Embassies and the Politics of Travel Advice
by Helen Brown
Even in countries where the treatment of indigenous women is appalling, official travel advice seldom, if ever, mentions sex crimes against women. Warnings about sexual assault of women tourists by travel agents never appear in travel bulletins.
Why is this so? Do the police and legal systems abroad operate so efficiently that foreign women enjoy complete protection? Has the whole travel industry established perfect relationships with its counterparts overseas, so the problem doesn't exist? Are we to believe that sexual offenses against women world-wide are so rare they are no particular cause for concern?
Most rapes are acquaintance rapes. A woman who has been sexually abused may still have extreme difficulties confronting her attacker in a court of law because of the prejudices of a male-orientated system. Legislation that technically exists to protect women can be misused by police and judiciary who lack proper regard for the human rights of women. Everywhere, the majority of rapes go unreported so that the scope for hidden violence against women is enormous.
Why do Foreign Offices and embassies consistently ignore reports they receive about the rape and sexual harassment of tourists and foreign nationals?
In many poor countries such as Nepal, corruption is rampant and the West is viewed as a source of infinite wealth. With regular changes of government, corrupt Ministers have only a short time to enrich themselves for life. A Home Minister who misuses his position to enrich himself causes law and order to degenerate into an abuse of power by wealthy criminals. Police and other officials are underpaid and, since tourism is a major source of income in a poor country, those with direct access to Western money are seen as very wealthy men.
When traveling abroad, a safety-conscious woman is most inclined to trust the tour operator in charge of her personal safety. She trusts him because she believes he would face disciplinary action and loss of business if he were to abuse her trust. In addition the travel agent at home is assumed to be dealing with reputable contacts. Yet in reality, little is likely to happen to this tour operator if he commits an offense. He need only pay off the authorities.
The income derived by the authorities from tourism is so much that they hesitate to remove anyone who is bringing such wealth into the country. However, the threat of prosecution under human rights statutes can be used by government officials to extract sizable bribes from men in tourism who sexually harass their clients. Afterwards these statutes can be conveniently ignored. By leaving these offenders in business these corrupt officials can continue to demand money every time these sex crimes are committed. Because sexist prejudices are rampant, reports of rape can be hushed up before they affect tourism by merely discrediting victims as "immoral women." Any criminal proceedings are likely to be kept very quiet.
According to women who have encountered serious problems abroad, judicial proceedings against rape are an internal matter. Embassies do not intervene in these internal matters, no matter how sexist or corrupt, because they describe themselves as guests. So victims are left to their fate, without effective support from their own embassy. Foreign Offices have also stated: "We can't issue travel warnings because rape can happen anywhere." Yet so can muggings, as they don't hesitate to let us know.
Tourists left destitute after muggings abroad have to rely on their own embassy for repatriation, so the embassy is certain to receive full reports. Foreign authorities have no objections to embassies warning victims of theft as this ensures that tourists can spend as much money as possible. Intervention by the embassy spares the local government the embarrassment of coping with penniless foreigners, who would otherwise be unable to return home. Too many accounts of tourists (especially male tourists) stranded by muggings are bad publicity.
Often those who rob tourists in the streets are poor and thus not worth approaching for bribes by the authorities. However, the same authorities stand to profit much from the activities (both legal and illegal) of prosperous travel agents. The last thing they want are warnings that might deter well-to-do tourists from visiting their countries. They put diplomatic pressure on embassies instructed never to embarrass the host country at any price. "Don't issue travel advice that might upset these high officials. So don't remove or lessen a source of income for them."
So the interests of women and their human rights come last, even with their own governments. When confronted with the betrayal of the interests of their own nationals, embassies do not answer this challenge because that could lay them open to fierce criticism. Instead they evade the issue by minimizing the problem of sex crimes abroad.
If you were a rapist posing as Mr. Nice Guy and you owned a travel agency that catered to lone women in a country officially classed as relatively risk-free, what more helpful attitude could you possibly hope for from the authorities? Your crimes need not be exposed because they are not acknowledged to be a problem. As for the victims, their existence is officially minimized by their embassies and can be dismissed with the statement, "Hard luck, dear!"
Rape is not the only personal disaster likely to be concealed. I met a couple whose son had been traveling on an internal flight on a government airline in Nepal. The plane crashed and he was killed. The couple expressed total disgust at the inertia of the embassy in pursuing their case with the authorities. They were convinced that if information about the crash had become public, the resulting fear would have damaged tourism. Accordingly the news was hushed up and a proper enquiry into the cause of the crash was never held.
British Foreign Office warnings emphasize the numbers of unreliable vehicles on the roads and the dangers of using night buses. Incidents do happen on these vehicles, but they also represent cheap transport on which foreigners pay the same fares as locals. On flights within the country, foreigners are charged two or three times as much as locals. The Foreign Office is aiding the government of Nepal by issuing these warnings that divert visitors towards internal air travel. Significantly, the Minister of Civil Aviation is also the Minister of Tourism.
Similarly, Nepal travel warnings emphasize a need for professional guides because violent crimes have been committed against independent travelers, while overlooking sex offenses committed against travelers using professional companies. The inevitable excuse is lack of reports of such crimes, leading to assumptions of safety.
I must emphasize that the integrity and good nature of many citizens of Nepal is not in doubt. I would be desperately unhappy never to set foot abroad again and would miss the positive aspects of contact with other cultures. I really want to see the travel industry made safer. This is something that must be borne in mind along with other aspects of ethical tourism.
I believe this crime of the rape of tourists by tour operators in the Third World is one more manifestation of the abuse of power by men of privilege when neither ethical concerns nor effective legislation acts as a control. As such it will never stop being a problem until we confront it instead of denying it.
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