Monday, April 13, 2009

Ethical Travel

The thing about me and the Dominican Republic was that I was initially very leery. I had consciously avoided the island because the country has been charged with many human rights violations, not to mention forced slavery of Haitians working on plantations. That's not the kind of scenery that I want my kids exposed to. I feel very strongly about supporting abusive governments with travel dollars. So I never considered traveling there until I kept hearing about all the new construction. Besides scads of new hotels and resorts, the Dominican Republic is constructing a commuter train system. New developments typically mean a rise in the standard of living for many people living in the booming areas. But does that mean the abuses have lessened?

I checked the latest Amnesty International reports and the findings for 2008 appeared to better than 2007. There was no mention of slavery and assaults and violence against women had decreased. But I was still skeptical. When we traveled to the DR I was on the look out for anything that smacked of discrimination or abuse. What I found were charming people and genuine warmth wherever we went. Interestingly, many people assumed we were either Dominican or Haitian but I detected no negative undertones with either assumption. My children frolicked on the beach, rode horses and scampered through caves and up mango trees in the country side. We were embraced by cooks and vendors and receptionists. We had special meals prepared for us at the insistence of our waiter. At the airport, when our flight was cancelled, the reservations agent upgraded us to first class. This wasn't a courtesy that I saw handed to the other passengers. So were we given special treatment because they thought we were Dominican or Haitian American? Or was this just regular Dominican expansiveness connected with class expectations?

It's difficult to get a true feeling for a culture as a tourist so I made a point of talking to every Haitian that I met. It was not good. They told me that discrimination against Haitians is widespread. Immigration officials and police routinely beat Haitian and Dominican-Haitians. The border patrol is particularly brutal and often send Haitians back even if they are in DR legally. Many Haitians are afraid to go home because they probably won't be allowed back. Amnesty International migrant worker reports confirmed all of this. Yet, I detected very little bitterness when my Haitian acquaintances told me their stories. They were just glad for an opportunity to work and send money home.

The ethics of traveling to a place that routinely allows such abuse still makes me queasy. Of course, these abuses also take place in the U.S. and all over the world. I loved my Dominican trip and the culture provided a rich experience for our family vacation. I know that our presence did make a psychological and financial difference to many who suffer in the DR but knowing what I know now, I don't think that I could go back unless it was to volunteer to help change the inequality.


marina villatoro said...

As much as we want ethical travel, some countries just dont' care for human life. my husband always tells me that if i want to do good in the world, i need to start with being good and treating people good. so i think that's more of ethical travel than looking at what countries do.

about the walks in antigua guatemala:) it's flat, but really really cobblestony so you twist your ankle everywhere, plus i'm a blonde gringa, meaning that i will getting hassled by every moron on the street cause they simply think they have the right too!
i like to hide in gyms:)
The Travel Expert(a) and an Expat with a Twist

Beauty Is Diverse said...

Great post. It is hard because all over people getting treated badly, some more than others. But at least you've acknowledge it.

Jean-Luc Picard said...

I was unaware the Dominican Republic was like that. Some countries try to hide their human rights record like China, but everyone knows how bad it is.

Fly Girl said...

Marina, being nice isn't anough for me. It won't help push change. One of the reasons I became a journalist was to provide a voice for the voiceless. I can't just ignore situations like this.

Ebony, I couldn't help but acknowedge it. It haunts me.

Jean-Luc, I don't know if DR even tries to hide their record. It just never makes any news outside the region. Many people just don't care. If the DR had activists fighting against their abuses like China, I think more people would be aware.

A Cuban In London said...

In regards to Dominicans and Haitians, I'm afraid to say that your fears are real. I noticed the former's dislike for the latter when we travelled there in '99. From our tour guide, who could have been Haitian (he was really dark-skinned) to our rep, everybody had it in against Haitians. Shame, really. Thanks for another brilliant and honest post.

In regards to the Morcheeba track, dear, my blog does not really do Easter, at least in the conventional way ;-). Ta.

Greetings from London.

Lynne said...

Wow. I sit here trying to imagine traveling to a country to vacation while being mindful of such human and civil rights abuses.

I have to investigate further the issues in DR.
Thanks for the info.

Anonymous said...

Wow, that's crazy that slavery is still an issue. Honestly, I think its commendable of you to look into such moral and ethical issues before you travel. Bravo!

Fly Girl said...

Cubano, yes, it's a really puzzling issue that stems from blood-stained Dominican and Haitian history. As for the Easter post,I know now that you don't do most things conventionally!

Lynne,a lot of people don't pay attention to these concerns on vacation but it's there if you want to see.

Yvonne,Thanks, Unfortunately, slavery in some form is still an issue in many countries. I've written about it for mags and websites so the awareness never goes away.

kristine said...

Thank you for posting this. It is interesting and eye-opening. There are often very cheap holidays to DomRep from Europe, and I have never been that tempted because I knew the tourist industry was a bit dodgy - but I had never taken the step of researching it further. I am, like you, very interested in ethical travel - in fact I wrote my masters thesis on tourism to Burma....but thats a whole other story.

Its also interesting to me because I just came back from DomRep. I was there for work and just had a little bit of time to stroll around Santo Domingo - so I didnt come close to scratching the surface. I did think it was a wonderful city.

Lola said...

I've heard so much about the history between Haitians and Dominicans.

It's definitely a difficult situation yet boycotting those areas may not be the best for its people. Just like your Haitian acquaintances, their stories need to be heard.

That discriminatory feeling exists all over the world - except disguised in most cases as presumptuousness, patronizing comments, and condescending behavior.

Midlife, menopause, mistakes and random stuff... said...

Well done AND well said Farasighted Fly Girl!!! Bravo :)
This post speaks to me and for me.
I can't stand human inequities and they abound everywhere I've ever been in this beautiful world that God has created for us.
I just don't think this was His intention do you?

Steady On
Reggie Girl

Fly Girl said...

Kristine, I know you were just in the DR, Santo Domingo is great, that's the paradox. I believe the culture and people are basically warm and caring, it's just the ingrained prejudices that don't seem to be getting better after centuries that's the problem.

I don't advocate boycotting either. I believe my family's presence did make a small difference. I just can't personally go back unless I'm doing something to address the issue.

Reggie Girl,thanks. It was not His intention in any way.

Gennaro said...

I'm often on the fence about traveling to countries with violations. It's not a good idea to fund the leaders, but having an influx of travelers may cause change. In the end, I usually lean to the latter.

Catherine said...

You expressed so well all those doubts and contradictions about travelling to certain places as a tourist... thanks for reminding us all so clearly and effectively..

Black Travel said...

Thank you for sharing your experience. Many people share your concerns, fears, and doubts and you just gave us a voice. Well done!

Fly Girl said...

Gennaro, Catherine and Black, thanks for your insight. I know that this topic is difficult but it's important to spread awareness.

Fly Brother said...

Epale, Chica Voladora:

The situation on the island, as you know, has always been effed-up, especially considering most Dominican-on-Haitian violence is essentially black-on-black violence (though I have to give shouts to the United Dominicans Assn. at the U of Miami for ALWAYS teaming up with the Haitian Student Assn. to promote unity between the communities on campus and in the city). I can put you in contact with a former professor of mine in Santo Domingo who has inroads into the Afro-Dominican cultural milieu as well as working with Haitian-Dominican conflict assistance. Let me know if you're interested in connecting with him.

I know how hard it is to put conviction aside when traveling, but there is always a group of people being treated inhumanely to some degree in every country, especially in this hemisphere, from Canada on down. A group of my friends convinced me to boycott Jamaica because public officials continue to encourage and excuse violence against homosexuals. And I could do a doctoral thesis on the horrendous treatment of [a certain group of] blacks here in Colombia.

Still, if one of my best friends decides to get married in Jamaica (as he's contemplating), do I miss the event because of my convictions?

That was like a ten-cent comment right there.

Fly Girl said...

Bro,that's a 25-cent comment! I would love to get in contact with the prof. I'd like to discuss the issue on a deeper level. In terms of abuse all over the world, yes, it's true and I've acknowledged that. I think the problem is that some abuse goes under the radar and unless some stand is taken to address it, it will never change. Jamaica is a good example. It's one of my favorite islands but the violence against gays is atrocious, not to mention the violence in dancehall lyrics. Would I boycott Jamdown? No. The reason being that there are organized protests of the situation and organizations addressing the issue. It has not slipped under the radar and people are demanding change, which I have witnessed slowly happening. Jamaican poet Staceyann Chin has spoken out consistently and written her memoir on her experience growing up gay in Jamaica (will do a review soon.) So the next time I go to Jamaica, I'll volunteer with organizations working for change. If your firend gets married there, I recommend that you take that option as well.In DR, I haven't discovered any such efforts and that's what bothers me. I can't go back and not address the discrimination against Haitians or I am as guilty as the people who do.

Lara Dunston said...

Great post! And you and FlyBrother both make some great points. Personally, I don't believe in boycotting whole countries and punishing the people for the follies of a government or a few (no matter the numbers or how savage the crimes). You simply can't punish a whole nation. But you can help at a grassroots level and help effect change upwards.