Christina Patterson: Didn't we have a lovely time the day we went to Basra

We can visit foreign countries - and discover that who we elect really matters

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What do you do when you've bombed the living daylights out of a country? Well, you go on holiday there, of course! If an awful lot of people have died there as a result of a decision made by your prime minister (100,000 according to the most conservative estimates, a million to the least), then clearly the best thing to do, once it's all died down a bit, is pack your Ray Bans, your bikini, and your guidebook (which might, it's true, be a little bit out of date) and take off. Lovely massages at the spa. G&Ts by the pool. What could be nicer?

That, it seems, is the view of Hammoud al-Yaqoubi, who was at the World Travel Market this week, trying to extol the wonders of Iraq. "There are enormous things that can be done in Iraq," he said. "Cruise ships into Basra, for example, with short tours from there." Basra. Ah yes, Basra. That was the place where, in the 1991 Gulf War, hundreds of retreating Iraqi soldiers were fried alive. It was the place where, six years ago, British soldiers fought some of their bloodiest battles. It was also the site, according to historians, of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and perhaps the Garden of Eden.

But you can't, alas, see the Garden of Eden or the Hanging Gardens of Babylon (though you can see YouTube footage of the hanging dictator) and you can't see that many of the extraordinary artefacts of this cradle of civilisation, because many of them were looted when we invaded it. ("Freedom," as Donald Rumsfeld said at the time, "is messy.") And you won't be able to get travel insurance, and many of the sites have been bombed or wrecked, and the Foreign Office says that that there's a "high threat" of "terrorism, violence and kidnapping". Poor old Mr al-Yaqoubi certainly has his work cut out.

But then tourism, like freedom, is messy. In February, on a trip to Cambodia, I visited a beautiful spot in the countryside. The birds were singing, and the sun was shining, but the trees offered wonderful shade. These, it turned out, were the trees used by teenage recruits of the Khmer Rouge to dash babies to death. Poking out from the ground beneath were bits of cloth and bone. Nearby, in a Buddhiststupa whose entrance is marked by a mat saying "welcome", were the skulls of those buried in the mass graves. Back in Phnom Penh was the prison where many of them were tortured.

In April, in Iran, I passed the massive mausoleum of a man who once passed a fatwa on a British novelist. He came to power, after a bloody revolution, at the time that the Khmer Rouge were killing and torturing their neighbours. (A time, incidentally, when I was worrying about my lack of platform shoes.) The regime he toppled, run by a man installed by the West to safeguard Western interests in oil, was also pretty bloody. One of the favoured torture methods of the Shah's secret police involved a baby and a sack of starving ferrets.

In May, I was in the Czech Republic, a country which, at the same time (and 10 years before the momentous events we've been celebrating this week) was subjecting political opponents to surveillance, intimidation and torture. In June, I was in Syria, a country which still does. All of these were holidays, or kind of holidays. I do quite a lot of travel writing – that's where-to-go-for-your-holiday travel writing and not reports from the frontline – and have opportunities to see all sorts of places I otherwise wouldn't. But you can't go to these places, and see their architecture, and art, and beauty, and culture, and not get a sense of their history.

The world is smaller than it ever was. You can argue about the evils of flying – you can argue, indeed, about the whole Western lifestyle – but it's quite tricky to give people the world at their fingertips, through the internet and film and telly, and then stop them from going to see it. You can argue, too, about the benefits of tourism. Parasitic? Almost always. Demeaning? Often. Destructive of the environment? Nearly all the time. Wasteful of precious local resources? Ditto. Helpful to the local economy? Well, there's the rub. Usually, yes.

You can do it badly, or you can do it well. You can do it with proper planning, and nicely designed buildings, and gardens that don't guzzle all the local water, and employees who are paid properly, and not encouraged at all times to grin and fawn. You can do it, in other words, with dignity. And you can do it by running around with very few clothes on, and consuming large amounts of alcohol, and staying by your hotel pool, and eschewing local services, or you can dress carefully, drink moderately, talk to people and keep your eyes open. You can, in other words, do it with respect.

And if you do it with respect, and with your eyes open, you might learn something about the country you're visiting. You might also learn that the politicians you elect really matter, and the decisions they make really matter, and the wars they wage really matter, because people you might meet will be living with the consequences of those decisions, and those wars, for a very long time. And so, Mr al-Yaqoubi, I wish you luck. You could really do with some luck and so, no thanks to us, could your country.

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