Ethical Travel: Is It Ok To Travel to a Country With High Human Rights Violations?

Ethical Travel: Is It Ok To Travel to a Country With High Human Rights Violations?
Lacey Pfalz

by Lacey Pfalz
on April 2, 2023
Last updated: 1:00 PM ET, Sun April 2, 2023

It’s time to get serious and consider the impact travel can have on other countries.

While we imagine that spending a week or even a day in a country with a history of human rights violations would do more good than harm, the question remains: is it okay to travel to a country with high human rights violations, or is it better to avoid these countries altogether?

What are Human Rights?

First, let’s define what human rights are and how they can be violated.

The term “human rights” is an umbrella term for the rights that all human beings should hold equally, regardless of their country, gender, religion, disability or any other factor that makes them different. Human rights are a long list that range from freedom of speech to protections against forced labor, exploitation and more.

Organizations such as the United Nations Human Rights Council and the non-governmental Human Rights Watch advocate for and measure human rights violations in countries around the globe.

Violations of human rights often occur within the country in which one lives, such as China’s genocide of the Uyghur people, an Islamic minority group living in eastern China. According to the Uyghur Human Rights Project, China has forcibly detained an estimated 1.7 million to 3 million Uyghurs since 2017 in both prisons and concentration camps.

Human Rights & The Travel Industry

So now you’re probably thinking: okay, this is serious stuff, but how does this connect to travel?

Well, the biggest answer is that travel is a huge source of income for many countries across the globe. When traveling anywhere that relies upon tourism for a major part of its GDP ( and that’s a long list), you’re indirectly funding that country and its programs.

There are also a few ways that travel can more directly impact human rights, sometimes further exacerbating violations. This can be in the form of human trafficking and sexual exploitation, or it can be in other, perhaps less obvious, ways, such as new tourism developments.

Take Saudi Arabia, for example. It’s a burgeoning destination made trendy by social media, and it’s quickly gaining traction as a world-class destination, and especially so for luxury travelers.

Yet the Human Rights Watch’s 2023 report on violations found that NEOM, a new $500 billion ultra-modern city development expected to become a big destination for tourists in the Tabuk province, is already marred by human rights violations conducted by Saudi authorities, including forced evictions against the Huwaitat community who has called a portion of the new city’s land their home for generations.

Touristic developments in emerging destinations are not free from these violations. While they might promote responsibility, it’s important to research the truth behind the campaigns.

So What Can We Do as Travelers?

You may now be wondering what your role should be as a responsible traveler. That role comes with a few considerations.

First, do your due diligence and research the country you’re considering traveling to. If the human rights violations conducted within that country conflict with your personal ethics or might directly contribute to your lack of safety while there, reconsider traveling to that destination. The U.S. Department of State does a good job alerting travelers to certain security risks, but check out the other organizations mentioned above to learn about current human rights violations happening in your destination of choice to learn more.

While you’re in a specific destination, remember that where you put your money matters. This is why community tourism is so important. Local initiatives often promote sustainable tourism development and produce other crucial benefits, too, like increasing gender equality, economic growth, cultural preservation, conservation initiatives and more, many of which often combat the human rights violations happening within that destination.

So Is It Ethical?

The truth is that there are millions of people who travel without ever once thinking about the ethics of their decisions, and these people will likely not stop traveling this way.

In my opinion, it is not an ethical travel practice to knowingly visit destinations that directly violate the human rights of the people who live there, though others might look at it with a different perspective: that we should visit, if only to positively impact the destination and its people.

Yet, I wonder, how can you positively impact a destination that undermines the humanity of the people who live there in the time it takes to go on vacation?

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