Historical Lessons from Engaging Totalitarians: Tourism
Normally, travel broadens the mind but what about visiting a totalitarian state?
Over the past few months there has been a vigorous debate around whether or not to continue economic sanctions on the dictatorship in Cuba and a series of manufactured controversies surrounding democracy promotion programs directed at the island has led to a conversation about their effectiveness. However, a couple of other issues that emerged but that have gone unaddressed are the conceits that American tourists, business, and high technology would somehow be game changers in Cuba and that “evolutionary change” would take place within Cuba. In this second installment will briefly explore some high profile examples of the impact of tourism on totalitarian states.
What has happened in the past when tourists take the lead in public diplomacy? Well it depends on what kind of tourist is visiting a totalitarian regime. Basically divide them into four general groups: bargain travelers, political pilgrims, celebrities, and informed travelers that know how totalitarian states function and know what they are getting into. The last group is almost always a very small number.
Bargain travelers will go to a totalitarian regime because often times it is a cheap holiday in an exotic location. Depending on the regime they will be kept in areas geared to tourists providing them a Potemkin village experience. However that does not mean that information on health and security will be accurate and it can place tourists at risk. In the case of both Cuba and North Korea, businessmen who have engaged the regime in business ventures are rotting in prison. There is also an ethical question providing hard currency to a system that is actively repressing its own populace and no matter how little it may be it is helping a totalitarian state.
Celebrities visiting totalitarian states become targets of both the state security service and the propaganda ministries. These regime will pull out all the stops to show themselves in the best light possible and make sure that celebrities have a great time but within a reality fabricated by the totalitarians. It has paid back with big dividends in the past.
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