Continuing with comments on the Huffington Post blog entry "All I Really Need to Know I Learned From Traveling," the blogger had an important observation about the disservice that media reports do to travel. She talks about how someone can be holding a sign that says "Death to Americans," and still invite an American home for dinner. That's an extreme but valid example. When we see people as individuals as opposed to symbols or representatives of an idea or concept, goodwill generally prevails. The danger arises when we don't recognize the individual, when we're blind to their face, and see them instead as a group that has been defined, frequently by propaganda or misunderstanding. The two journalists who were recently beheaded by the terrorist group, ISIS, are a vivid example from today's news. They were not executed as individuals or for their actions. They were executed as Americans and therefore enemies of Islam. The perpetrators had no thought of the individual. Alain Finkielkraut discussed the concept in his excellent book, La Sagesse de l'amour, (The Wisdom of Love), working from the philosophy of Emmanuel Lévinas.
But back to the subject at hand, portrayals by the media of conditions in other countries have to be filtered by common sense as well as some basic knowledge of the country. When there are terror attacks in Kenya near the Somali border, many travelers are frightened away from the entire country, but most of the rest of the country is quite safe from such attacks. The current Ebola epidemic has frightened many travelers from the entire continent of Africa, even though thousands of miles and many borders might separate a country from the affected region. This can be crippling for countries that depend on tourism as one of their few sources of revenue.
A somewhat similar situation arises when governments proclaim a region dangerous. For years in the 1990 and 2000s, the U.S. State Department left in place a travel warning for Nepal. It's true that there was a Maoist uprising in rural, remote regions of the country. However, the insurgents never targeted foreigners, and in all the year of this uprising, Nepal remained a very safe destination for travelers. Few countries rely more on tourism than Nepal. So the damage to this impoverished country must have been devastating. For those of us who spent time in Nepal during that period, it was hard to understand the U.S. position.
As our HuffPo blogger says, there is much to learn from travel. First-hand experience often reveals the fallacy of media reports and government policies.
By Kevin O'Neill