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Should Travel Bloggers and Influencers Voice Their Political Opinions?

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I feel like I’ve begun 2020 in two parallel universes. Physically, I’m writing this from a remote, stunning village in Lesotho (a country in Southern Africa), immersing myself in the Basotho culture and trying to pick up words from the Sesotho language. Mentally, I’ve been following the mind-boggling (and frankly quite scary) political developments in India, the US, Iran and elsewhere in the world, wondering what the future holds.

Before I took a much-needed end-of-the-year detox from social media, I posted about the discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act introduced by the Indian government.

However, instead of debating and discussing the issues at hand, many people commented and DM-ed me, advising me to stick to travel blogging (I decided to delete and block some who were particularly hateful). Even my mom asked me to refrain from posting political opinions publicly.

On the other hand, several “influencers” (for lack of a better word) recently received flack from the New York Times and leading international publications for travelling to Saudi Arabia, promoting the overlooked beauty of the country and completely ignoring its politics.

That made me ponder a pertinent question:

Should travel bloggers and social media ‘influencers’ discuss politics?

Travel and politics may seem like worlds apart – and in some ways they are.

But while considering whether to travel to Myanmar, I asked myself a hundred times if my trip was going to support the government during the Rohingya crisis. Would my travels to Iran support its conservative regime? Will visiting the United States support a leadership that refuses to take urgent action on climate change?

Is boycotting a country for its politics the answer? Or is it fair to travel to a country and ignore its politics?

Travel and politics don’t seem that disconnected now, right?

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I thought long and hard before I decided to travel to Myanmar. Did I really want to explore a country with an on-going humanitarian crisis? The ethnic conflict in the northern part of Myanmar’s Rakhine state is heartbreaking… . . I read both sides of the argument and debated whether to boycott tourism in Myanmar with friends. Then decided that I was going to travel there anyway. Boycotting tourism because of the Rohingya crisis felt like boycotting tourism in India because of Kashmir, boycotting the US because of the Middle East and boycotting tourism in China because of Tibet. . . Ultimately I wanted to know Myanmar and its people myself, instead of believing entirely the narrative of the media. And that’s what I did – explored popular places like Bagan and Yangon with social enterprises and went off the beaten path in Chin State. Had plenty of conversations on the subject with locals. Realised that most of them don’t echo racist sentiments. Many of them are subsistence workers who make ends meet only because of tourism (responsible tourism of course, which contributes directly to the local economy). And across the country – from Yangon to small villages – monasteries, churches, mosques, even temples – stand next to each other, and are frequented by locals irrespective of their religious beliefs. . . Boycotting a country isn’t the solution if you ask me. Travelling in a way that supports the local economy directly (as opposed to its government), engaging in meaningful conversations and making conscious decisions is. And travelling in Myanmar reinstated that for me. . . And you, is there a country you wouldn’t travel to? Why or why not? . . #theshootingstar #myanmartravel #passionpassport #responsibletravel #shotoniphone

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The privilege of travel

See, here’s the thing. When you’ve grown up in a Hindu family, indulged in the heartwarming hospitality of Muslim friends in Iran, broken bread with Buddhist nuns in Ladakh, spent cold winter nights with a Seventh Day Adventist Christian family in Switzerland and indulged in a Sabbath meal in a Jewish household in New York City, your perspectives change. You realise that the differences of religion (and caste and creed) are superficial. They are exploited by leaders who thrive on divisive politics. It has happened throughout history. 

So as someone who is lucky and privileged enough to have the opportunity to travel, I think it’s not only my RIGHT but also my RESPONSIBILITY to voice political opinions.

By travelling to a place subjected to highly biased media reporting (like Iran), I can bust many myths by shedding light on its local, everyday life. I can ensure that the tourism money I spend directly supports responsible tourism enterprises and urge my readers to do the same. But I can’t do that without talking about how its political regime impacts its people.

The same goes for India. I can’t implore you to experience the incredible diversity of India without first condemning an act that openly discriminates against many of its citizens.

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Wearing the compulsory hijab (head scarf) over the month I spent in Iran evoked many emotions: nonchalance, annoyance, anger, amusement, empathy, solidarity. In that order. . . At first, it was hard not to judge the people of Iran (both women and men) for letting this happen. For letting someone dictate that women must cover their heads in public places so men don’t get aroused. Just like the outside world, I thought of the compulsory hijab – and the lack of choice about it – as a sign of repression. . . But the more Iranian women I met, the more I changed my mind. Instead of repressed, submissive women, I met badass, inspiring, independent, free-spirited, liberal women throughout the country. I met women who are artists, chefs, entrepreneurs, poets, writers, environmentalists, musicians, activists. I met someone who had hitch-hiked through the remote Baluchistan province, and planned to travel to Afghanistan soon. Someone who drove to neighboring countries to sell goods and camped along the way. Someone who was single-handedly keeping an old artform alive. . . Pretty much every woman I met had a daring story to tell. How they were arrested for not wearing the hijab and let go with a warning. How they had run and hid until late in the night to escape the police. How they’d seen the inside of a jail and continued rebelling. . . The author Randy Pausch once wrote that we cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand. And that I found absolutely true for Iran. So no, please don’t refuse to travel to Iran because you have to wear the hijab. And please don’t judge Iranian women based on what the media tells you. Travel there, make some friends, learn about their lives and form your own opinions. I mean, what else is the point of travelling? . . 👣 Exploring Iran with @uppersia . 📸 Shot on #iphonexsmax . . Photos –> Just a few of the friends I made along the way in Iran 💚 . . #theshootingstar #iran #iranianwomen #meaningfultravel #iran #whywetravel

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Is it even politics?

Many of the world’s repressive governments would prefer that no one speaks up for anyone else. That people stick to what they do and live in fear of voicing their opinions.

But speaking about politics doesn’t have to mean picking sides. It’s not about choosing one government over another. It’s about standing up for what we believe is right. For defending the ideals of secularism, democracy and humanity itself. In India currently, that means defending basic rights – like the right to peaceful protests, internet access (Internet has been inaccessible in Kashmir for over 100 days now) and a democracy that is of the people and for the people, not one that tries to silence the people.

In the current world of social media, dominated by trolls, hatred and fear, it’s not always easy to speak up. So here’s a big shout out to travel bloggers and Instagrammers who create nuanced yet fearless content that sheds light on a country’s politics as much as its beauty, food and everyday life.

What do you think, should travel bloggers speak out about pertinent political issues as they travel?

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Shivya Nath

I quit my full-time job in 2011 with a dream of travelling the world. I gave up my home, sold most of my possessions and embraced a digital nomad life. I'm passionate about going off the beaten path, solo travel, sustainable travel and veganism. I'd love to connect with you!

19 Comments

  1. Well said👏🏼👏🏼. On my opinion it’s our right to speak up against whatever it is that matters to us.. even if it is politics, environmental issues or anything… There is nothing wrong in it… And it is our right to open our voices… 🤗🤗 Keeping silent and doing our work won’t do anything … But when we speak up, who knows sometimes that may bring about a great change. ☺️

  2. I think that when people say, “Stick to travel blogging ! ” that is terribly minimizing to the person. You wouldn’t say that to the person at the barbershop sitting next to you you wouldn’t say that to your co-workers in next cubicle. Making a stupid statement like that says that we are one dimensional people jumping on transport. We have families and pay taxes and these issues effect us as well. The privilege of travel doesn’t remove the stigma of racism and sexism as a black woman in America because sooner or later I get off a plane. I move differently because of politics, that’s just reality. You can talk about whatever touches you and you care about, especially if it is your personal platform That being said, I don’t always voice my opinion about politics but, I wouldn’t hesitate either.

  3. Well said👏🏼👏🏼👏🏼 it’s our right to speak up against or for anything that matters even if it is politics or if it is about environmental issues. Maybe just sticking to our routine may do nothing… But when we speak up that may cause some influence which ultimately lead to even a minute change…On my opinion it’s important to every travel blogger to speak up on politics. As you have said it’s not on which side we are but it should be a voice that speaks for everyone, even for the ones that couldn’t give their voice…. and traveling to countries not only benefit the government but it also benefits the locals…. So even when political issues persist traveling to those countries should not be boycotted…

  4. So glad to see your post on politics. You cannot be a traveler and be immune to humanitarian crisis or local politics. People that are saying stick to politics were also the same people who have asked women to stay at home to be safe. The only motive is to silence dissenting voices.

  5. Trudy has made some great comments. However you should also review the purpose of your initiatives and passion, and assess how much you should allow political events to influence or be part of. Its basically entirely your own personal decision, but its always good to seek feedback from your close friends and advisers (family included).

    • I’m sorry but if it is your blog, I don’t think that you should censor it because of other’s opinions that defeats the purpose of “your opinion” being written about. If it is such a sensitive topic to you or you feel that it is that dangerous, then maybe you should voice it elsewhere. I say this because I know that there are degrees of free speech depending on the medium and the country. I’m not trying to advise you to risk your safety. But for me as I said because of who I am, my safety is usually at risk either way. Politically not speaking up, allows decisions about me to be made by others. And I can’t personally allow that. But I know that may in itself be a privilege that I can speak.

  6. On similar lines Eva zu Beck posted on instagram yesterday. People dont travel to support or refute a country’s politics. Its more about understanding/experiencing the country. More often than not, citizens of that particular country do not share the same political views as their government’s. If that was the case, people will stop visiting India. We do have lot of political problems. We travel for a country’s people, culture, food, language, beauty, experiences and not based on their political structure. Talking about it infact makes us understand it better and open our minds.

  7. Hey Shivya, first thing- thank you for writing this article. I think it’s something that’s on a lot of our minds, and I know you had to be strong in the face of some haterade to do it.

    Iran is currently high on my to-visit list. I read, a couple years ago, a great article about how “boycotting tourism” in a particular place has very little effect generally on government policies and rather hurts the everyday people who benefit from it, as you’ve said.

    I am still not 100% sure, but I definitely like the idea of going somewhere and actually learning from the people in order to break stereotypes. This can be more difficult to do with nuance sometimes as a person with a privileged passport and a person with privilege generally. As an American Jewish woman, the idea of what I could face in Iran scares me. This doesn’t mean I don’t want to go, but I am waiting on it a bit for sure until current tensions get better (although I could be waiting for some time).

    I’ve been specifically struggling with questions of privilege since my summer trip to Egypt. This was probably the first trip where I was easily recognized as an outsider – I likely wouldn’t be, traveling around Europe with light skin, hair and eyes – and I found that it was harder (but of course not impossible) to make relationships with people because of their preconceptions of me (materializing in financial/sexual harassment, for example).

    We all have to grapple with this as travelers, of course. What I really want to say here is about identity. While in Morocco + Egypt I did not openly say I was Jewish for safety reasons. But I was not sure this was the right decision because if I am traveling to make connections with people, why not use this as an opportunity to bust stereotypes? After all, it is a privilege for me to mask this identity, when many people who travel must necessarily wear their racial or ethnic identity in plain sight.

    So I have still not answered the question, but I think it is relevant in this discussion about “just enjoying travel” and “actively putting your body where your politics are.” I will be processing it for a long time. Thank you for opening the conversation 🙂

  8. Arjun says

    I would absolutely love if you’d “stick” to travel blogging. But I also believe I have no right to impose my view upon you. So I choose the next best thing, ignore posts and content that talk revolve around politics. It’s also pointless trying to put forth my PoV, because I’ve seen most such discussions devolve into virtue-signalling and ad-hominem attacks from both sides. I also think you put far too much blame on the politicians for the various crises around us. But anyway, there’s a lot I admire and appreciate about you and people like Neelima. So, I pick what I like and discard what I don’t.

    Only posting this because of the CTA at the end of this post. Best of luck with your travels!

  9. I too have been a travel blogger, on a much more modest scale than your good self, at oldlayabout.wordpress.com . I have travelled in many countries where I wouldn’t approve of their governments and I feel free to talk about it. Not a news journalist obliged to stick to reporting the bare facts, I’m an opinionated traveller and I feel obliged to make my readers aware of my biases.
    Keep on rollin’ Shivya, there’s a big crowd following you.

  10. Yes!!! I’m so glad I found your blog!
    While many people say that we shouldn’t get political on our travel blogs, I find bloggers who don’t boring. And let’s be honest, the people who don’t want to mention politics are the very privileged ones who never had to consider what goes on in the countries they travel to.
    I’m sad that you were bullied for speaking about what is going on in India, but I’m also happy you did it. Because it confirms my belief that not every Hindu in India supports what is happening.
    In an age where even politicians are afraid to take a stance, isn’t it all the more important that those of us who travel the world speak our mind honestly? Nobody is forced to agree with us, but they should let us speak our truth.
    Thank you for this!

  11. Stephen Gamber says

    If you get political with your posts, expect to lose some followers who don’t agree with your political views and/or aren’t interested in following a political travel blog.

  12. I think it’s important for us to speak about experiences we’ve personally had that may touch on politics. It surprises me at times that while many of my friends know about present political issues, have little idea of what happened thirty or more years back.

  13. I think we should, as a person who has immersed with diverse cultures, empathized with communities who were victims of atrocities, we have the opportunity to see the bigger picture.

    I believe you can create conversations that can make people reason, instill empathy, and think about humanity without any political or religious bias.

  14. Dear Shivya, there has been already so much said in all those comments, with which I mostly agree with, therefore I am not going to repeat what’s already been said . Yet the point I want to make, is that politics are shaping the culture and people of any country, therefore it is part of the history of a country. Therefore you as a passionate blog Traveller can’t leave out politics, having said that, you don’t have have to take sides, just documenting people how they feel about political changes and how it affects their lives, I mean you are not traveling for fun, like most tourists do. As long as you are aware to be save how you word your opinion, I believed that you can’t leave out politics. Safe travels to you my friend

  15. Thank you for raising such a vital topic Shivya! When politics try to tell us from visiting countries they have profit from boycotting, the reason must be they want to keep monopoly on the image of those countries. Sure independent bloggers like you mess their cards by giving people alternative pictures! And that is probably your biggest contribution.

    Happy New Year, and let us spend it bringing more freedom, justice and connection —- in India and elsewhere.

  16. As a responsible citizen everyone got the right to air their voice and opinions and to dissent and disagree. I can love my country without liking the government, whether it is left, right or anyone. Yes influencers like you should speak up if basic rights and freedom of citizens are curtailed and essence of our constitution is tampered. So speak out whenever you feel it is required. All the best and more strength to you.

  17. Supriya Mimani says

    Well said! You in your role as an ‘influencer’ should make a decision on topics you want to discuss- today nothing is not connected- travel is connected with diet, fitness, beauty, environment, politics, money, finance and what not. So not only is it completely ok for you to talk politics, i think people like you share a very different pespective having been so well travelled and hearing so many stories from people who many have lived through similar political situations in the past- sharing what they went through so we can inform ourselves and hopefuly change our mindsets and decisions for future is much needed today

  18. I think travel bloggers and influencers have the duty to participate in discussions that go beyond simple travel advices. Yes, it may happen that I as a readers disagree with a blogger, but I still prefer a blogger who stands up for his or her ideals than someone who does not speak up. And I think that is especially the case if you talk about things go wrong in your own country.

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