Unethical Tourism

‘It seems a little early for me to give my trust and travellers cheques to Iran, merely on the promise that the new leader smiles more than the last’

Human Rights Iran Modern Life With Prejudice
Temples at Mrauk U, Burma: An exquisite country, but still run by a repressive dictatorship (photo: J.M. Hullot)

The carousel of tourism in a conflicted world is always turning. War zones become bucket destinations and blood-soaked soil absorbs lager spillage from stag weekends. Vietnam and Cambodia are must-sees and Croatia is top honeymoon fare.

A holiday travelling through Iran by train was recently advertised in the FT. “These days,” wrote Sophie Ibbotson, “travelling through Iran is just a little easier.” She describes travelling in style on the newly- launched Golden Eagle Express, amid silk furnishings and a piano bar, touring Iran’s holiest sights, the ruins of Persepolis and Isfahan—travelling chadors and champagne on ice included. Sounds unmissable—old Persia aboard my favourite mode of travel. If you think so then call Jewels of Persia; from just £9,895, apparently.

Probably, though, I won’t be booking. It seems a little early for me to give my trust and my travellers cheques to Iran, merely on the promise that the newish leader smiles more than the last lot and speaks a drop of King’s English. There is a whiff of Aesop’s fables in the sudden détente between the US and the Ayatollahs since the latter slowed down their uranium enrichment timetable by a whisker in exchange for the long-term lifting of sanctions. “Jump onto my back,” said the fox, “and I’ll take you across to the other side.”

In my case the problem won’t arise because I have Israel stamped on my passport so those smiley men at Tehran airport would be unable to admit me. Similar bans would arise for me in most other countries in the Middle East. But we won’t call that apartheid or racism, will we?

So soon we forget. Everyone is rushing off to visit Burma now that Aung San Suu Kyi has been released from 15 years of house arrest. For 50 years one of the most repressive military dictatorships in the world has starved, deprived of education and terrorised into submission the people of Burma. During the years of her house arrest, and confinement in the deadly Insein prison, Daw Aung San asked the world not to visit Burma.

Then, quite arbitrarily, the generals freed her, took meetings with her, and allowed her a passport to travel and the means to resume her political career. A fanfare heralded the release of a number of political prisoners and the promise of a democratic election. The world gazed in wonder and logged onto Trip Advisor.

I was fortunate enough to meet her for a second in Westminster where she spoke with customary restraint and discretion about her hopes. I also watched her speak to the expatriate Burmese at Westminster Hall the following day. She was a different girl in a different hat full of verve and personality and making her audience roar with laughter. She suggested that we should dip a toe in the Irawaddy and finally visit her homeland.

The country is exquisite, the travellers report. The people are charming and hospitable. The temples are even better than Thailand’s, the Irawaddy is romantic and the hotels are fine. There are flowers on the pillows and fruit cut into orchids. There are no restrictions, they tell you, although few make it up to Naypyidaw, the futuristic city in the jungle built by slave labour to house the new parliament.

Mmmm, I say. By releasing the iron butterfly the military may have cut off her fragile wings. By removing the princess from her global tower, they may have just rendered her fight to be elected impotent. The dictatorship refuses to amend the constitution which states that nobody who married a foreigner can run for office. Suu Kyi is the widow of a Cambridge academic. Her sons are both married to non-Burmese.

The lady comes from a military background and has accepted her restrictions with equanimity and some optimism, but her NLD party is awash with rumblings. A quarter of the parliament is made up of a military block and a new education law removes academic freedom and student unions. A hundred students have been arrested and more injured. The British government, one of the main supporters of the dictatorship, has barely responded. Meanwhile, the people are waiting for Daw Suu, a practising Buddhist, to comment on the shameful slaughter of the Rohinya Muslims in the West by violent Buddhists. Buddhists who don’t step on ants are burning villages to the ground.

So maybe we should reconsider our hols. Russia is out. Another dictator with paranoia and murderous eyes peering out of a dodgy facelift. South Africa is God’s own country, but do you really want to visit a place where a female MP gets her jaw broken during a brawl in a Pretoria parliament and the elected leader spends the nation’s rands on solid- gold bath taps and fleets of Rolls-Royces?

China has artefacts and history to die for—also, 500 executions a year; Ai Weiwei, beaten and imprisoned for his art, under house arrest; a ban on Google; appalling pollution; and the colonisation of Tibet. The American midwest is a place of wonder, but is still working out the best way to chemically kill people on Death Row. France is simmering like a jugged hare with racism of one kind or another and ripe for Le Pen. Italy has its work cut out rescuing survivors from war-torn Libya and the rest of Africa from the sea around Lampedusa and trying to keep Berlusconi and his personal fiscal and carnal pornography from returning to office. Greece is extraordinarily beautiful, historic and needs your euros, or possibly one day your drachmas, more than most. My partner favours Papua New Guinea but with a 28-hour flight to recommend it I’m rather fancying the Swanage.

One country has a rising economy, antiquity to die for, history, sunshine, beaches, more culture than a barrel of yoghurt and some of the best food, best nightlife and most startling innovations in the world. You may be prejudiced against it on hearsay, hysteria and BBC bias, you may hate their aggressive defence and their settlements, and you may spend your days picketing Waitrose for selling its oranges, but why not make up your own mind and go and join sun-seekers, independent thinkers and 40 per cent of the world’s foreign correspondents in the democratic country of Israel. They admit all colours, welcome all creeds—and even let in Guardian readers.