When you go on vacation, how do you decide where to go? Traveling has been one of the most enriching experiences of my life, and something I plan to do much more of in the future. However, when I think about travel and tourism in the larger context of politics and economics, I begin to think that maybe there are factors beyond the usual set (geographic proximity, abundance of nice beaches or sites of cultural interest, and so forth) that are worthy of consideration. For many countries, tourism is a vital industry that makes up a sizable portion of their economy. Tourism dollars can have a tremendous impact on a nation's financial well-being, and thus it seems worthwhile to give some thought to which countries we choose to support.

My idea here is related to the notion of voting with your wallet - spending your money in accordance with your values, so that progressive companies who adhere to acceptable labour and environmental standards are rewarded. I think this same idea can be applied to travel. There are so many places to go, but when it comes to spending our tourist dollars, I think we should do so consciously in support of countries or places involved in positive, progressive social change. Instead of dropping large amounts of money in countries where citizens are oppressed or discrimination is rampant, we could use that money to support social justice causes.

Now, I understand full well that different people would choose different places to visit based on their own conceptions of positive change, but using my own somewhat vaguely defined criteria, here are the places that top my personal list of tourist destinations in support of social justice:

  • Curitiba, Brazil - one of the best and most progressively planned cities in the world, where (according to the CBC) an amazing 70% of all garbage is recycled in a program where poor people exchange recyclables for food vouchers used to obtain food grown in public gardens maintained by school children and the public at large. Wow.
  • Ukraine - post-Orange Revolution, this country might have moved off the front page, but their continued democratic progress, especially in the face of increasing Russian regress, is laudable to say the least. According to one professor I recently spoke with, Ukranian papers are actually a more reliable source of news about Russia than Russian papers, since the freedom of the Russian press is under constant attack.
  • Venezuela - I don't even know where to begin with the reasons Hugo Chavez's nation deserves support, but examples would have to include progressive oil policies, a re-investment in social programs that have been driving the national standard of living (especially for the poor) skyward for the past few years, and of course his generous (and politically targeted) offers of health care and heating oil to poor residents of Chicago and New York.
  • Czech Republic - the Velvet Revolution may have come and gone, but Vaclav Havel's great legacy is a country so progressive it acts as a beacon not only for Eastern Europe, but for the world. Maybe we should make all would-be world leaders visit in hopes that playwright-cum-multiple Nobel Peace Prize nominee Havel's idealism, honesty, and optimism are indeed contagious.

This is a sadly incomplete list. I'd love to get msgs about other places that should be added!

It's also worth mentioning that a country needn't be perfect to be considered for this list, they simply should be headed in the right direction. Thus, the following countries also deserve mention:

  • Lesotho - There's a program running right now where traditional village elders have teamed up with educators to teach the youth traditional agriculture methods that were in danger of being lost. These traditional methods provide a far more reliable subsistence as they use indigenous food sources that are well suited to the land and climate, and working with community elders helps young people develop a sense of cultural connectedness and appreciation. By embracing greater diversity (bio and human) and providing an example of sustainable famine relief, Lesotho has taken great steps.
  • Kuwait - Rare is a nation in this region that holds fair and meaningful elections, and rarer yet is one that has extended the right to vote to women. Not only have Kuwaiti women now voted in their first election, but the newly-elected government contains more than 10% women members, a number that exceeds the quota target put in place prior to the election.
  • Mexico - Depending on the outcome of this recent election, I'd say that if Andres Manuel Lopez Obrado wins then he certainly deserves our support for his commitment (illustrated during his tenure as Mayor of Mexico City) to bringing the poorest people in his nation closer to the living standards enjoyed by the richest.

This list is also sadly incomplete. Msg me with your additions!

With luck and more research on my part, these lists will continue to grow, but I think there are enough examples here to illustrate my idea. If we used criteria like these to determine our travel destinations, then the money we spend could directly fund some of the most socially just policies on the planet, and how cool would that be?!

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