Can Travel Boycotts Do More Harm than Good?

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There’s no denying the impact political events can have on tourism. Nobody could have blamed travellers for staying away from China after 1989’s massacre in Tiananmen Square. While China is now Asia by Goway’s most popular destination, it took ten years for travellers’ faith in the country to be restored. Calls for a boycott on China travel have come and gone throughout much of the country’s recent boom period, reaching a crescendo in the lead-up to the 2008 Olympics.

So you could be forgiven for hearing a certain echo when calls were made to boycott Russia, leading up to 2014’s winter games in Sochi. With the passage of controversial and highly ambiguous laws against “gay propaganda”, and increased reports of anti-LGBT violence, many travellers chose to stay away out of safety concerns. Others have called for a boycott to protest Russian military action in Ukraine, the imprisonment of punk band Pussy Riot, or any combination of these issues.

There have also long been loud calls at various times for boycotts of Myanmar, Israel, Botswana, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Uganda, the Maldives, Iran, and… yes, Canada and various parts of the United States. Reasons have ranged from repressive regimes, to ill-treatment of minorities, to social inequality, environmental concerns, and controversial laws.

Red Square in Moscow, Russia
Red Square in Moscow, Russia

Why Wouldn’t You Go?
It goes without saying that images and stories that come from troubled regions can affect us deeply, changing the way we think about a destination, and upcoming travel plans. But the impact of travel boycotts tend to be as varied as their reasons, and while there are certainly some benefits, refusing to travel to a country for political or ethical reasons can also have unintended negative consequences that affect everyday people rather than the government under protest.

Effective travel boycotts need to be realistic about their potential impact, including their benefits. Refusing to spend a cent within the borders of a totalitarian state is unlikely to do that regime any real damage, so the benefit is mostly symbolic. It sends a message to other travellers, raising awareness of the boycott’s concerns. In a social media age, this is easier than ever.

Yet many popular boycotts fade into history within weeks – even ones that make the news. Why? Because this kind of boycott will only have an impact if the “boycotter” is either planning a trip to the target destination, or is in a position to influence others doing so. Otherwise, no real action or change has taken place, and that’s not a boycott. It’s simply a statement of disapproval. This can have value too, but a true travel boycott means shutting the door on a destination and refusing to tread there on political or moral grounds. That’s not what’s happening in these cases.

Temples of Myanmar
Temples of Myanmar

Does taking such a stance do any good?
As a travel company, Goway is undeniably biased when it comes to these boycotts. We advocate and do our best to practice responsible and ethical travel in all of our destinations. Our packages and tour partners are chosen with that in mind, and wherever possible, we try to support local people and local business. Like most responsible travel providers, we try to direct the money you spend at a controversial destination away from places where it has the potential to do harm. This can sometimes mean the government, or it can mean dubious trades such as the disturbing “orphan industry”, which exploits local children to divert the cash of well-meaning foreigners.

Both of these problems can be minimized and sometimes avoided altogether, with thorough research and the help of an expert travel agent who knows and deals with reputable providers and local companies. They also have the benefit of regional knowledge without a media filter. A good agent will ensure you stay away from potentially dangerous areas. If the whole area is really a no-go zone, they’ll probably be able to recommend alternative destinations or times you should travel.

Usually however, they will only deter you from a destination on safety grounds. The moral implications are yours to consider, and this can be more complicated than you think. One major negative consequence of boycotting a destination is the isolation of its people. Simply put, blanking a country from tourism can leave its story untold.

The smiling faces of the local children, South Africa
The smiling faces of the local children, South Africa

Interact. Listen. Learn.
Unless you’re visiting North Korea (where even your hotel room will most likely be bugged), you’ll probably have some degree of freedom to explore. There is a perception in some countries that the outside world (particularly America) has forgotten them or is too arrogant to understand their country’s history or current political situation. Your visit and interaction with the locals is proof that you’re not only aware of the country, but curious and ready to make up your own mind about it. You can learn a lot about how a political situation is affecting people just by observing their everyday lives and listening to their opinions. Even if you disagree, it can be an enlightening and often quite empowering experience for both of you. That’s a large part of why North Korean tours allow so little interaction between tourists and locals. The last thing a totalitarian government wants is for its citizens to feel empowered.

Remember, such an interaction is a chance to listen, observe and learn as a guest. No doubt you’re minding your manners already, but it can still be confronting to encounter views or actions in a foreign country that blatantly contradict your own values. Keep your cool, don’t evangelize, and never presume to know how a local feels about a particular situation or way of life.

Phrase your questions respectfully and you may come away with an all new insight into the country and its people. Your new friend will probably be just as curious about where you’re from. Just be genuine in your discussion, and save any criticism for when you get home. Remember, in some countries, certain comments could even land you or your friend in serious trouble. So if they appear uncomfortable with a particular topic, take the hint and drop it. A lot goes unspoken under seemingly harsh or controversial regimes, and a little deference can help you see sides of the country rarely experienced by tourists.

Old man in Rajasthan, India
Old man in Rajasthan, India

Safety first.
Obviously, all this “openness” does not extend to putting yourself in danger. Some destinations should be genuinely considered off-limits until the security situation improves. A good travel agent will steer you clear, suggest alternative destinations, or at least help you mitigate the risk. Always check your government’s security advice for the latest official information, and remember to purchase adequate travel insurance before you depart.

With all the safety boxes ticked, however, the question of whether to go is a purely ethical one. We strongly recommend doing your own research and trusting your instincts. If you do decide to go, you may come away with a new point of view, or a much more thorough understanding of the issues behind your initial misgivings. You may even have done your part in reaching out, acting as a gentle reminder that the rest of the world is still watching, and is ready to learn and talk about the truth – whatever that may be.

Private Dahabiya cruise
Private Dahabiya cruise on the Nile, Egypt
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Christian Baines
Christian Baines

Globetrotting Contributing Editor -
Christian’s first globetrotting adventure saw him get lost exploring the streets of Saigon. Following his nose to Asia’s best coffee, two lifelong addictions were born. A freelance writer and novelist, Christian’s travels have since taken him around his native Australia, Asia, Europe, and much of North America. His favourite trips have been through Japan, Spain, and Brazil, though with a love of off-beat, artsy cities, he’ll seize any opportunity to return to Paris, New York, or Berlin.

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