Responsible tourism
in a dictatorship?!

Watching your carbon footprint, looking for a sustainable accommodation, not harming the ecological environment and also find some time to relax on your holiday… Being a responsible tourist is not easy! But your choice of destination also says something about your responsibility as a tourist. Think for example of a destination like Thailand, lead since 2014 by a junta, a military government that took the power without any elections. Can you have a holiday in a country like that with a clear conscience? Or should we avoid travelling to countries with authoritarian regimes altogether?


The latter question is not only relevant for the present-time. Although the inhabitants of Catalonia may disagree, Spain today is a relatively free country with relatively democratic institutions. This democracy was not present in the era of General Franco. However, the tourism industry flourished under his rule, despite his blatant neglect of human rights. Only after his death in 1975 did democratization take place and Spain became eventually the state it is now.


Today, tourists still visit many authoritarian countries. This article will focus on Cambodia, Cuba, the United Arab Emirates, Thailand and Turkey. The first three states have authoritarian* regimes according to The Economist (2017). In Cambodia, Hun Sen has been prime-minister since 1985. He is democratically chosen, but political opponents are often arrested when they are perceived to threaten his position. Cuba has been lead for decennia by the Castros and the only political party is communist party. The United Arab Emirates, consist of seven emirates, Dubai and Abu Dhabi are the most famous ones. It is a country with a political structure dominated by some powerful families. Unions, political parties or opposition do not exist. Turkey and Thailand score somewhat better: they are seen by The Economist to have “hybrid”* regimes. The situation in Turkey deteriorated after a failed coup in 2016, because president Erdogan is now acting more autocratically in order to maintain power. Thailand has a long history of coups. Although the democratic institutions are available, the military junta is in charge since 2014. The democracy scores of each country are visible in the following infographic. These scores are based on five categories: electoral process and pluralism, civil liberties, the functioning of government, political participation and the political culture.


Democracy scores (scale from 1 - 10)

Cambodia     Cuba     Thailand     Turkey     UAE

3.63                3.31       4.63             4.88         2.69


*Hybrid regimes: Elections have substantial irregularities that often prevent them from being both free and fair. Government pressure on opposition parties and candidates may be common. Serious weaknesses are more prevalent than in flawed democracies—in political culture, functioning of government and political participation. Corruption tends to be widespread and the rule of law is weak. Civil society is weak. Typically, there is harassment of and pressure on journalists, and the judiciary is not independent.

*Authoritarian regimes: In these states, state political pluralism is absent or heavily circumscribed. Many countries in this category are outright dictatorships. Some formal institutions of democracy may exist, but these have little substance. Elections, if they do occur, are not free and fair. There is disregard for abuses and infringements of civil liberties. Media are typically state-owned or controlled by groups connected to the ruling regime. There is repression of criticism of the government and pervasive censorship. There is no independent judiciary.

Some of these countries receive more tourists than others. As shown in the infographic below, Cambodia and Cuba received around 4 million international tourist arrivals in 2017. The United Arab Emirates received 14.2 million international tourists, possible due to the international airport of Dubai. Thailand had almost 30 million tourists who visited the country, and Turkey almost 40 million. Of course, it is not entirely useful to compare these numbers, since Turkey is way bigger than Cuba in terms of surface and population.


International tourist arrivals (in millions of people)

Cambodia     Cuba     Thailand     Turkey     UAE

4.78                4.0*       29.9             39.5         14.2


(World Economic Forum, 2017)

* (UNWTO, 2018. Data from 2016)


A very relevant question is then: To what extent do these countries rely on tourism? And, do you then contribute to a dictatorship, when you visit an authoritarian country? That depends on many factors. An interesting aspect to investigate is the size of the country’s tourism industry. Tourists might preserve a dictator, when the dictator relies on the revenues gained from tourists. The following infographic shows to what extent the tourism sector contributes to the GDP. In Cambodia and Thailand this direct contribution to the GDP is quite large. Turkey and the United Arab Emirates are the countries in the middle, and the tourism industry in Cuba is relatively small compared to the other countries in this article.


Direct contribution of travel & tourism to GDP (in % total GDP)

Cambodia     Cuba     Thailand     Turkey     UAE

14.1                2.5          9.4              3.8           5.1


(World Travel & Tourism Council, 2017)


However, this does not imply that a tourist in Cambodia is less responsible than a tourist in Cuba. The unavoidable next question is who benefits from these tourists? The political system of a country is important in that matter. In communist countries, private ownership often has some limits. Hotels and restaurants are owned by the state for example. Therefore, normal civilians do not always gain from tourism. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to distinguish whether a normal civilian benefits, or a cruel dictator. They might also both gain from tourism! In either case, you can always try to support normal civilians by sleeping in small-scale accommodations, or doing your groceries at a local grocery.


Another issue which is not unimportant, is your safety. A coup by a military junta like in Thailand in 2014, does not make your holiday very safe. However, the leaders of those countries know that tourism is important for their economy, so they will often try to protect the tourism industry. Nevertheless, unexpected coups are difficult prevent. Furthermore, not every tourist is safe in a dictatorship. Think of the US citizen Otto Warmbier, who stole a poster in North-Korea, spent more than a year in prison and got back in the U.S. more dead than alive. This is less likely to happen in the countries discussed in this article, but when tensions between countries arise, you could easily become part of some power games between government leaders.


It is clear that travelling to dictatorial states was and is a sensitive issue. Autocratic leaders of many countries know that tourism is important for their economy and international image. Safe tourism is therefore a priority for many dictators. It used to be one of the pillars of the Franco regime in Spain, but it is nowadays still an important pillar of many other authoritarian regimes. Back in the days of Franco, a lot of tourists did not avoid Spain and also today, tourists tend not to avoid countries like Thailand for example. But should you avoid these countries? Unfortunately, I cannot provide an unambiguous conclusion. As a tourist, it is inevitable that you contribute to regime when you visit a dictatorship. On the other hand, normal civilians can also benefit from tourism, and come in contact with other cultures and ideas. You should be very conscious of this trade-off when you would like to visit an authoritarian country. Further, you should investigate in what way you could support normal civilians as much as possible. So yes, to a certain extent, responsible tourism in a dictatorship is possible. Nonetheless, you should take care to make some extra effort to be responsible!


by Bart


The Economist. (2017). The Democracy Index. 

United Nations World Tourism Organization. (2018). UNWTO Tourism Highlights. 

World Economic Forum. (2017). The Travel & Tourism  Competiveness Report 2017. 

World Travel & Tourism Council. (2018). Travel and Tourism, Economic Impact 2018.