Germany's human rights commissioner has urged German tourists to be more discerning and vocal during vacation in countries with poor human rights. Experts say the call is misguided and out of touch with reality.
Germany wants its citizens to look beyond the picturesque while holidaying abroad
What do beaches in Thailand, bazaars in Cairo and the desert of Rajasthan have in common during the summer? Loads of German holidaymakers.
World-beaters when it comes to travel, German tourists made 86.6 million foreign trips in 2005, the last year for which statistics are available. From those, some 24 million were made to countries outside the European Union.
Turkey topped the list of most popular destinations -- almost four million Germans traveled there that year -- followed by Egypt and Tunisia.
"Look over the fence"
Now, this vast army of globe-trotters has been asked to do more than work on a tan while vacationing abroad.
Last week, the German government's commissioner for human rights made a sudden appeal to German tourists to be more critical of social and political conditions when they jet off to far-flung destinations with dubious human rights records.
Günter Nooke was a civil rights activist in former Communist East Germany
At a press conference in Berlin, Günter Nooke singled out countries such as Cuba, Mexico, Egypt, Thailand, Turkey, Kenya, Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Indonesia for deficits in human rights.
He urged German tourists not to be "taken in by glossy appearances" and to "look over the fence of their holiday resort."
"Away from beaches and palm trees, there are people living there whose human rights are trampled upon."
Nooke stressed he didn't want to dissuade Germans from traveling to countries with poor human rights. Rather, tourists should inform themselves about the situation and should bring up issues such as censorship, press freedom and torture in talks with local people in the places they travel to, he said.
The problem with speaking out
Campaigners working to promote ethical travel and human rights say that Nooke's remarks may have been well-intentioned, but that they appear to be short-sighted, nonetheless.
Tunisia is a popular destination for German tourists
"It really depends on where you're traveling," said Regina Spöttl from the German chapter of Amnesty International.
"In countries such as Syria and Tunisia for instance, where intelligence agencies are ubiquitous, you have to be careful speaking about the political situation. As a western tourist, you're probably not at risk, but you could easily put the local person you talk to in great danger," she said.
More often than not, political abuse and social mistreatment are not entirely obvious to Western tourists.
"There are dozens of examples of how tourism is repeatedly a part of human rights violations in an understated way," said Hein Fuchs, an expert at Tourism Watch, set up by the Protestant Church in Germany.
He cited the erection of special tourist zones in Kerala, southern India, a popular destination for well-heeled German tourists seeking Ayurveda treatment in luxurious spas.
Often bypassing the established legal procedures, such tourist areas tend to be associated with a range of problems including displacement of local communities, environmental destruction and illegal working conditions, for instance.
Underestimating today's tourist?
Last week, Nooke also urged travel companies to mention the state of human rights when they advertise sunny beaches and swanky resorts in their glossy brochures -- a somewhat naïve suggestion, some campaigners say.
Given the sheer range of information available, tourists nowadays have a deeper knowledge of foreign destinations and are increasingly critical, Fuchs said. And slowly but surely, the travel industry is adapting to the needs of the better-informed tourist, he added.
Tourists today are usually well-informed, say experts
At the turn of the 21st century, sustainable tourism and eco-friendliness became the new mantra of the travel industry.
"It's true you don't have the same emphasis on the social dimension of tourism when the aim is to make it a win-win situation for all involved, including the local population at the tourist destination," he said. "But things are improving."
For starters, most German travel companies have adopted a code of conduct developed by UN agencies and the European Commission to protect children from sexual exploitation in tourism.
Given the explosion of niche travel agencies that specialize in socially responsible and sustainable travel routes, campaigners say that Germans seeking to travel ethically have never had as much choice as they do today.
"Why would a curious tourist nowadays choose an all-inclusive package tour with a travel company where even the bazaar is artificial when he has an alternative or can travel on his own," said Fuchs.
A decade ago, German tourists on study tours only wanted to visit historical ruins. Now, the emphasis is on getting to know the country, its people and its social problems, said Klaus Dietsch, spokesman for Studiosus, a Munich-based travel company which offers special educational tours to over 100 destinations around the world.
Gone are the days when tourists only wanted to visit ruins and monuments
"Just flying to a far-away country and lying in the sun for two weeks in some fancy resort isn't what they want."
In order to have a more responsible vacation abroad, travelers simply need be discerning when it comes to organizing their trip, experts say. And they need to read up on their destinations and walk around with their ears and eyes wide open.
So, was Nooke's unusual appeal to German tourists to be more critical of human rights merely an attempt to fill in a news void during the holiday season?
Not everyone would say so.
"I'm always happy when politicians, irrespective of their political convictions, push the topic of human rights into public consciousness -- even if it's controversial," said Amnesty's Spöttl. "That doesn't happen everyday."