Last week, editor Erik Torkells posted the following question on this blog:
Several readers complained about astory in our March issue about the new Sky Train from Beijing, China, to Lhasa, Tibet. They say we shouldn't have written about it, because the train can be seen as one more way China is subjugating Tibet. The truth is, we thought about noting somewhere the ethical issues with Tibet, but we didn't because we thought that it's the traveler's decision whether or not to go there—and if we include the ethical considerations every time we mention a place with a dicey human-rights record (China, Egypt, Jamaica, even the U.S.), there wouldn't be a lot of room for much actual travel info. But as the situation in Tibet heats up, I wonder if we were wrong. Any opinions out there?
Here's a sampling of the many comments from our readers, chosen in an effort to represent the range of opinion. Some comments have been edited; see the full comments on the original post.
You wrote: "This great engineering achievement of the Chinese people"..."completing Chairman Mao's dream of uniting Tibet with the rest of China"..."with an inaugural departure on China's National Day." Does that seem like a balanced, or even politically neutral, view to you? Or was the article meant to be ironic?—Doug
Absolutely appallingly wrong. This train is designed for one purpose and one purpose only—to facilitate the movement of Han Chinese into Tibet and to further the cultural genocide policy of the Chinese government. The construction of the trackbed was carried out without regard to environmental consequences (which have been documented), migratory routes of wild animals, or the displacement of Tibetan villages that had existed for centuries. Not every "tourist" attraction should be promoted, and some cultural sensitivity is expected.—Edrie
I've read articles in travel magazines about travel in China, Burma and other repressive regimes that fail to even mention the tyrannical governments and lack of freedom. Budget Travel and other magazines present the world as one big Disneyland that exists solely for the amusement of those with money to travel.—John Korchok
You can't bring up every potential issue. But at some point, they become large enough that you do your readers a disservice if you don't even mention them. Such as Myanmar, Ethiopia or Sudan. Or air pollution in Beijing. People can of course make their own choices but if blatant issues are omitted, it cuts against your credibility.—John D. Van Meter
Why wouldn't you mention the repression of the Tibetans by the Chinese? It really has a direct effect upon the traveler. You would advise someone not to drink water in a specific region if it would harm them. Traveling on the train to Tibet, a traveler could perform an action unknowingly that could cause a great deal of trouble. For example, what is a traveler brought in a picture of the Dali Lama and then gave it to a Tibetan child? What might the consequence be to the child holding the picture? Just a thought!—Carol Austad
When we went to Myanmar (Burma) last year, our guidebook had a section called "Should you go?" with a list of pros and cons (examples: it's more difficult for a government to abuse the people if there are foreigners around; going there helps the local people economically; going there gives money to the government and in effect, finances their bad policies and deeds, etc.) It would have been appropriate to have included a sidebar in your article with a brief description of the political scene in Tibet and the ethical issues involved with visiting.—Wendy
I look to your publication for travel information, not political information. If I need political information I will consult a news source.—Carol Hoyt
Why stop at avoiding stories about places that are politically oppressed? Why not avoid stories about places that have large carbon footprints, that have people in poverty, that have meat in their diets, that aren't Christian, and so forth? Then rename the magazine Antarctic Budget Travel.—Rich
Unfortunately, at the time the article was written, and published, you could not have known that riots would erupt in Lhasa, and many Tibetans would be killed and disappeared,and that Lhasa is a powder keg right now, a very dangerous place to be. Perhaps it would be wise to publish a few paragraphs of this news for the safety of travelers that may be planning to go there.—JC
I love Budget Travel, I do not expect you to be my conscience. I believe it is my responsibility to be informed about politics around the world and make my travel decisions based on that alone.—Mary Ann Chaney
I actually spent 3 weeks on a 4x4 vehicle land trip from China into Tibet with a Tibetan guide and circled Tibet right when the train from Qinghai to Lhasa opened up with its inaugural trip. ...Yes Tibet has been subjugated to Chinese rule for a long time - nothing new there. ... Don't think there is only one side to every story....There is a lot of controversy and news reports, but until you go there and see it for yourself - it's hard to say what one person thinks as oppression which may or may not be to someone else. While I may not agree with the entire situation, I do believe it's up to the individual to decide where they want to travel and their own responsibility to do their research.—Karen Olivia
You have to assume that people are going to do some research on their own to make certain a trip is going to be in line with their own morals, ethics, beliefs, etc. Should this month's article on the Big Sur drive mentioned that car emissions are killing off the redwoods? Or the feature on the Grand Canyon's Sky Bridge mention that the rim is now covered in haze because of dust (no doubt from 14-mile trips on dirt roads) and pollution? C'mon.—Dan in L.A.
I think it was fine to run the article, although I was very taken back by the 100% positive tone... not a mention the political issues the railway has caused. I don't think a magazine needs to be overly politicized to simply acknowledge the issues in the world and mention them. Don't be afraid to bring all aspects of international travel into the articles.—Barbara Brattain
I don't think that you can really separate politics and travel. It is impossible to visit Cambodia and Vietnam, for example, without being made painfully aware of their recent history of war. How can you visit the depressingly poor areas of Tibet without having at least some understanding of their history?—Wendy
I think it would have been responsible to include a sidebar that would not only mention that the railway was/is a source of controversy, but more importantly, include some facts about altitude sickness. The train rises from Beijing's altitude of 140 feet, to Lhasa's elevation of 12,000 feet in under 48 hours, including at least one pass over 15,000 feet en route. It is important to warn people that they should be prepared to take Diamox (or similar) to help acclimatize, and that things like increasing one's water intake, and taking it easy for a few days, will help one acclimatize to the altitude.—Cheryl L.
I appreciate your willingness to allow folks to express their opinion on this (or any) controversial issue. And, to ask whether we thought it was right or wrong demonstrates a level of respect for your customers' opinions not always evident in travel or other industries. Thank you for that consideration.—Eric Reagan
For those of you who are unfamiliar with Tibet's history, here's a brief (and incomplete) backgrounder: Since the 1950s, many ethnic Tibetans have sought independence from their rulers in Beijing. The Sky Train, which was opened in 2006, has upset pro-independence, ethnic Tibetans in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa. The activists believe the "world's highest railway" has encouraged many ethnic Han Chinese —the majority ethnic group in China—to move to Lhasa and cement control.
Violence flared up two weeks ago. The only Western reporter to be in Lhasa during the rioting filed a compelling report with The Economist. The report and the reactions from readers on the Economist's website show how complicated the situation is, defying easy summary.