Home / Articles / Connecting Flights?: International Tourism and Foreign Relations
For many, retirement means more time—more time to spend with one’s family and friends and, perhaps for some, more time to spend away from one’s family and friends. One increasingly popular way to do the latter is through international tourism. Indeed, the number of globe-trotting tourists has been on the rise for decades. Why that has happened is likely the confluence of many factors: from the lower cost of airline tickets (partly as a result of the higher availability of financing for commercial aircraft) to the broad rise in affluence within developing countries to the general stability of interstate relations after the end of the Cold War. Hence, not only has the popularity of international tourism risen, but its character also has changed. North Americans and Europeans no longer dominate the tourist trade. Asians now represent a comparable share and the most rapidly growing segment of global travelers. That is likely to continue as long as Asia’s economies continue to grow.
In fact, despite occasional aviation safety problems, hijackings, shoot-downs, and outright disappearances, the only thing that has put a real dent in the growth of international tourism has been economic recession. With such a positive outlook, communities around the world have reoriented themselves to attract tourists from abroad. Visit the Estonian National Museum in Tartu, a relatively off-the-beaten-path spot on a former Soviet bomber base, and one will find guidebooks not only in Estonian and English, but also in Chinese and Japanese. Meanwhile, in preparation for the 2020 Summer Olympics, Japan has urged local governments and businesses to supplement their kanji-character signage with newly created pictograms (whose earlier incarnations Japan pioneered at the 1964 Summer Olympics).
Travel as a Political Act
All this travel brings people of different societies into closer proximity with one another. That, some would argue, is a boon to international security. The more people travel and interact, the more they will come to understand the concerns of others and see that all humans are not so different from one another, especially if they can suppress their own ethnocentrism and notions of “right” and “wrong.” And so as more people travel abroad, international tourism will lead to greater appreciation, acceptance, and ultimately a more peaceful and verdant world. One strong advocate of that view is Rick Steves, a popular American tour guide and author. He encourages his audiences to “keep traveling” and regard “travel as a political act.”
Devotees of Steves could point to the dramatic rise in international tourism and the concurrent fall in international conflict over the three decades after 1980 as some proof of their belief. But as any proper statistician will caution: one must be wary of conflating correlation with causation. While interstate conflicts did decline over that period (the U.S.-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq notwithstanding), that trend reversed itself during the 2010s, despite the continued growth of global tourism.
Proximity and Conflict
In fact, humans are as a rancorous bunch as ever. Even as interstate conflicts declined, intrastate conflicts rose. Indeed, the level of intrastate conflict always has dwarfed that of interstate conflict. According to Steves’ belief, that should not be true. People who live in the same country, regardless of religion or tribe, are more likely to interact and share cultural norms than those from countries that are far apart. Thus, one should expect that people who live in the same country should experience less conflict. And yet they do not; they experience more. The idea that international tourism brings people closer to one another and that such social contact—along with a dash of moral nihilism—will inevitably lead to greater harmony and understanding is seriously flawed.
Something else must be at work. Perhaps distance and unfamiliarity are not what drive human conflict. The opposite seems truer. Proximity and a clearheaded understanding of disagreements may actually have greater correlation with conflict. After all, jet-setting nihilists have the luxury of departing whether their interactions with locals end with agreement or animosity. They do not have to bear the consequences of discord. Neighbors who must live near one another do. It is one thing for an American to travel to Iran and wonder what all the fuss is about, but it is another thing for an Israeli to do the same in the Palestinian territories.
Rather than international tourism shaping international conflicts, the reverse is far more common. Of course, active conflicts have influenced where tourists want to visit. After all, few tourists, except for the most adventurous or hardy, seek to travel to conflict zones, like Basra (Iraq) in the late 1980s, Mostar (in Bosnia and Herzegovina) in the early 1990s, Badme (Eritrea) in the late 1990s, Fallujah (Iraq) in the early 2000s, N’Djaména (Sudan) in the late 2000s, Aleppo (Syria) in the early 2010s, or Peshawar (India) in the late 2010s. But international conflicts have shaped international tourism in other ways, too.
During the Cold War, East Germany created facades along the railway through its territory—between West Germany and West Berlin—to give international tourists the illusion of prosperity. Of course, it was not the first to do so. The Soviet Union did the same to give visitors from abroad, like former French Prime Minister Édouard Herriot, the impression of communist plenty during the mass famines of the early 1930s. (Incidentally, it worked. When asked later about the Soviet Union, Herriot responded that it was “like a garden in full bloom.”) While such “Potemkin villages” have been the traditional way international tourism has been used to serve political ends, new ways have emerged.
Have Dollar, Will Travel
With the robust growth of global tourism, many communities have become economically dependent on tourist money from abroad. That is a vulnerability that can be exploited in international disputes. The first notable case occurred in 2017 when the Seoul chose to allow the United States to deploy its Terminal High Altitude Area Defense anti-ballistic missile system on South Korean soil, over the objections of Beijing. In response, China’s state-owned media urged Chinese consumers to boycott South Korean products. China’s national tourism administration even launched an unofficial campaign to stop Chinese tour groups from traveling to South Korea, eventually costing the country an estimated $7 billion.
While China’s effort was better orchestrated, it has not been the only one. Only a year after China’s state-led tourist boycott surprised South Koreans, some South Koreans initiated a grassroots tourist boycott on travel to Japan. They wanted to punish Japan for its disregard of a South Korean supreme court ruling that directed Japanese companies to compensate South Korean laborers who were forced to work for them during World War II. From Japan’s perspective, the two countries settled those claims when they signed an international agreement and normalized their relations in 1965. Gathering steam in 2018, the informal boycott has had an impact. Japan’s tourism office reported that tourist arrivals from South Korea fell by about 380,000 visitors or six percent over the previous year.
Tourism also has been used as a political tool in international conflicts. In the early 2010s, when China sought to legitimize its claims to the Paracel and Spratly archipelagos, it sought to use tourists. By demonstrating that the bits of coral and sand that it occupies in the South China Sea can support economic activity, China hoped to claim that they warrant classification as “islands” under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. If so classified, China could claim a 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone around each of its South China Sea maritime features. Not to be outdone, Vietnam at about the same time allowed cruises to the islets that it occupies within the Spratly Islands (or Truong Sa in Vietnam). One cruise even offered private helicopter excursions. The cost of that cruise, a Vietnamese tour operator advertised, was a bargain at $800. A bit late to the game, some in the Philippines have begun to consider whether their country should permit such tourist activity on Thitu Island (or Pag-asa in the Philippines), too. While some would consider it desolate, others could regard it as tranquil (apart from the Philippine marine garrison). Certainly, Philippine tourism promoters would have their work cut out for them, given that the runway on the island has yet to be properly paved.
While such uses of international tourism may dismay those like Steves, they are also a reflection of practical reality. Is it really so surprising that global tourists rarely return from their travel abroad with their worldviews changed? Regardless of how many weeks they might spend abroad, they spend a far greater number at home. Regardless of how many conversations (if they are able to communicate at all) they might have abroad, they have a far greater number at home. And, the conversations they do have abroad are less likely to be about contentious issues than practical ones, like the location of the nearest restaurant or loo.
Be Friends, or Else
Still, many, including policymakers, have put their faith in Steves’ concept. Among them were China’s communist leaders. In 2011, they agreed to permit individuals from China and Taiwan to travel directly between their two geographic areas. Beijing hoped that opening China to Taiwanese tourists and businessmen would draw Taiwan closer to China and accelerate its efforts toward unification. Conceptually, a shared language and a common interest in economic growth should have given Taiwanese a good understanding of the Chinese they met. And since well over 3 million Taiwanese (out of a total population of 24 million) travel to China every year, one might have expected a higher level of appreciation and acceptance of Chinese views on unification with Taiwan. Instead, Taiwanese public opinion on the matter, apart from some temporary fluctuations, has remained little changed from where it was in 2011.
Perhaps, that contributed to Beijing’s decision to suspend the solo traveler program in August 2019. Beijing announced that it was doing so in response to Taiwan’s continued “hostility toward the mainland.” Apparently, tourism can transmit hostile intent. In any case, the program did not seem to produce the results that Beijing expected. More (not fewer) Taiwanese hold a dim view of China, regardless of the frequency of their visits to the mainland or their familiarity with ordinary Chinese. They seem to be moved more by the massive protests in Hong Kong over China’s erosion of its “one country, two systems” policy than by motor-coach tours of the massive Terra Cotta Army in Xi’an.
On that score, one should consider why people travel abroad in the first place. They do so for a long list of reasons, but low on that list is an intention to have their worldviews changed (or even challenged). While international tourists often want to experience a different culture or society, that does not mean they will come to accept or agree with it—even among those who want to embrace it. Western women who travel abroad continue to be surprised by the male chauvinist behaviors that have long since disappeared from their home countries. Of course, most cases of culture clash are less severe, but they often lead to an implicit agreement to disagree. Doing so, unfortunately, does little to bring conflicting parties closer to peace or, ultimately, to improve international security.
Ultimately, international tourism is tied to what the act of travel means to those who engage in it. First, traveling offers people a temporary escape from their everyday lives (and perhaps troubles). While such escapism may not be the noblest of motivations, it is no less a worthy rationale. Exercising one’s mind in new ways can be reinvigorating, like standing on a chair to view problems from a different angle (often useful when assembling IKEA furniture). In that sense, international tourism is not much different from domestic tourism, except for the journey’s distance. And, certainly, with longer distances, one can expect greater differences, which can satisfy one of humanity’s most basic desires: curiosity. That is what has always driven adventurers to explore “off the edge of the map.” It is what helped to lure Christopher Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci to cross uncharted oceans in the fifteenth century and American farm boys to join the U.S. Navy and “see the world” in the twentieth century.
Certainly, another motivation for travel abroad is to “[see] things that I may never see again.” What powers that is the human admiration for spectacle. Of course, spectacle can take many forms. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, landscape artists sought to capture what Edmund Burke called the sublime—natural wonders that are capable of provoking the strongest of human emotions. To do so, they traveled far and wide. German-born Albert Bierstadt journeyed to the American West to paint. Today, his enormous paintings of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and Yosemite Valley have become spectacles themselves in art museums across the United States. There are also human-built wonders that qualify as spectacles, whether the beautifully terraced mountains of the Philippines or the monumental pyramids of Egypt. Among the most famous admirers of the pyramids was Napoleon, who fought a pitched battle within sight of them. He also sparked Europe’s long-lasting fascination with Egyptology. And as the tales of Napoleon there grew, they enticed later, less-belligerent travelers to Egypt, including Mark Twain and Theodore Roosevelt.
A Taste for Travel
But even as some stare upward at the Egyptian pyramids, others (like my father) prefer to stare downward at the abundance of Egyptian snacks sold nearby, which range from dates and figs to pistachios and pomegranates. In fact, indulging in local cuisine has become a prime reason for travel, too. International tourists increasingly are attracted by the food trucks of Los Angeles, the hawker stalls of Singapore, and the night markets of Taipei (Taiwan). These days, Thailand and Japan hope to capitalize on such gastro-tourism. Certainly the worldwide popularity of sushi and teriyaki (and growing popularity of ramen) has led tourists from around the world to set their sights on Japan, where they can sample authentic versions of their favorite dishes or broaden their palates with more unusual Japanese delicacies like natto, okonomiyaki, and takoyaki.
Other interest-driven rationales for international tourism have become popular. Sports fans now routinely hop on continent-spanning flights to see tournaments, like the FIFA World Cup or the IAAF World Athletics Championships. Those cerebrally inclined might book overseas tours to learn about art or history. Whereas military history buffs once visited Saratoga or Chattanooga, they can now easily fly to Inchon (South Korea) and Củ Chi (Vietnam). They go to get a sense of what unfolded there—from the military strategies to the human drama. Certainly, those who visit Pointe du Hoc (France) cannot help but marvel at what the American Rangers did there in 1944. Some battlefields, like Verdun or Waterloo, are remarkably well preserved. Tourists can even witness dramatic reenactments of those clashes, if they properly time their visits. In doing so, incidentally, they would be following in the footsteps of ancient Roman tourists who also journeyed to see battle reenactments.
Reality, Only Better
International tourism satisfies another sort of human pursuit, namely fun. Beach bums trundle off to Phuket (Thailand) and Viña del Mar (Chile); fashionistas saunter over to Milan (Italy) and Paris (France); party animals flock to Hvar (Croatia) and Ibiza (Spain); and scuba enthusiasts descend on the Great Barrier Reef (Australia) or the Blue Corner (Palau). And, of course, one cannot overlook the 80 million international visitors to the United States every year, roughly 10 million of them find time to make their way to one place. That place happens to be the most magical on Earth—Walt Disney World. Its legendary entertainment has held hundreds of millions in thrall, regardless of nationality, religion, or political philosophy. In fact, its smaller predecessor, Disneyland, was the only place that Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev specifically asked to visit on his 1959 tour of the United States. Unfortunately for Khrushchev, his request was denied. No doubt, he would have had more fun interacting with the merrily proletarian Seven Dwarfs (minus Grumpy) than with the frosty locals he encountered in Los Angeles.
Finally, international tourism often is worn as a badge of achievement for those who endeavor to do it. Tourists who take those quintessential photographs overlooking the Niagara Falls or beneath the Eiffel Tower do so not only to remember their experiences, but also to mark an accomplishment of sorts, much like Kilroy’s “I was here” meme. The more items they can check off their “bucket lists,” the more they feel fulfilled. Along that vein, traveling abroad also signals another sort of accomplishment. Since such travel generally requires resources which not everyone has access to, it also conveys status. It communicates to others that one has been sufficiently successful to afford such luxuries. That is as true of Americans who brag about a visit to The Great Wall as it is of Chinese who brag about a visit to the Grand Canyon.
Ultimately, what motivates humans to travel abroad is a mix of factors. Though engaging locals in conversation may be one of them, it is unlikely to top the list or lead to more than a veneer of understanding, which—far from being truly informative—could actually be misleading. Still, those like Rick Steves believe that such global tourists who do not do so are missing out on their travel experiences. But making such value judgments about others is precisely the behavior that they admonish their devotees to avoid when traveling abroad. They should heed their own advice. The rise of global tourism will not reduce the level of international conflict. Proximity and some understanding guarantee neither acceptance nor agreement.
International tourism does, however, satisfy a great many human desires. And its popularity has changed the face of many countries for the better. Few in 1979 could have envisioned that Cambodia—where the Khmer Rouge recently had slaughtered over two million people (over one-quarter of the country’s population) to perfect its form of communism—would become an international tourist destination just two decades later. Fewer still could have imagined that the same communist China which encouraged agrarian Maoism in Cambodia during the 1970s would lecture it on the benefits of industry and trade three decades later. Of course, doors swing both ways. Once a haven of autocratic calm, Syria attracted six million tourists a year to see the ancient cities of Aleppo and Palmyra as recently as 2010. But both cities were soon destroyed in the Syrian Civil War that followed.
Rather than strive to view the world without judgment in the expectation that doing so will lead to better foreign relations, we should strive to view tourism without judgment in the expectation that doing so will lead to more fun. There is no single ideal way to experience the world. Of course, there are plenty of perspectives to gain from international travel, if one chooses to discover them, but they may not lead to the conclusion that “the things which unite us as humans outweigh those which divide us.”
Instead, that is perhaps the shallowest understanding that one can glean from travel abroad. Human conflict is not the product of some grand misunderstanding waiting for enough “people of good conscience” to solve by waving away the mists of confusion and uncertainty. Only a deeper understanding of human conflicts can reveal their reasons and what could be done to solve them—or to simply keep them from deteriorating further.
Humanity has always been divided—whether by geography, language, love (or lack thereof), politics, race, sports, sport teams, fondness for loud music, the color yellow, and on and on. We should not expect that being international tourists will or should lead to a sufficiently deep understanding to reduce the sources of human conflict. But we should expect researchers at organizations like the Foreign Policy Research Institute can better acquire such an understanding through their study of economics, history, political science, sociology, technology, and theology. And so, if one should be so fortunate as to have the ability, inclination, and wherewithal to travel abroad in retirement, then one ought to embrace one’s personal reasons for globetrotting and try to have some fun.
 Rick Steves, Travel as a Political Act: How to Leave Your Baggage Behind, 3rd ed. (New York: Nation Books, 2018).
 Kendra Dupuy and Siri Aas Rustad, Trends in Armed Conflict, 1946–2017 (Oslo: Peace Research Institute, 2018).
 Nicolas Werth, Karel Bartošek, Jean-Louis Panné, Jean-Louis Margolin, Andrzej Paczkowski, and Stéphane Courtois, The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression (Boston: Harvard University Press, 1999), pp. 159-160.
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 Joyu Wang, “Taiwan Rallies for Hong Kong to Resist Beijing’s Influence,” Wall Street Journal, Sep. 29, 2019, https://www.wsj.com/articles/taiwan-rallies-for-hong-kong-to-resist-beijings-might-11569767886.
 Sarah Treleaven, “The sexism that female expats are still having to endure,” BBC News, Apr. 14, 2016,
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, film script, 2003.
 Willie Nelson, “On the Road Again,” Columbia Records, 1980.
 Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (London, 1757).
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