“I sat on a toilet watching the water run thinking what an odd thing tourism is. You fly off to a strange land, eagerly abandoning all the comforts of home and then expend vast quantities of time and money in a largely futile effort to recapture the comforts you wouldn’t have lost if you hadn’t left home in the first place.”
~ Bill Bryson, Neither Here nor There; Travels in Europe
Tourism continues to stand as one of the largest industries in the world. Between airlines, resorts, tour companies, restaurants, and more the industry now sees at least $1 trillion in business every single year. The majority of the industry is devoted to tourism as a whole – grandparents who want to see Europe or recent college graduates who want to backpack through Southeast Asia.
However, a small part of the tourism industry as a whole is made up of a specific kind of traveler looking for a specific kind of experience. Drug tourism by its very definition essentially means traveling for the sole (or at least primary) purpose of using drugs that are otherwise unavailable in one’s home state or country.
While drug tourism may be a small part of the tourism industry as a whole, it comes in many different forms and draws many different kinds of people. However, the goal largely remains the same: to seek out areas of the world where either law are looser or enforcement is lax when it comes to selling, buying and taking drugs. To fully understand drug tourism in its context, this discussion addresses each of the following questions in turn:
- What is drug tourism?
- Why (and where) do people engage in drug tourism?
- How common is drug tourism?
- Is drug tourism a good idea?
While far from an exhaustive account, this post can serve as a foundation for gaining a basic understanding of why drug tourism exists and how it works. You can learn more about the topic by clicking through the links provided, though we should answer most (if not all) of your questions right here.
The Basics: What is Drug Tourism?
Drug tourism is pretty much what it sounds like – traveling, either to another state or to an entirely different country – in order to obtain or use drugs. This includes but legal substances – like alcohol – or illegal drugs, particularly cocaine, so-called magic mushrooms, and marijuana.
The picture that one female traveler gives of the prevalence of drug culture in Southeast Asia is not a pretty one. It is, however, well worth quoting here at length, if for no other reason than to show the influence that drug tourism has had on travel as a whole. Writer Eve Turow relates here experience with the drug culture aspect of travel during her time in Thailand:
“As I met fellow travelers squatting alongside me on red carpets in incense-filled temples and intently listening to cooks explain the differences between galangal and ginger roots, I soon discovered a large community of Westerners smoking, drinking, and tripping their way through the mystical lands of Southeast Asia. Young British students on their gap years… Americans escaping the recession arrived to let off steam. I assumed their loved ones pictured them riding elephants and speaking with monks rather than taking Ecstasy at the infamous Full Moon parties or drinking in Reggae-themed bars. As I arrived at my volunteer placement, I heard about my roommates’ antics the night prior, drunk and running naked through our neighbor’s bright green and geometrically sewn rice patty. Even having lived in Spain and Argentina in recent years, surrounded by other young expats, I felt unprepared for the strong focus on drug culture.”
Why – and Where – Do People Engage in Drug Tourism?
Tourists traveling with the sole purpose of drug tourism do not always or necessarily use illegal drugs. Drug tourists also include those travelling to another country in order to find cheaper prescription medication than in the United States or else medication that is not available at all in their home country. While there are myriad reasons for participating in the drug tourism industry, some of the main reasons are included in the following list:
- To unwind or relax from a stressful life
- To ‘enjoy’ substances that are otherwise unavailable in their home country
- To find less expensive prescription medication
- To fulfill what is seen as a ‘classic’ or necessary travel experience
- To take advantage of looser drug laws or at the very least less strict enforcement of those laws in the host country
A report from the European Union provides an accurate description not only of who is engaging in drug tourism but also why drug tourism is a popular option. The report identifies the two most active groups in drug tourism to be young travelers and what it deems problem drug users, or those with a history of regular use of opioids, cocaine, or amphetamines:
“Certain groups of travelers may seek out destinations with the specific goal of either using drugs or engaging in activities that involve drug use. Such locations include those where drugs are more available than in the home country or that are famous for their music festivals, clubs, and party scenes. Focal points report that problem drug users may choose certain destinations because those destinations offer drug treatment and/or harm reduction services that are unavailable in their home countries or to distance themselves from their drug-using friends.”
It is not all bad news, in other words. For some, drug tourism may just be part of their experience as a young person.
However, those on the selling end do not often make it easy to overcome drug tourism. Vendors, dealers, and establishments that cater to the profitable subset of drug tourism can be found all over the world. Regions that are particularly prone to bring in tourists bent on taking advantage of the foreign drug situation include India, South America, Southeast Asia (such as Thailand and Laos, discussed above) and, of course, the Netherlands. Mexico, too, serves as a closer and therefore a more popular destination for particularly young United States citizens to travel to.
A more complete list of popular destinations and countries for drug tourism includes:
- The Netherlands
- Czech Republic
Clearly drug tourism – and the many issues that it can bring to both travelers and to local communities or cities – is prevalent nearly all around the world. But how common is drug use within these areas, and what impact has it had or is likely to have moving forward? These are, perhaps, the more important questions to be asking.
While certainly unfortunate, the description from The Atlantic article above is not necessarily surprising. Why not?
The United Nations has noted that Afghanistan and Myanmar (in Southeast Asia) alone can account for a full ninety-five percent of opiate production. For the last several decades, as tourism has grown as a whole, so has drug tourism – particularly in regions where drugs are more readily available, like Myanmar. The consensus is that drug tourism is becoming more, rather than less, common.
But engaging in drug tourism is not necessarily an easy and painless process. One academic report on drug tourism makes the difficult aspects of this drug tourism trend clear, explaining at least in part why drug tourism remains a relatively small part of the tourism industry as a whole:
“Customers face challenges as well, so at first, it is difficult to find a drug holiday destination, since there are no official advertisements. Still, if they have found such an offer and arrived at the destination, there are certain risks involved. In many destinations, drug purchase and consumption are not allowed, even though drugs might be easily obtained through dealers. There is the danger of being caught in connect with drugs – such as imprisonment. Besides, drug consumption involved a number of health-related risks.”
Despite these inherent risks, both academic research and anecdotal evidence point to the fact that drug tourism remains relatively high in the parts of the world already discussed. If illegal substances are available in a city or region, there is likely to be an industry around drug tourism, given the profits it brings to those who play their cards right. Because of this economic benefit to vendors and the supposed personal benefit to traveling buyers, drug tourism is not likely to disappear in these regions any time soon.
Is Drug Tourism Ever a Good Idea?
Engaging in drug tourism can be a tempting way to lower your inhibitions and enjoy a good vacation – but it is also filled with a great deal of danger, both because of the effects of the various drugs themselves and outside factors, such as the possibility of arrest.
If some travelers return with stories of a great time, many others return with stories of bad mushroom trips, accidents, overdoses, police bribes, arrests, and even accidental deaths. Clearly, engaging in drug tourism is not a good idea – particularly for someone who already has addictive behaviors.
The dangers of obtaining or using drugs in a foreign setting are many, and include the following possibilities:
- The possibility of being arrested, detained and held in police custody
- Being in need of medical attention without any such care available close by
- The contribution to criminal activity, poverty, and even social destabilization in the host country
- Being under the influence or outside the control of your own decisions in an unfamiliar and potentially unsafe setting
- Unfamiliarity with the local drug market, and what could be mixed in with the drugs that you are buying
- Being at the mercy of the black market and potentially corrupt police, since most countries still have very strict drug policies even if they are not always enforced
Problems Associated With Drug Tourism
For people living in the United States, they are undoubtedly aware of recent changes in marijuana laws. Cannabis legislation has been turned on its head in recent years in locations like Colorado, Washington, and Washington D.C. It’s not surprising that these areas of the country have seen a surge in tourism since these changes.
Many states have long-adopted medical marijuana laws. These are laws that make it legal for people to use cannabis with a doctor’s prescription. Other states have put laws into place to allow for recreational cannabis use. These are the states where drug tourism is flourishing.
There are a lot of problems with cannabis tourism, as well as with drug tourism in general. It is very easy for people to take drugs back across state borders with different regulations. Some experts believe that this really isn’t a problem. They’re OK with it as long as their local economy enjoys the boost. However, there are other costs involved.
Diseases like HIV can be spread because of drug tourism. This is something that is already happening in places like the Dominican Republic, and elsewhere. Even so, there is a social problem that might be quite a bit bigger.
In general, people tend to view vacations as risk-taking adventures. They’re a time when people will try anything and do almost anything just for the thrill. This is problematic because it puts people’s lives at risk. Drug tourism encourages them to try all kinds of drugs that they would never try at home. The dangers involved couldn’t be more real.
According to one study done by ResearchGate, people tend to assign different risk levels when they’re on vacation. They often fail to take the needed safety measures when they’re using. It would be nice to be able to experience freedom on vacation in a new place. However, people who participate in this activity often get more than they bargained for.
Drug Tourism and Addiction
There are all kinds of destinations all over the world that are famous for their drug-encouraging cultures. Some examples include:
- Amsterdam – This is a place known for widely available weed. At one time, psychedelic mushrooms were also plentiful, although that practice has stopped. Tourists are still able to arrive in Amsterdam and sample all kinds of substances. They’re readily available almost everywhere.
- Peru – Ayahuasca is available in this country, and tourists will regularly sample it. It contains DMT, which is a psychedelic drug that produces hallucinations. Trips with this drug are often intense, and more than one person has reported a near-death experience. Other drugs, like the San Pedro cactus, are also popular in Peru.
- Bolivia – The locals of Bolivia enjoy using coca, and they insist that it’s not a drug. They chew the coca leaves to produce only mild mental and physical effects. Bolivia is also home to one of the largest cocaine manufacturers in the world. Drug tourists who are interested will pay a lot of money for cocaine there, but they still do it.
- Czech Republic – Drug-friendly clubs are all over the place in Prague, and it’s a popular place for tourists. It’s very easy to find marijuana, ecstasy, or one of many other drugs almost anywhere. Local dealers charge high prices to tourists, but they’re more than willing to pay.
- The Golden Triangle (Thailand, Laos, Burma) – Opiate drugs are all the rage in this part of the world. However, tourists can find much more than opium and heroin there. Marijuana, mushrooms, and ecstasy are all plentiful. Reports are that tourism is up in this area.
The Washington Post reported on a library where the librarian always keeps Naloxone on hand. The library is located near a place nicknamed Needle Park. It’s a park where people typically go to get high on heroin. Once they have, they’ll venture into the library to relax. She was quoted as saying:
“We call 911 when things happen to make sure that trained professionals are on their way. But in this neighborhood, there’s a lot going on with drug use, drug overdoses. Sometimes there’s a wait time. So we found that sometimes this is the best way to keep someone else alive.”
What Should You Do with This Information?
On a more personal level, if you or someone you love struggles with addiction, drug tourism should be the very last thing on your mind. Instead, confronting this addiction head-on – whether in yourself in someone else – can help give that person the freedom to enjoy the world in an entirely new, entirely fulfilling way.