To what degree will you overlook the “dark side” of a destination when on vacation?

An interesting discussion emerged on Twitter yesterday among a few friends about traveling to destinations with a “dark side.”

Last December I was in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and wrote a post entitled “Is the UAE the most depressing place in the world?” On the surface the UAE seems awesome — it has the biggest and best of everything. But as I posted there, it has a dark side. A really, really dark side, of near slave labor. And that was just based on my observations, which are nowhere close to the worst of it (I was visiting luxury hotels and malls, and not construction zones). If you really want to feel horrible, check out this 2009 article from The Independent about Dubai. It’s long, but easily one of the most fascinating articles I’ve ever read.

And I think this raises an interesting question — to which degree will you overlook the “dark side” of a destination when deciding where to vacation?

I’m torn on this one. On one hand I feel like I should boycott certain destinations on principle. Even if the above article isn’t 100% accurate, the reality is that in the UAE (for example), freedoms are greatly restricted, and the “imported” labor they have there is the closest thing to modern day slavery.

At the same thing I think a large part of travel is learning about other cultures and being thankful for what you have. Going to the UAE was eye opening for me. It showed me a completely different way of life than I’ve seen anywhere else, and at the same time made me so thankful for the life I have.

So I’d love to hear what you guys think. Does it bother you if you vacation somewhere that you know has a serious “dark side,” whatever it might be? If so, does it prevent you from going, or do you still go in hopes of learning something from the experience?

Personally I’m somewhat leaning towards the latter category. I feel like it’s worth seeing just about everything at least once, but it’s not worth supporting the destinations beyond that if they have a “dark side” that you have a hard time stomaching.

Would love to hear what you guys think. Wasn’t meaning to pick on the UAE, but it’s just an example that’s fresh in my head given that I visited a few months ago.

Filed Under: Travel
  1. Lucky, if you worried about the “dark side” of each country, then no more trips to China, transiting through Russia, forget the Maldives, Thailand, Turkey etc. If it’s not slave labor that is being abused, it most certainly is foreign workers/illegal immigrants/racial, ethnic, and religious minorities, etc. Every country has a dark side, even most European ones.

  2. It boils down to comfort and what degree one feels that it’s an ethical compromise. On one hand, by exposing others to other ways of thinking ( I’m also using the UAE as an example) it can be a force for change, but does everyone want to risk legal penalties ( some lethal) to be a crusader?

  3. I have a specific comment about that 2009 article that’s “awaiting moderation”, but in general, I think you have to be careful about where you draw the line. The UAE is an easy target, but there are plenty of others. How about Singapore? Or even Singapore Airlines (are FA contracts that forbid FA’s to have children acceptable?).

  4. The beauty about travel is that it gives you different perspectives on the world. Sometimes, these are positive views of certain places. Sometimes, these are negative. In either case, you have learned more than you would have by staying home.

    Would you consider yourself to have lived a better life if you had skipped your trips to the UAE and stayed home in protest? Actually going there and opening a dialogue like this among your readers achieves far more than a boycott ever would.

  5. There is no line.

    It’s hip to hate Dubai. Just like it’s hip to hate Justin Bieber or the Twilight movies.

    Dubai was built by American and European architects and companies. They were OK with using ‘slaves’ to build the buildings, probably because it was cheap.

    The West actually does the same, albeit a bit worse:

    “More than seventy thousand “third-country nationals” work for the American military in war zones; many report being held in conditions resembling indentured servitude by subcontractors who operate outside the law.”

  6. We have to be careful in saying oh it’s bad everywhere. No some places are really bad so any comments saying things like look at America vs Bangkok where sex slavery and human trafficking is ingrained in the nation I think you lose a lot of credibility.

    Lucky. I def you appreciate bringing this up as we have to be aware of these things going on in the world or truly we’re in our own proverbial bubble and going to be held accountable. Even as I write this I think of the many times I’d rather think about flying first class than helping people around me.

  7. I think it is important to see for yourself what is truly taking place & not rely on others (media/friends/etc.) to form an opinion for you. From my own experiences I have generally found that 99% of the time it is a cultural difference and they have never been exposed to seeing things in a different manner. (This documentary on North Korea is an extreme example: ) Seeing the world and having a dialog about important issue is critical to making the world a more tolerant place.

    Excellent post!

  8. I wouldn’t have any problems with going to countries with a dark side. Because then you shouldn’t live at all. If you think that the city where you live at, doesn’t have a dark side… Well surprise: you’re probably wrong.
    Every place has its dark side, you just have to live with it.

    Boycotting is a bad way to “support” the people who are in a bad situation. By visiting the country, you are supporting the local economy. Which means that if you visit a hotel, there is a demand for a hotel, thus the construction of the hotel. The workers are probably better off.
    If they’re ready to work in a bad place for a low wage, then they are probably worse off at home doing nothing.
    (let’s face it: if you’ve got a choice, working for 1$/hour in a hard environment, or staying at home and starving…)

    I would like to excuse myself if I offend someone with my views.

  9. As many have said, it doesn’t make sense to boycott an entire country or city because it has a dark side. However, if you go, don’t support it. For instance, if you go to Bangkok, don’t support the prostitution industry. In Columbia, don’t support the drug industry. This makes things difficult in Dubai since the reason one goes there is to take part in the entertainment/hospitality industry which IS the dark side. And the issue is not low wages that workers voluntarily accept. The issue is that these workers are imported based on a promise (which is not fulfilled) and then not allowed to leave.

  10. *correction: Colombia, not Columbia… Although I’m sure South Carolina has drug problems of its own!

  11. How about the dark sides of US? Doing wars in the Middle East, gay rights, gun violence, and precisely the modern day of slavery in the US: immigrant workers without legal status. Do you know how they are treated in the US? Should we not live in the US because of those, too? But the problem is there would be no country to live in if you keep picking up dark sides

    I like your blog because it is about travel. But if you start posting something more political when your thoughts are not mature, you will loose your reputation instantly.

  12. I agree with Dima, Nancy, and Sean M. I’m willing to visit countries with a ‘dark side’ as long as my own safety is not in jeopardy.
    One trip I look forward going to is DPRK (North Korea) on one of those aviation tours where you fly soviet-era planes or regular tours (that’s the only way I know of visiting DPRK as a US passport holder.) I think it would be exciting for you, Lucky, to review Air Koryo’s business class since Air Koryo is still the only 1-star rating plane on skytrax!
    In addition, I never fully understood how food rationing worked in communist countries. Imagine if that occurred in the USA, perhaps obesity wouldn’t be a problem (but the black market would be!)

  13. @sam
    I just love when they say Colombia has drug problem…guess where all those tons of drugs are going.

  14. Interesting post. I’m headed to Shanghai on Friday for a Mileage Run since AA/UA had their other’s Hubs 1st Class fare war, and it does concern me. The previous posts make good points on both sides (as well as US “Dark Side’), so like most things, it’s a balancing act. I get the value of experiencing different cultures, but am concerned with US-China trade ratio and hope to spend as little money as possible while in country – let alone the dead Hogs and Ducks in the Rivers.

  15. If you follow this logic, better skip Singapore, India and Hong Kong as well. Oh and if you are not going to visit, then you should probably not purchase goods made there either

  16. “By visiting the country, you are supporting the local economy. Which means that if you visit a hotel, there is a demand for a hotel, thus the construction of the hotel. The workers are probably better off.”

    That’s not necessarily true.

  17. I don’t have a problem with people visiting Dubai and having a blast.

    I do, however, and I would not compare it to visiting North Korea at all. To Visit North Korea (or China or Laos) actually has cultural value.

    There is no cultural value in Dubai. The value of visiting Dubai is really for the opportunity to live like a spoiled king and splurge. It’s just that everything you get is provided to you by indentured labor. Its like Vegas except the labor in Vegas is still adequately compensated.

    Yes there is very low paid labor (like Nike sweatshop employees – who receive wages that are comparable to the country’s norms) and there is slave labor – people who receive wages that are 15% of the country’s average income. Its not the same.

  18. lucky,
    It’s never black or white. The production process of most goods can be questioned due to ethical issues, be it not so healthy labor conditions to loosened environmental legislation. The way mankind handles the world on a whole is not exactly sustainable.
    But since you cannot and should not live hidden in a hole, I would say that as a tourist, you should not break local laws and you should not support any industry that goes against your own moral beliefs. Where each one draws their own lines is personal and I wouldn’t say there is any place that is unnaceptable to draw it.

  19. I don’t like visiting the US because they have all of those illegal immigrants doing construction at low prices, when they should be paying legal workers a higher wage for those jobs.

    I don’t like visiting major cities in the US, because they have all of these homeless people that they just throw out on the street to fend for themselves. That’s no way to treat a person.

  20. Personally, I think saying “dark side” is somewhat broad… evil comes in all forms. Wether it’s drugs, sexual and/or physical abuse, modern day slavery, robbery, etc. It’s everywhere around us.. there’s evil in my own city in Washington. I think the question is to what degree is it evident? and honestly wether a person decides to support a locale or not the culture of any given place is already engraved enough that it’s unlikely avoiding the place will give a message of disapproval.

    we put sanctions on countries and they continue to do what they feel is right even if the world believes it’s wrong , making it even less likely that a wealthy or oil-rich country country will change their ways anytime soon.

    As human beings we want be able to help others, but sometimes the scale is beyond our scope.

  21. In general, my spouse and I try not to go to countries which are actively oppressing their people. In part, this is because we actually work for one of those human/civil rights NGOs. It would be a pretty clear conflict of interest in some cases, or could lead to detainment and harassment in other cases. On the other hand, I think we have more insight into exactly what is happening in some of these countries.

    Of course I am interested in the food and culture of Belarus (for example). I would love to meet the people there. But I know that bringing my dollars will enrich the government who is actively working to oppress these same people. Some of my money will go to the local economy (I love eating local food), and most of it will go to the government in the form of visa fees, airline taxes, hotel fees and taxes, and the graft/bribery needed for international businesses (like hotels) to operate there. I am a utilitarian – from what I know, my money will do more harm than good. To me, this puts Zimbabwe and North Korea on the same list.

    The government of places like Thailand, India and Colombia are not actively oppressing their own people, even if there are problems there. Obviously, neither are Canada and the US. Whatever problems they have (or policies I oppose), enriching the government through taxes is not going to harm people living there. That’s where I draw the line.

  22. i think what many commenters here miss, is that there’s a difference between a destination “with a dark side” and a place where your travel, and the expenditures associated with it, directly contribute to the suffering of other human beings.

    i have no qualms going to almost any place on earth; however, even after living on the doorstep of north korea, i never went. why? because every cent you spend traveling there goes towards oppressing the people living there or fattening those in power.

    sure, many places have conditions and legislation, or at least lack of enforcement that contributes to the suffering of inhabitants and workers there, but it’s usually possible to spend your money somewhere that’s reasonably unattached to those directly causing the harm. if you’re spending money to contribute to an average local person’s well-being or their business, then all the better.

    to say that there’s no bad because everywhere is bad is a terrible copout.

  23. Chrissy

    A few google searches of thailand will show what can happen to unsuspecting tourists. when things go bad,they really go bad.

  24. The biggest objection to visiting Dubai or other Arab peninsula states isn’t their human rights abuses but their complete lack of culture and history. When I visit a country I like to learn about its people. If you visit much of the rest of the Middle East (say, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Egypt) you can explore ancient cities, meet warm people (from all income ranges), explore great food traditions, and much more. In Dubai you’ll rarely meet an real native and it’s doubtful you’d want to. The country is Disneyfied and free of culture and history. Couple that with the poor human rights situation and I find myself completely uninterested in ever flying via Dubai or spending a moment on the Arab peninsula.

  25. Thinking historically, in the effort to pressure South Africa to stop apartheid, people boycotted travel there, products, and investment.

    It probably helped achieve that goal.

  26. There is a difference between A) countries where some people are living in situations that we personally would not choose B) countries with an illegal dark side ie involuntary prostitution in India, and C) countries that are such dark PLACES that large parts of the population are willing to risk their lives to escape.

    North Korea is on a par with Nazi Germany in terms of being a hellhole for the general population. There is no excuse for going there, as you will not be allowed to educate the locals, and not one cent that you spend there will benefit anyone other than the ruling regime.

    To put the UAE in this category, much less the US because of the homeless population that are mostly alcoholics and drug addicts, often mentally ill, is just absurd. I say this as someone who has tried to help homeless people get off the street, only to find out they prefer the “freedom” of living there.

    The UAE may have a probably illegal dark side, but it’s not a hellhole for the general population the way that NK, Iran and Cuba are. My test for this is whether or not the government makes it illegal for ordinary citizens to leave, and if considerable numbers of them are willing to risk their lives to escape. The tens of thousands of Cubans risking their lives in rickety boats to escape, often dying in the process, tells you all you need to know about Cuba.

    Chicago has a dark side, with large youth gangs murdering more than 500 people a year. I choose to avoid Chicago due to the increasing violence against tourists, but not for moral reasons. I’d have no moral qualms about connecting flights there. 😀

    There is a line between places with dark sides, and overall dark places. Visiting the former is at least educational for ourselves, and possibly for the locals as well. You are at least contributing to the local economy, and in that way improving people’s lives. As a tourist you are not morally responsible for everything that goes on there, as long as you don’t directly participate in dark activities.

    Visiting Totalitarian regimes like Cuba simply helps those regimes stay in power, and in my view is immoral. We all have to draw that line for ourselves, and some will put China on one side or the other. But to say it would be cool to visit North Korea is like wanting to have visited Nazi Germany because you heard the Rallies were very entertaining.

  27. Yes, I remember reading that same Independent article about Dubai a couple years back. Eye-opening piece.

    I faced that kind of dilemma when deciding to visit Burma (a.k.a. Myanmar). It’s government is one of the worst, but it’s cultural treasures among the most spectacular in Asia. Even after all the countries, I’ve visited Burma still ranks high on my travel experiences. Closest I’ve come to feeling like Indiana Jones.

    Eventually, I decided to visit Burma. You can interact with locals relatively freely, compared to what I’ve heard about North Korea (never been myself). That kind of outside contact is valuable in a country with a closed media system. While it’s possible to “teach” them, I also think it’s important to learn from them as well. You have to be willing to be educated before you can educate anyone else.

    Another swing factor is that you can direct your spending toward helping local entrepreneurs. And I think tourism benefits the people by giving them hard currency they otherwise would not have. Robert Hanson stated this more eloquently in his comment above.

  28. Regardless of your past and future decisions this post shows that you have a human side that isn’t devoid of sympathy. That’s an angle I appreciate reading about and something I wish I saw more of in other travel blogs. Your reluctance to blacklist an entire society implies that you have a much wiser and more nuanced approach to this debate than many of your contributing readers appear to have.

    Many of the responses seem to hinge on claiming every destination is equally questionable. If Country A has something bad and Country B has something bad then they must both be subject to same exclusions or inclusions. Either go anywhere or go nowhere. If someone wrote something bad about Country C but got some portion of the article wrong or a portion of a claim was disproved then you must assume everything in the article was fabricated and thus entirely untrustworthy. Those kind of black-and-white views require strict adherence to false equivalency in order to make any sense.

    Like you I prefer a bit more nuance in my moral and ethical views. I probably won’t travel to North Korea or anywhere in the Middle East, but I would have no problem traveling to Vietnam or Cambodia or the like. I never thought I would travel to Burma, but things appear to be getting better there and the idea of sharing some wealth with the Burmese is appealing to me.

    It’s true that my limited funds won’t count for much on the scale of national economies, but I still consider every dollar I spend to be a vote. While a few dollars may mean virtually nothing to me it could mean a lot to someone who lives far below my standard of living. Whether my personal finances are able to sway the balance of power is not the point. Spending my money in a moral and ethical fashion based on my own sense of moral obligation is both my desire and my responsibility as a person lucky enough to live in a free society.

    Lucky, thank you for posting this.

  29. There is no dark side in a country or region – there is no bright side as well.

    One one hand I´ve had the brightest travel moments in countries, I´d hardly visit because of the known or at least believed dark side(s). Iran, Myanmare or Usbekistan are very good examples. On the other side, there are countries where you can experience very dark moments although you´d never expect them, like the US.

    So it´s never about the country – it´s always about the people and the places. Everybody travelling with open ears and eyes can experience wonderfull moments at nearly every possible place.

    So I never think about the political side of a country or city, at least not more than absolutely necessary. I go to that country, try to talk to people and wait what shade of grey the big picture will get. If it is really bad, I´d not visit the place voluntarily a second time – but at least I will decide this out of personal experience.

  30. @Rory

    I read the two articles you linked, and it wasn’t clear that there were allegations that the Dubai piece was fabricated. Can you point out the specific passages that indicate such?

  31. All very interesting responses, thanks folks!

    I just wanted to clarify two things:
    a) I realize every place has a dark side, which is why I put it in quotes. I meant a dark side that goes beyond what you can reasonably stomach, or where you feel your visit is contributing more to that problem than solving it.
    b) I wasn’t suggesting there’s an absolute dark side, and I wasn’t suggesting that anyone should feel that way about the UAE. Everyone has different things that really bother them, so you could feel that way about any country.

  32. Hi Ben. I’m glad you finally addressed this issue.

    Personally, I won’t fly any airline or visit any country that holds their gay citizens criminal for being who they are.

    Much of the middle east is this way. Turkey is a gleaming exception to this fact, and one of the first countries to de-criminalize this in the world. Israel and a handful of others in the area are similar.

    Much of Africa is a VERY frightening place if you are gay and almost the entire Carribean is very anti-gay.

    One of your favorite airlines – Singapore – belongs to a city nation that has some severe (if not imposed) rules on the books.

    I am glad that India – a country that we are finally visiting – has de-criminalized homosexuality.

    I know this will probably get a lot of negative response from people – many of whom themselves live in countries where it is NOT illegal (such as the USA) – but isn’t this something that each person needs to consider:

    not just the injustices that the citizens or government of any country inflict on their own people or others on their land – but the unspoken things that are truths in each of these countries which apply to YOU the visiting tourist?

    Many thanks and pleasant travels,

    Tim Skinner

  33. I might visit a non-free country if it is possible to avoid or minimize my financial support for the regime (staying in local guesthouses etc), however I refuse to visit countries where my visit is part of the regime’s business plan, and that includes Dubai.

  34. I’ve just come across this blog and noticed this particular section is 2 years old but I’m gonna have a shot anyway!

    Overall I think we should boycott the UAE:

    I think the whole ‘all countries have a bad side’ argument is stupid, true but stupid. It simply disregards the scale of this situation.

    People mentioned Iran and China a lot, I know people from both countries and generally the workers live better quality lives. And in Iran at least can complain about it.

    People forget that the UAE has a GDP per capita comparable to the UK

    Being raped is a crime!
    you read that right….

    immigrants make up virtually ALL the workforce AND the general population. And generally, not sometimes, generally, they are treated like crap.

    The UAE actively limit the freedom of its workers..they can’t even strike. How many countries do that?

    As a British Bangladeshi who has experienced poverty first hand in Bangladesh I don’t say this lightly…. But at least in the workers home countries they are with family and can be supported by NGO’s and charities.

    Most importantly-
    most if not all of the money you spend will NOT go to these construction workers but to hotel staff instead. Two different groups of people.

    A boycott will be be particularly effective in Dubai who surprisingly don’t rely on oil that much but more on tourism!

    Having said all of this…

    Realistically ……not enough people care for a boycott to make a difference so you should go and experience it anyway and find out for yourself how it is.

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