Mention politics in a conversation and one is either met with yawns of boredom or the beginning of a contentious debate. Yet understanding politics and the ramifications of political decisions is absolutely vital for any traveler.
While it is not necessary for a tourist to understand the intimate underpinnings of international politics, it is key for the traveler to at least stay abreast of developments around the world.
Whether you are a tourist spending a week abroad or a long-term backpacker, reading the newspaper prior to and during your trip is a useful habit to adopt. There are many countries around the world with either ongoing or isolated political unrest, sometimes quite severe. In some areas, such as Bangkok, the unrest was unusual for the city and may have taken the casual traveler by surprise. Other areas of the world, such as Israel, exist under a constant level of tension which can flare at times. If you are planning a trip to an area of the world which may be prone to riots or unrest, stay abreast of current events in the area using international news sources. American news sources do not cover international affairs very well, so a daily visit to the BBC or International Herald Tribune websites is a must. While tourists may accept a certain level of tension, such as in Israel, the average person does not want to travel to a city under martial law. Many of these events are short lived and usually don’t have a long-term effect, so don’t let the potential of political tension necessarily deter you from visiting.
What has a greater impact on the traveler is not widespread political unrest, but rather more subtle public reactions to political events. In Europe, this is best seen by the seemingly constant, and thankfully scheduled, workers strikes. Almost anyone who has spent a significant amount of time in Europe has been impacted either by aviation or general transportation strikes. This was most recently seen in Greece when tourists were stranded on a variety of islands due to a ferry worker strike protesting austerity measures undertaken by the Greek government.
Usually these strikes are announced well in advance, but every traveler needs to read the paper or watch the news in order to learn about them. The last thing you want to have happen on your trip is an easily avoidable delay.
No matter where you live, it is a good idea (as well as a civic responsibility) to have a good understanding of your nation’s politics, if for no other reason than to understand how it may affect your travel plans. The most recent example in the United States occurred when a House of Representatives Committee approved legislation that would allow some American travel to Cuba. Instantly, I began seeing articles from travel professionals talking about the inevitability of American tourism in Cuba.
I won’t go into the minutia of why, but suffice it to say that it is almost legislatively impossible for this measure to pass Congress in 2010, which means the process must start all over again in 2011 when the new Congress convenes.
Another excellent reason to understand your nation’s politics was recently best described in a Drifting Focus article “Why Living Abroad Made Me a Better American“. I too have experienced this phenomenon of having to defend my country at the most unpredictable of times. The oddest example happened in Munich, immediately prior to the Iraq war, when I was defending American national security policy to the lady selling me my schnitzelsemmel. All I wanted was a sandwich and instead I got a reenactment of a Congressional debate.
You don’t have to understand national politics to an extreme level, but it is important to have a basic understanding of how your political system works. This basic understanding is also important in learning about new rules and regulations governing international treaties, diplomatic relationships, fees, visa requirements and so forth.
The act of travel is transformative and hopefully builds in each new traveler a better understand of the world and the relevance of other cultures to his own. Traveling though is not necessarily a carefree experience and you must be diligent in your preparation for any journey.
7 thoughts on “Travel and Politics – Why it Matters”
Great post! I think cultural sensitivity is another issue. Obviously when you’re travelling it is impossible to understand all of the nuances of politics in the places you visit. And you certainly wouldn’t want to give your opinion on a country’s political situation to the natives. But having a general understanding of what situations affect daily living for the people in a foreign country you visit will go a long way towards helping you avoid saying the wrong thing or behaving inappropriately.
I didn’t realize the importance of having some political awareness until I came to Nicaragua. History and politics are such an important part of this country’s culture that people respected that I knew a bit. I also knew enough not to state my opinion but to listen to others.
I make it a point to be culturally sensitive and to understand the customs of the region I’m traveling to, but I admit to being ignorant of politics (at home and away). This is a good reminder for me to reconsider this stance.
Thanks for the great comments everyone. I love politics, it’s how I make my living. But I firmly believe in the power of citizen diplomacy, for which a basic understanding of politics is essential. When we travel, whether we like it or not, we are representatives of whatever country we call home.
Great post, Matt. Couldn’t agree with you more about citizen diplomacy — it’s one of the big reasons we need to travel.
I was in both Germany and Jordan during the very early days of the Iraq War. Debates between Germans or between Jordanians were intense and often angry, but when I was drawn in as an American, the discussion was invariably civil.
I like to think my one-on-one contacts had some lasting benefits. I know I benefited from the viewpoints I was exposed to.
Great article, Matt. I admit, I have done a lousy job of researching the politics of a region before traveling there. I research what to do, where to go, and where is safe to be, but I generally only have a very cursory idea of what’s going on by reading the newspapers from that region for a couple of months before my trip. And I generally know little of a place’s history, either. Thanks for the reminder of the importance of knowing the socio-political context of regions we are traveling to.
This is such an important aspect to travel that many don’t often prepare for, myself included at times. Thanks for the reminder to always pack a little political knowledge wherever I go.
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