Is it ethical to travel to Russia?
Now is not the time to visit Eastern Europe. But how long should you stay away?
The reaction to Russia's unprovoked attack on Ukraine last week was swift and virtually unanimous. Tour operators canceled or rerouted their Russian itineraries. Airlines ended their code-sharing agreements with Aeroflot, the Russian carrier. Cruise lines quietly turned their ports of call in St. Petersburg into "at sea" days. Even Visa and MasterCard have left the Russian market.
But was the reaction too swift and unanimous?
True, travel to Eastern Europe — especially the areas affected by the Ukraine conflict — is not safe and this isn't the time to go. Let me say that again: Don't visit Russia now.
But the transformative power of travel is undeniable. Tourism can build bridges of understanding, even between enemies. Are we burning this particular bridge too quickly? We might be.
What do you think?
I’d love to get your opinion on the ethics of traveling to Russia. When should tourists return (if ever)?
Let's boycott the Evil Empire
It's hard for me to be impartial on this issue. I grew up in Vienna, Austria, in the shadow of what Ronald Reagan called the "Evil Empire" — the former Soviet Union. And I remember a time when I was just 11 years old, and the SALT II treaty talks between Carter and Brezhnev started to go sideways, and everyone rushed to the grocery store to buy staples. The shelves were as empty as the political rhetoric. No flour, no sugar, no rice — and, of course, no Österreichisches bier.
I expected to wake up one morning to see Soviet tanks in the streets or a mushroom cloud on the horizon.
And then there's my ancestry. During World War II, my grandparents fled Kovel, a small town in the northwestern part of Ukraine. I have relatives who are still there.
I know the sense of foreboding that my cousins must be feeling now. I felt it as a young man in Vienna, when everyone thought the Communists were about to roll across the Czech border. And it got real when I saw the bare grocery store shelves. I thought a nuclear war was imminent.
So when I read the comments on the Friday Forum that say we should boycott the hell out of Russia, there's a part of me — a big part of me — that says, "Absolutely!"
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Can we change Russia through tourism?
But there's another part of me that wonders if locking the doors to tourism and throwing away the key is the right decision over the long term. When it's safe again, shouldn't we resume traveling to Russia and interacting with as many Russians as possible? With Twitter and Facebook now banned in the country, tourism may be one of the only ways to build understanding with Russians.
Would that be ethical?
I know a thing or two about the effectiveness of cultural exchanges. In 1997, I was a Fulbright Scholar in Germany. Fulbright is a government cultural exchange program designed to improve intercultural relations, cultural diplomacy, and intercultural competence between America and the rest of the world.
I have no doubt that tourism, especially the type that emphasizes cultural exchange, has the power to change history. Isolating Russia may feel right now. But over the long term, will it have the opposite of the intended effect?
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This edition is probably the most controversial one I’ve published this year. Share it — if you dare.
What should we do?
Many readers demanded a total boycott of Russia this week. As an American of Ukrainian descent who has faced the threat of a Russian invasion, and as a concerned citizen of the free world, I'd like nothing more than to punish the Russians — all of 'em. Confiscate the oligarchs' yachts. Freeze their bank accounts. Sanction them into oblivion.
But would cutting off tourism work?
Some tour operators don't seem to think so. After Friday's discussion, reader Janet Weber shared a new Q&A section from the Lindblad Expeditions site. It expressed hope that the conflict would be resolved soon but stopped short of calling for an end to tourism.
"It contrasts sharply with what some other tour operators are saying," says Weber.
Travel can bring people together. And don't take my word for it. The idea that cultural exchanges are essential to democracy has been championed by academics like Robert Putnam and, more recently, in a doctoral dissertation by fellow Fulbright scholar Rohini Dandavate.
I've had lengthy conversations, and arguments, with people who have visited Cuba, China, Iran, North Korea and Saudi Arabia. And I have been convinced that tourism can be an effective form of cultural diplomacy that yields long-term benefits for everyone.
Even as we boycott Russian products and stop traveling to Eastern Europe, let's keep in mind that the situation won't last forever. When it’s again safe to travel to that part of the world, resuming cultural exchanges can help change minds among the Russian people.
It's too late to stop the horrible invasion we're now witnessing. But maybe tourism could prevent it from happening again.
I'm interested in your thoughts on the ethics of traveling to Russia. Should we cancel all our trips now or continue? If so, what kind of trips are OK, and which ones aren't? The comments are open.
About the art
"Peace, love, and war have been ongoing themes that artists like me tackle in this era of anxiety and unbridled social media exposure," says artist Dustin Elliott. "This time in our history as many times before we are permitted to observe Russia do the mortality tango with civilians foreign and domestic." His illustration is a reflection of that.