Last spring, North Korea announced it would grant visas to Americans attending the Arirang festival, which is held daily from August 10 through October 10 and consists of an astounding synchronized stadium performance with a cast of 100,000. With few exceptions, Americans may enter the country only if they book tour packages overseen by the North Korean government. Tour groups are assigned two state-approved guides, and itineraries are limited to sites glorifying the regime. There are almost no opportunities to interact with locals.
For bragging rights alone, such a trip is tempting. But just because you're allowed to go doesn't mean you should. Foreign dollars spent in North Korea aid a government widely regarded as one of the world's most oppressive.
Still, deciding whether to visit a country isn't a black-and-white choice. Activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi has asked Westerners to avoid travel to Myanmar while its repressive regime remains in place. The Dalai Lama, on the other hand, is famous for opposing Chinese rule in Tibet, yet he supports responsible travel to the Himalayan nation in order to increase awareness of the issues there. Travelers also help locals feel less isolated, and they bring in desperately needed money.
So how do you figure out the right thing to do?
Human rights organizations rarely advocate an all-out boycott of any nation. Instead, they encourage people to educate themselves and make informed decisions. Human Rights Watch (hrw.org) and Amnesty International (amnestyusa.org) publish in-depth reports on more than 150 countries--including the U.S.--keeping tabs on issues such as torture, minority oppression, and freedom of speech. OneWorld United States (us.oneworld.net) is part of a global network of some 1,600 progressive organizations that lets you search by topic through hundreds of articles written by journalists and activists. You can also browse studies by the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (state.gov/g/drl/hr), going back to 1993: Pick a year, choose a world area, then click. Select Cuba, for example, and you'll be briefed on political prisoners, questionable arrests, and detentions. The nonprofit, nonpartisan Freedom House (freedomhouse.org) provides detailed national dossiers; a map that shows which countries are "free," "partly free," and "not free"; and rankings for civil liberty from 1 (highest freedom) to 7 (lowest). In 2005, China, Cambodia, Egypt, Laos, and the United Arab Emirates, which are all popular with tourists, rated a 5 or worse.
There are also resources if you're concerned about specific groups. The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (http://www.www.iglhrc.org/) focuses on the treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and HIV-positive groups worldwide. You can find up-to-date information about the many countries that still have antigay laws on the books, including the Bahamas and Jamaica, on the website sodomylaws.org. MADRE (madre.org), an international women's rights organization, posts articles about reproductive rights, violence against women, and working conditions for women around the world. The organization also arranges themed trips, such as one to Kenya last June that combined a safari with a visit to a village that had established a violence-free zone specifically for women.
"Travelers must understand they have an impact and a choice," says Jeff Greenwald, executive director of the Ethical Traveler (ethicaltraveler.org), an organization committed to strengthening human rights and environmental protection. "As much as possible, put your money where your heart is."
It's not all shades of gray
Freedom House, a nonprofit formed in New York City in 1941, rates countries according to political rights and civil liberties. A map on its website shows which nations are free (green), partly free (yellow), and not free (purple). Click on any country at the site for more in-depth info.
If you do decide to go . . .
Get your dollars to the people: "Buy local, stay local, and hire local," says Malia Everette, director of Global Exchange's Reality Tours. Choose privately run B&Bs and inns over government-owned hotels and buy souvenirs at community markets.
Go independent: With most packages, tourists have little control over where their money is spent. Book with socially responsible companies that take travelers to meet activists and join programs beneficial to locals, such as Global Exchange's Reality Tours (globalexchange.org) and Culture Xplorers (culturexplorers.com). This fall, Reality Tours' two-week tour of Libya includes crafts demonstrations at Berber settlements and discussions with members of the Libyan American Friendship Association about efforts to improve relations with the U.S.
Make a connection: North Korea won't allow foreigners to meet and socialize with civilians because the government knows how powerful personal interaction can be. Ask questions, share stories, and express interest in people's lives and cultures; the benefits go far beyond satisfying curiosity. But never push yourself on anyone who appears uncomfortable. It may be dangerous for a local to be seen associating with a foreigner.
Spread the word: When you return home, host a night for friends and family to hear about your experiences, or offer to give a talk at your church, school, or community center. Raise donations for school supplies, over-the-counter medications, or other items most needed by the communities you visited. And let others know that the best travel guide is their own conscience.