Tourists should not be ashamed to go back soon

Tony Wheeler

As lucky tourist escapees stream home from the tsunami-devastated coastlines , is it better to stay away, give the rescue experts time and space to move, let the locals clean up, grieve? The question comes up equally regularly, though less dramatically, with countries emerging from years of isolation. When is it appropriate to visit Ethiopia, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Algeria, East Timor or, one day, Iraq? Is it appropriate at all to be travelling to places like North Korea, Burma, even Tibet? Yes, go there, and go sooner than the experts would recommend, is my suggestion for Thailand and Sri Lanka. I certainly don't suggest visitors should be turning up to gawk at the rescue efforts, or get in the way, or arrive when essential services are still out of action. But the beach resorts of Phuket and the south-of-Colombo beach strip of Sri Lanka will bounce back with remarkable speed. In fact, some Thai tourist websites were announcing that things were under control within a day or two of the disaster.

The loss of loved ones is going to take much longer to get over than the loss of infrastructure, but when tourists are what puts money in the bank and food on the table you can be certain local operators will be eager to see tourists return. Over the years, I've been to many places where visitors have been comprehensively scared off by natural disasters or human ones - from cyclones to terrorist bombs - and the local operators were always overwhelmingly keen to see the tourists return.

Remember that the areas affected are only a fraction of each country concerned. It's a double blow to Sri Lanka if people stop going to Kandy in the hills because of the devastation on the coast.

In fact, the places without tourists have, in some cases, been the hardest hit. The news has been most restricted and they will also be the places where getting aid in will be most difficult. Roads and airports can bring in aid just as efficiently as they bring in tourists; internet cafes disperse real news just as effectively as friendly e-mails. Look at how much quicker the news has travelled from Phuket or the Sri Lanka resorts than it has from Aceh which remained a black hole for news for days after the waves struck, even though it is probably the worst-hit region.

For the reasonably intrepid the time to head back to countries where closed doors are reopening is also sooner than the powers that be recommend. Of course, you have to take some responsibility for your own skin. No government is going to be very nice about coming to your rescue when there's an advisory out that you stay home and don't even think about visiting a place which, until recently, was a war zone.

Of course there are dangers in being an early visitor to a former no-go zone. I went back to Cambodia in 1992. Two years later, two separate groups of young travellers were kidnapped and murdered. Nevertheless, the general reality is that safety tends to reach reasonable levels well before many visitors return. Plus visitors bring their own safety. Unsafe places are never the ones where there are lots of people around. It's when the streets are empty that you need to be on your guard.

Finally, what about the places where the question is not "can I go there" but "should I go there"? When travel ethics come in to the picture it's always a personal decision and very often there are pros and cons to be balanced. The situation is never a clear choice of black or white. Burma is the country where the "go or not to go" decision gets argued out most vociferously but there are plenty of other places where the morality of visiting is a much bigger question than the safety.

Take North Korea, undoubtedly one of the world's true horror stories, with a bankrupt government funding its existence through drug dealing and counterfeiting, starving its own citizens while it kidnaps people from other countries and runs a variety of Stalinesque gulags. Surely those are plenty of reasons not to go there? All true, but visitors can be remarkably effective witnesses from both sides of the fence. The Chinese are finding it much harder to keep a lid on dissent as mobile phones, the internet and tourists all proliferate. It's just as important that we learn about countries such as North Korea or Iran from real experience, not from what our governments will tell us.

Today we've become far too aware that wars will be launched on the flimsiest of misinformation. Better there had been 100,000 tourists wandering around Iraq three years ago - they might have reported back, quite accurately, that there was not a weapon of mass destruction to be seen.

The Independent