As lucky tourist escapees stream home from the tsunami-devastated coastlines of Thailand and Sri Lanka the question popped up - should I go there or is it better to stay away, give the rescue experts time and space to move, let the locals grieve?

The question comes up regularly with countries emerging from years of isolation - Ethiopia, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Algeria, East Timor, Iraq, North Korea, Burma, even Tibet.

My suggestion for Thailand and Sri Lanka is yes, go there, and go sooner than the experts would recommend. I don't suggest visitors should turn up to gawk at the rescue efforts, or arrive when essential services are still out of action but Phuket and the beach strip of Sri Lanka will bounce back with remarkable speed.

The loss of loved ones will take much longer to get over than the loss of infrastructure, but when tourists are what puts money in the bank and food on the table, locals will be eager to see them return.

The areas affected are usually only a fraction of each country concerned. It's a double blow to Sri Lanka if people stop going to Kandy in the hills because of the devastation on the coast.

In fact, the places without tourists have, in some cases, been the hardest hit. The news has been most restricted and they will also be the places where getting aid in will be most difficult. Roads and airports can bring in aid just as efficiently as they bring in tourists.

Look at how much quicker the news has travelled from Phuket or the Sri Lankan resorts than from Aceh, which remained a black hole for news for days, even though it is probably the worst-hit region.

Of course, you have to take some responsibility for yourself. No government will be nice about coming to your rescue when it has issued an advisory that you stay home. And there are dangers in being an early visitor to a former no-go zone. I went to Cambodia in 1992. Two years later two separate groups of young travellers were kidnapped and murdered. Nevertheless, the reality is that safety reaches reasonable levels well before many visitors return.

Finally, what about the places where the question is not "can I go there" but "should I go there"? When travel ethics come into the picture it's always a personal decision, and often there are pros and cons. Burma is argued out most vociferously, but there are other places where the morality of visiting is a much bigger question than the safety.

North Korea is undoubtedly one of the world's true horror stories, with a bankrupt Government funding its existence through drug dealing and counterfeiting, starving its citizens while it kidnaps people from other countries and running a variety of Stalinesque gulags. Surely those are plenty of reasons not to go there?

True, but visitors can be remarkably effective witnesses.

The Chinese find it much harder to keep a lid on dissent as mobile phones, the internet and tourists proliferate. It is just as important that we learn about countries such as North Korea or Iran from real experience, not from what our governments will tell us.

Today we have become far too aware that wars will be launched on the flimsiest of misinformation. Better there had been 100,000 tourists wandering around Iraq three years ago - they might have reported back that there was not a weapon of mass destruction to be seen.


* The author is founder of Lonely Planet