When I was living in South Korea, the DMZ intrigued me. The Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea is a tourist attraction, where bus-loads of travellers disembark and stare through a chain-link razor-wire fence into notorious North Korea. For an extra fee, visitors can stand in a room where guards from each nation face each other, ready to use their weapons if necessary.
The thrill of “basically” travelling to North Korea enticed me at first. But the more I thought about it, the more I got a weird feeling in my gut. Sure, it would be interesting to experience the DMZ, but it felt wrong to pay money to gaze into a country that is known to commit horrific crimes against humanity, including murder, sexual abuse and torture. Would putting my foreign dollars towards making this border a tourist attraction be helping the problem by raising awareness or hurting it by reducing the suffering of North Koreans to a spectacle? I felt uneasy considering being surrounded by tourists taking selfies in front of the fence that separates the closest North Korean village from Seoul. In my eyes, it was akin to visiting a concentration camp in Germany while it was still active, or to ogling distressed animals caged in a zoo. (And I hate zoos.)
Although plenty of people I know did travel to the DMZ, I decided not to. No matter where you travel, it’s important to consider where you put your money and what that reflects back about you. Don’t like torturing animals? Then don’t ride elephants in India or donkeys in Greece. Just because a tourist attraction seems cool or other people have done it before doesn’t make it right (or worth an Instagram photo). As world travellers, we have the responsibility to put our money where our morals are.
We all make mistakes. When I was 18, I volunteered at an orphanage in Bali, without realizing that I could be doing more damage than good. Whether you’ve paid taxes to a government you detest, swam with enclosed dolphins or walked a tiger on a leash, it’s important to admit that it was an unethical choice rather than encouraging others to follow in our moral missteps.
I’m not trying to condemn anyone. All I want you to do is think about it. Don’t be an ignorant tourist; be a considerate world traveller. Together, we can make the world a better, more ethical place to explore.