Thursday, 2 April 2009

The Ethics of Travel Writing

Do travel writers have any responsibility to try and solve problems and abuses in the countries they visit? This bothered me when I visited Malta and discovered that the hunting of migrating birds is very popular there.

Read about it here - yeuch. It is an ecologically damaging and revolting slaughter of protected and non-protected species.

My trip was to research a long essay for an intelligent American travel magazine. Should I mention the bird hunting? After some thought, I decided not to do so.

These were my reasons:

(a) I hadn't seen the hunting for myself (it was out of season) - and I prefer to have experience of what I describe.
(b) There was (and is) bitter controversy in Malta itself about this, and my two ha'pence worth was certainly not going to make any difference to anyone's views.
(c) I have to choose my words carefully here, but shall we say that I was not exactly impressed by all the top dogs I encountered in Malta, so there would perhaps be some difficulty in enforcing any legislation.
(d) No way was the magazine going to use anything on this subject. If I'd written about this, it would have been taken out again before publication.
(e) No reputable publication would have taken anything else I wrote about it either, since good editors also prefer their writers to have experience of what they are describing.

The problem of speaking up becomes far more difficult when human issues are involved. I was chatting to a colleague who has made many trips to Burma. He says it's important to go there, because otherwise Burmese people have no contact with the outside world. He sees himself as a link between us and them.

However, the alternative view is that the repressive regime in Burma is very keen to make money out of tourism, and visiting that country is just encouraging and empowering the regime.

My decision is to stay away from Burma. I don't speak the language and I wouldn't be much of a "link" for anyone. On the other hand, I can choose not to help a regime of which I disapprove.


  1. I agree you can't really write about something you haven't seen in person. Whether to go to places when you don't agree with the customs or politics... tough one, but personally I think the world would be a friendlier place if everyone experienced a wider variety of different cultures. Everything is so different 'in the flesh', and it's good to develop an understanding.

  2. I think you've also got to listen to what the people of the country themselves say.


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