Soldiers? Diplomats? Nah — Send In the Tourists - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Soldiers? Diplomats? Nah — Send In the Tourists

Soldiers? Diplomats? Nah — Send In the Tourists

By Laura Secorun Palet


Because your next escapade may help prevent a war.

By Laura Secorun Palet

North Korea, Palestine, Ukraine, Iran … The pages in Morrie Erickson’s passport read like a who’s who of geopolitical troublemakers. But this 68-year-old lawyer from Indiana is no U.N. employee or foreign correspondent. Rather, Erickson is just one of a small but growing group of people who thinks that besides buying tacky souvenirs and getting a tan, tourism should help make the world a more peaceful place.

Forget suits, working papers and negotiation rooms — tourists may be the new diplomats. State Department travel warnings and government-sponsored “minders” notwithstanding, the market for those wanting to witness current affairs firsthand is booming, according to industry experts. Iran, for instance, has witnessed a more than 70 percent growth in the number of foreign tourists visiting since 2014. Even the ultimate international bad boy, North Korea, has invested $200 million into a new international airport in a bid to double the number of tourists by 2017. Whether tourism in these politically sensitive — and sometimes outright repressive — regions will relax the bunker mind-set is uncertain, but many academics and tourism operators are banking on change.

On the surface the formula seems pretty straightforward: A neutral presence, an economic boost and cross-cultural exchange equals greater peace. But it goes deeper than that. “Tourism is a good way for civil society to influence foreign policy-making,” says Akihiro Iwashita, professor of border studies at Hokkaido University in Japan. “Developing people-to-people relations beyond borders can help ease tensions.” Political tourism, for example, is playing an important role as part of the grassroots peace process between Israel and Palestine, notes Julia Chaitin, a researcher at Sapir Academic College in Israel.

One outfit is offering tours to Tsushima, a disputed island between Japan and South Korea. 

It’s good business, too, as it turns out. Political Tours, the U.K.-based company that Erickson traveled with, says it has doubled the number of clients in a year. Meanwhile, Lupine Travel, which sends clients to places like North Korea and Ukraine, has reported a 150 percent increase in bookings over the same period — and it plans to expand to the Central African Republic or Afghanistan. Newer companies or excursions are also popping up, including some that may feature political tours to Ukraine and Kosovo. The Japan Center for Borderlands Studies, for one, aims to transform its country’s contested isles from fortified outposts to peaceful destinations by offering tours to Tsushima, a disputed island between Japan and South Korea. 

While the growth of tourism seems unstoppable (the U.N.’s World Tourism Organization estimates there will be 1.8 billion international tourists annually by 2030), other traditional methods of geopolitical maneuvering continue to face challenges. From Palestine to North Korea, good old diplomacy has become synonymous with dead ends. Even the recent deal with Iran has proven to be tenuous. And on this volatile planet, any military move, no matter how well-intended, risks sparking war.

On the other hand, tourism boosts trade and cooperation in much subtler ways. Lara McKean, an American who loved visiting Cuba during spring break, argues “normal people are clearly much better at getting along than politicians.” That, in turn, can be “an important political force,” says Freya Higgins-Desbiolles, professor of politics of tourism at the University of South Australia. Besides being an engine of economic growth, tourism is a tool of soft diplomacy that falls beyond the grasp of conventional power structures — one that, Higgins-Desbiolles says, “governments cannot fully control or employ as they plan, because it is unpredictable.”

To be sure, sending hordes of unsuspecting, camera-wielding visitors into geopolitically complex regions can also be a recipe for disaster. According to sociocultural anthropologist Noel B. Salazar, tourism can be deeply eroding for local cultures and contribute to increased competition when the economic benefits that it generates are not shared equally among stakeholders. That’s the case for Lake Victoria, where longtime rivals Zimbabwe and Zambia fight over the spoils of tourism. And travelers visiting disputed borderlands or ostracized regimes shouldn’t expect the usual comforts of more established destinations, of course. Pristina is no London when it comes to museums, and Starbucks addicts will need to go cold turkey in North Korea.

Tourism also has a long way to go to change its image from that of consumerist swarms to a force of peace, but there’s some evidence of change. Take the case of Cyprus, a divided island held together by the prosperity that tourism brings to both sides. Even governments are trying to leverage it. In the disputed Spratly archipelago, between Vietnam and the Philippines, the Filipino government says it’s hoping to build peace by bringing tourists instead of building military bases. So choosing where to go on your next vacation could be an important geopolitical decision. No pressure.


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