1 In Travel

Why You Should Forget Politics When Traveling

Hiking in Jordan

Travel, in my view, is one of the best tools in our arsenal to come to terms with one another’s existence. Considering how terrible humans have been at understanding one another, travel has become an invaluable tool. If we all forever stay cornered into our man-made political boundaries, we’ll continue to exchange more bombs than our respective versions of a dick and fart jokes.

I prefer the dick and fart joke to the bombs.

For this reason, I tend to roll my eyes whenever I hear about someone refusing — refusing — to travel to a specific place because of some political difference. I’ve seen this in liberal Americans refusing to travel to certain states, conservative Americans refusing in kind, or North Americans in general with specific countries on their shit list.

I’m here to tell you it’s all bullshit, and why basing your travel decisions on politics is usually an asinine move that likely does nothing to address your disagreement in the first place.


Yes, there are exceptions, so let’s just get that out of the way. Because since the internet is a stubborn and irrational beast, people tend to take any argument and find an ultimately rare example to prove you wrong. In other words, I would not roll my eyes if someone says they refuse to travel somewhere due to a political system that has resulted in active genocide, especially if going to said country would put their own lives in danger. However, there are ultimately more good things happening in the world than terrible. You just don’t see it on the CNN holograms.

Now let’s move on to some examples of what I actually am talking about.

First up, Arizona. Years ago when Governor Jan Brewer signed the controversial “show me your papers law” targeting basically anyone with a darker hue of skin in an extremely misguided attempt to reign in the state’s immigration issues, I read and heard from many liberal Americans proclaiming they would never visit the state of Arizona as long as that law remained. After all, history has shown time and time again that change comes from how John and Kelly spend their week of summer vacation.

The indignation at the law was fair. More than fair. It was a dumb law. But refusing to visit the entire state of Arizona because of something some idiotic policymakers came up with is mind-bogglingly shortsighted. First, don’t pretend you had immediate plans to travel across the country to Arizona just so you can pat yourself on the back with your “protest.” Saying you won’t travel someplace because of political disagreements is the Facebook equivalent of sharing a link to Kony 2012 and thinking you solved Africa.

Second, what about those Mexican-American businesses that will miss your travel dollars? Should they suffer because of a law they had nothing to do with crafting? Bottom line, the Grand Canyon doesn’t ask for your papers nor does it discriminate. The Grand Canyon is a magical slice of nature. I’m not going to deprive myself of a place that Ron Swanson called one of the few appropriate places for a man to shed a tear because of the political boundaries it happens to find itself in.


One of my first travel assignments was in Canada, paddling across Lake Superior on a voyageur canoe. I must say right off the bat, I love Canada. Hands down, it has to be one of the most naturally beautiful countries in the world. I love Toronto for being a people-oriented city and Montreal was the first city I ever saw that didn’t look like anything else in North America. I’ve heard incredible things about Vancouver, I’ve been working for a couple of years on planning an outdoor excursion through Algonquin Provincial Park, and that assignment paddling across Lake Superior still holds up as one of my favorite travel experiences.

But, Canada. Oh, Canada. What is with the either outright or passive hatred of your southerly neighbor? As soon as I crossed the border, I was lectured several times on how the United States actually lost the War of 1812 to Canada (which was not a country at the time), and treated as if I personally ran the W. Bush campaign and helped guide his decision-making process. I was the “-er” to his “decide.” Bess Rattray detailed similar curious Canadian treatment as an American living abroad in a piece for Salon back in November.

In making friendly small chat, I asked one Canadian if he had the chance to travel in the States.

“I tend to avoid it, to be perfectly honest,” he told me. “I have strong foreign policy disagreements.”

Well, Hell, so do I.

For me, it’s worth noting that this gentleman lives in Sault Ste Marie, Ontario, which sits just above Sault Ste Marie, Michigan. But the Michigan town, despite literally sharing the same name and general location as the Canadian iteration, will never see that traveler because he doesn’t like what the U.S. government is doing in the Middle East.

Bravo. Take in your slow clap moment, sir.

I suppose he, by that logic, therefore agrees with everything conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper has done since taking office. He does, after all, live there. I’m also quite positive that he bases all of his travel decisions on the politics of other nations, states, provinces, and counties. I have zero doubt that he’s consistent.


Speaking of Americans, we can be just as guilty when it comes to international travel. I’ve heard of people who won’t go to Russia, China, Cuba, or the entirety of the Middle East. Why? Because of politics.

Again, I’ve never heard of a country being brought to their knees because of where people refused to travel. Once more, I also have not heard of any dictator or political leader using tourism to legitimize their regime.

“Well, I was going to leave office. But then 500,000 Americans visited last year, so I guess I’ll stay put!”

One of my favorite pieces of travel television was when Anthony Bourdain traveled to Iran in last season’s Parts Unknown. As the episode aired, Bourdain faced the inevitable tirade of mostly anonymous tweeters and Facebook posters questioning his decision to visit a country with serious political issues, namely its treatment of women. His response was great, and I wish I could share it with you here without having to devote an inordinate amount of time to scrolling through his Facebook page to find the direct quote.

He did, however, ask viewers to, “Forget about the politics, if you can, for a moment,” adding, “How about the food? The food here is amazing.”

In traveling to Iran, Bourdain did not hide the very real threats that continue to exist there. While viewers were treated to different images, beautiful images of Tehran and Iran in general than what we usually get in “death to America” updates, we also later learned that two of Bourdain’s interview subjects, Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian and his wife Yeganeh Salehi, were arrested for their participation. Ms. Salehi has since been released.

Still, the spirit of this episode remains in tact. Simply put, we cannot better understand each other if we refuse to visit one another and shake hands. Bourdain’s traveling to Iran was not an endorsement of their archaic policies any more than where he lives or anywhere else he’s traveled. Are we truly expected to know and understand the laws of every country or state we visit beforehand? And is it then an endorsement of any and all outdated laws should we choose to continue with our travel plans?

Of course not. And this is perhaps what bothers me most of all — the lack of consistency. Some Canadians will refuse to visit the United States because of political disagreements, but they’ll happily travel to Europe — a place that historically reached its current state of wealth through the raping and pillaging of other nations. Liberal and conservative Americans will keep certain states on their no-fly list, then complain about the polarization of the country. Americans, in general, will keep the Middle East off their travel plans, then wonder why there’s such a disconnect between our respective cultures.

If you’re thinking about traveling someplace supposedly controversial, stop thinking and go. Go learn what a dick and fart joke is in Russia or Egypt. I promise, it’s there. Ultimately you will enrich yourself, the people you meet abroad, and your family and friends when you share stories upon your return. The world will get a little smaller, and hopefully sprinkled with a little less bombing.

If you want to stay home in protest, that’s fine, too. But don’t think for a moment that you’re doing anyone a service other than making those man-made political boundaries just a little more entrenched.

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  • Terry T. Brown
    April 23, 2015 at 11:14 am

    Travel, is of course, rewarding, although I’m ashamed to admit not doing as much as I might like. As for interaction with others, as I recall we “won” the cold war primarily by selling the Russians Levis and Big Macs more than by any political action.