and guides you will use, as reputations can differ and hugely influence both the ethical and environmental impact of your trip. You can start by seeking out any ethical tourism consortium or body that exists in the region or country you are visiting. In the Maldives, for example, the website Ethical Maldives ranks resorts based on their human rights records.

Of course, for people who simply want to get away from it all to sip a cocktail on a beach, this may all seem a lot of work. But being responsible traveler requires it.