A growing number of people seem to have the ambition to travel to all countries in the world. To become the Fastest or Youngest Female ever to see the world. Whenever someone asks me “How many countries did you visit?” sometimes – out of enthusiasm – I joke and say “63, so 132 to go!” But seriously, this is a joke; I do not have the ambition to travel to all countries around the world. Let me explain to you why, especially in terms of ethics and safety. Without becoming too philosophical. Hopefully this article will help you to make up your own mind as well.
Ethics: moral principles that govern a person’s behaviour or the conducting of an activity; concerned with the principles of right and wrong behaviour.Oxford Dictionary
Some countries I consider unethical to visit as a tourist. Where you draw the line is very personal and subjective of course, but at least I draw a line. The current Instagram generation seems to be spineless with regards to ethics and morals. Who cares, as long as they can make that dreamy picture? Yes, I have travelled to countries like Saudi Arabia in the past, which have questionable reputation on human rights, especially towards women. Being there for work, the supply of life-saving medicine, felt like a legitimate reason.
So where do I draw the line? And where do you? We can write a whole philosophic book about this, which I will not. It is already one frustrating thing if someone claims “country x is safe because nothing happened to me”. And then you have the sort of controversial countries that whenever I see someone promoting visiting one of those as a tourist, I feel the anger bubbling up from my gut. The ignorance. People can be curious in a weird way, but some things just go too far for me. Please stop it. If you don’t, you contribute to and help to sustain controversial and unethical tourism.
Possibly the most controversial country around the world, North Korea, I do not want to visit. For sure not as it is right now. Not that I am not intrigued at all. I understand this can be an interesting experience. It is a matter of principle. I do not want to contribute to nor promote tourism to a country that imprisons, frightens, threatens, starves and indoctrinates its inhabitants on a daily basis. A country of a leader that kills its own people for watching an American movie or anything else beyond his inhumane rules. Simple as that.
No I have not been to North Korea myself, so how can I judge? Reading about it may not be the same, yet I have a strong, substantiated opinion about this. Luckily I live in a country that allows the freedom of speech. Some people have the moral level of introducing a dictator as a friend. I cannot stay neutral when I see that. Kim Jung-Un, Adolf Hitler, who cares? As long as they bring power and monetary benefits? Or to take a nice selfie (Er Ist Wieder Da)? Morally unacceptable.
Nowadays commercial tour companies like Koryo Tours, Uri Tours and Young Pioneer Tours offer multi-day trips to the ‘Least Visited Country’ North Korea from Beijing. People are apparently willing to pay around 400 USD for that. Tourists are not allowed to visit North Korea on their own as they want to keep full control over every move you make while in North Korea.
Tours to North Korea are always accompanied by governmental officials. You get briefed extensively on how to behave and the replications on yourself, the group and the company if you misbehave, in attempt to avoid you end up like Otto Warmbier. You can count on one thing: they show you what they want you to see, like all is OK.
I know that during these tours locals in North Korea talk to tourists, younger people more than the elderly. But if you think locals are going to give you their honest point of view, you are very naïve. It would not be fair to say that North Koreans are puppets or idiots, they are not. They are victims of a brutal, dictatorial regime. North Koreans cannot say anything negative about their country or their leader, they would risk being put to death. Or punished by sending them to a concentration camp, often never seen again by their families. These local people are scared and have a good reason for it. From the time they are born, fear is part of their life. They witness horrible things and live under strict rules.
Just thinking about the oppression the people of North Korea face makes me feel sick and angry at the same time. Life-long indoctrinated with the idea that the Great Leader is equal to God. They are surprised to learn outsiders know where the leader lives, they don’t. Tours to North Korea attempt to make tourists think all is normal there, which is obviously not the case. Listen to those who escaped the torture, such as Lisa Ling, who also made a National Geographic documentary.
North Korean life
Google if you want to see what North Korea looks-like. Are the streets empty because people do not have the money to buy a car and work all the time? For sure the applicable trade restrictions make it difficult to import things like oil and cars, although some (other controversial countries) find ways to sell stuff to North Korea anyway. North Korea sends some of their people abroad to work, to get some money in. By keeping at least one family member in North Korea, they more or less ensure the return of the North Korean working abroad. If they would escape and not return to North Korea, the family member in North Korea would disappear. And then there are the Korean families torn between North and South Korea. An absolute nightmare.
Like a drug
Some tourists seem to have the idea that their visit will contribute to the locals’ lives, because “they are such a poor country”. Believe me, by going to North Korea you only sponsor the North Korean regime and the Chinese tour company, not the local people. It is a communist country, people are not allowed to keep anything extra for themselves. Money the regime can use for the development of their nuclear weapons, for example. Although it may seem indirectly, in a way you do sponsor that by visiting.
Just like when you use drugs, recreational or on a regular basis. Every drug user contributes to the maintenance of the production and the trade of drugs world-wide, the criminal world behind it full of violence. Drugs users are just like the dealers responsible for the lives that are ruined and wiped out by drugs, including their own. Ostrich attitude? Watch this documentary by Gordon Ramsay and think again.
I am not saying I will never visit any communistic country any more, there are variable degrees. I am not saying communism is all bad. And I am not saying democracy is all good either. What we find normal and good in ‘the western world’ is our own cultural perspective. However, when continuously violating human rights and life feels like torture, we have to draw a line – that is unacceptable to me. Like Auschwitz, everyone – except for some Nazi looneys – will acknowledge that what happened there was bad, unacceptable and should never happen again. So why is no-one taking action to set the North Koreans free?
Countries like Zimbabwe, Libya, Yemen, Venezuela, Syria, but also Myanmar, Cambodia, China, Russia and Turkey… Debatable and disputable reputations yet for different reasons and not one-on-one comparable. Communism, dictators, human rights violations, election manipulation, all sorts of issues. Do I want to visit those countries? At least not at the moment. Hell, even US starts to feel questionable in a way. I certainly take the above into account when picking my next holiday destination, do you?
The idea of having to comply to a dictator’s rules already gives me the creeps. OK in many countries it is not allowed to take photographs of military stuff and people, fair deal. And I see no reason to burn a book or steal a flag, but still… This was also something I had in the back of my mind when traveling to Saudi Arabia for example. When the ground stewardess asked me whether I had my head scarf and male guidance with me when checking in for my flight to Riyadh. Things can end up nasty if they find you misbehave, regardless the intention or even the truth. Your faith is totally in their hands. Reality check: people are hanged publicly or stoned to death there for accusation of misconduct. Fucked up.
Recently I noticed a young woman asking on social media for travel advice to Syria, she would love to see the country as a backpacker. Are you kidding me? We have tens of thousands of refugees who jeopardize their lives to escape the horror and chaos in their mother land, and you plan a holiday there?! Shameless. I wonder how the parents of such woman feel. OK, when you are a doctor or nurse working for the Red Cross or something, sure, but please say no to tourism in warzones. Stay out of there, stay safe.
Another recent social media post suggested ten countries including Eritrea as a good place to travel now because “it is free of Corona virus”. Right. In The Netherlands we have thousands of refugees from Eritrea, a country that is not rarely referred to as ‘the North Korea of Africa’. Common people! Traveling to a warzone is not cool.
A list of ongoing armed conflict can be found here. You may visit an area of armed conflict without even realizing. Apparently I just visited one: Bethlehem in Palestine. Oops! Let’s say you consider traveling to a country that is involved in an armed conflict, yet the travel advice is for at least most areas in that country not negative (green or yellow), I’d say it is a matter of personal evaluation whether you really want to go there or not.
Although sometimes you have to reconsider a point of view. It may get outdated, things change. A Dutch magazine recently highlighted Johannesburg as ‘the Berlin of Africa’. Johannesburg used to be one of the most dangerous cities in the world. I still think it is pretty dangerous, and struggle with the announcement of Joburg as the next travel hot spot. However, the fact is: Johannesburg is no longer in the top 50 of the most dangerous cities in the world, while Cape Town is at number 11! I guess there is hope on the horizon for Johannesburg and tourism.
In relation to that, it is good to think about the activities you undertake aswell. When I was in Johannesburg myself for work, I decided to go to Soweto with a guided private tour. Is visiting a slum (un)ethical tourism? I think it depends on the situation. The tour guide was a local guy, he grew up in Soweto and obviously knew a lot of people there. Looking back, it was a thoughtless gamble: I found him on the internet without any reference, there were no Tripadvisor reviews at the time. In Soweto we visited a day care for small children who had almost nothing to play with, so I gave them some toys.
Giving back to the local community makes tourism more sustainable and ethical responsible. And no animals should be abused (or even killed) during any of your travel activities! Like the poor donkeys in Jordan for example, riding on the back of an elephant in Thailand or trophy hunting in South Africa. Read more about sustainable travel specifically in this earlier article 20 ideas how to travel climate friendlier (without becoming a smelly hippie or couch potato).
There will always be countries that have a negative travel advice. Countries where you should not travel to, unless you work for the Red Cross or something. You can bluster about your perspective of what is safety, nevertheless, there are formal travel advices set by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that we should adhere to.
Please do not travel to countries and areas marked orange or red, meaning those have a negative travel advice. In case only a part of the country is marked orange or red, like normally in Egypt for example, you can consider to travel to that country, just try to avoid the orange and red areas and stay within the green and yellow areas as much as possible.
For more information about Corona and travel, see my earlier article To travel or not to travel? Corona and other disasters lead to travel dilemma. To learn more about travel insurances, check my earlier article Better safe than sorry – travel insurance for dummies.
Some safety tips
- Always check the latest travel advice for a country before booking a flight, accommodation, etc. and before departure. Do not book a trip to a country that is already completely or for the majority marked orange or red. The exceptions are traveling back home after a governmental request (Corona) or for certain type of jobs.
- Dutch travelers: download the app Reisapp Buitenlandse Zaken and submit your next destination as a favorite. The app will send you a message in case the travel advice changes for that country.
- Should you ignore the negative travel advise and decide to travel to an orange or red marked country anyway, please understand that most travel insurances do not cover this and embassies will be unlikely to help in case you get into trouble.
- Before purchasing cancellation and travel insurance, check the policy. Does it cover cancellation or costs to return home earlier in case of negative travel advice? Or ask your travel advisor to check the small letters of an insurance policy for you.
- Should the travel advice change from green or yellow to orange or red before your trip starts, contact your travel insurance to check if they cover, or claim expenses immediately if you are already sure they do.
- Should the travel advice change from green or yellow to orange or red during the trip, contact your travel agency or travel insurance for advice. Good travel insurances will cover (extra) expenses made to be able to return home earlier or relocate to a safer area should the safety situation change during the trip.
- When traveling for work, check the travel insurance of your employer and take the insurance details with you whenever you go abroad for work. In most cases private travel insurance is not valid for business trips.
Looking at the Guinness World Record holder for being the fastest woman to travel to all countries, I wonder: visiting 196 countries in less than 19 months (ca. 574 days), how much do you actually see of a country, really experience its culture? Sure, for most countries that not really possible in three or four weeks either. Nevertheless, then at least you have a bit of a better impression than being in a country for just a few hours or days. Like it is some sort of competition, a battle of egos?
On average, record holder Cassandra ‘Cassie’ De Pecol stayed for less than 3 days in each country. Do you want to visit a country to really get to know it and its inhabitants? Or just to cross another one off your list, be able to brag about it towards family or colleagues? Sure, I have made the mistake in the past to try and see parts of Brazil and Argentina in only 4 weeks, moreover in a year with 32 other trips. I learned the hard way. This was too rushed and would recommend to do otherwise. Whenever I see tours offered to ‘hit’ five or sometimes even more countries in less than a month, I simply sigh. Crazy. Not my thing.
How many countries are there anyway?
That question is not as easy to answer as it may sound. The most commonly method of counting is the list of sovereign states based on United Nations membership. Currently (March 2020) this lists 193 sovereign states (countries) as full members, 2 observer states (Palestine and Vatican City) and 11 other states with debatable ownership, such as Northern Cyprus, Kosovo and Taiwan. So in total there are 193, 195 or 206 countries, depending on your definition of what you would consider a country. So far, I have visited 63 countries, counting the two observer states as two individual countries. The Travelers Century Club offers membership to those who have visited 100 countries or more.
I hope this article helped you to control the desire of wanting to travel to all countries around the world and to reconsider certain countries. This has nothing to do with not daring or being afraid to go somewhere; it is a matter of ethics and safety, being a responsible, sensible adult. If you can’t do it for yourself, do it for your mother, or anyone else you love, or climate change as far as I’m concerned. Wish you all safe and wise travels!