To Boycott or Not to Boycott: The Ethics behind Your Travel Dollars

Ethical travel as a concept is now common discourse, with travelers increasingly asking now they can minimize the impact they have on local communities, as well as expressing growing interest in volunteerism and working with communities to enact change. Travelers hold a unique position of economic power over the whole tourism supply chain – transport, accommodation, hospitality and other vital aspects of many burgeoning economies. Tourism boycotts are a common and somewhat popular way to cash in on this power.

Avaaz, an international advocacy and campaigning community, has recently realized this potential in a campaign in the Maldvies against an outdated law that has led to a 15-year-old rape victim being sentenced to 100 lashes. The Maldives rely heavily on tourism, and the fact that nearly two million people have signed this petition shows the potential power that tourists have. The Maldives’ former president Mohamed Nasheed recognized this potential when he asked for a tourism boycott last year, telling the UK Financial Times newspaper that tourists visiting the country would just be bankrolling an illegitimate government.

boycott graphicThe idea of shunning a country is far from new. Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi called for a tourism boycott of her country in 1999, arguing that tourism is “a form of moral support for [the military regime]…they seem to look on the influx of tourists as proof that their actions are accepted by the world.” This decade-long boycott was declared ”over” in late 2010 following a statement from the National League for Democracy, the Burmese political opposition party led by Suu Kyi. In 2011, Survival International called for a boycott of Botswana following the closure of a local waterhole essential to the Bushmen at the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. This boycott was only lifted when the Bushman won the legal case and the borehole was reopened after nine years.

Sometimes the proposed tourism boycott is just for a particular area or a particular company. Environmentalists are calling for a tourist season boycott of a New Jersey shore town in the USA over the local council’s decision to use tropical hardwood to rebuild their boardwalk. Harpseals.org pushes for a Canadian tourism boycott in a bid to end seal hunting. British tourists are being asked to boycott Thai elephant camps, something international animal activist group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animal (PETA) has strongly supported. Dutch journalist Jos van Noord called for a boycott of Egypt and other Arab countries last year in order to stop violence against local Christians. However, Arab-West Report argues that this tourism boycott will only hurt Christians, saying the international travel community should instead be working to promote and reinvigorate tourism in the Middle East as so much of the local economy relies on this trade.

Last year’s arrest and conviction of the first gay hotel owners in Granada, Nicaragua, has “prompted some members of the gay community to boycott Nicaragua tourism,” according to The Nicaragua Dispatch. The authorities claim that the Belgian men were exploiting minors; however supporters insist that the foreigners were targeted because of their sexual orientation. The town has already seen a drop in local tourism, although it is unclear whether this is a result of the boycott or of fear.

Back in the Maldives, recently dismissed Chinese employees of the Beach House Iruveli resort have claimed discrimination against staff and tourists from China. Initial reports suggest that, following an eruption of such claims through Chinese social media networks several potential tourists from that nation are concerned and reluctant to make reservations – not just with the resort but in the Maldives in general.

But do tourism boycotts actually achieve anything?

Corporate Ethics International’s Michael Max argues that “boycotts don’t have to reduce the number of tourists to be successful…The reality is that the mere awareness of a boycott causes the target constituency and its supporters to attend more to criticism of their government’s or companies’ policies and inevitably they become more aware of the legitimacy of the criticism.”

Travel consultant David Beirman, however, told Australia’s The Sydney Morning Herald in 2007 that boycotts can be counterproductive as they hurt local people who rely on an income from tourism. This argument was widely used during the Burma boycott; Lonely Planet co-founder Tony Wheeler was particularly vocal in encouraging travel to the insulated nation over the past decade.

Should travelers adhere to calls for boycotts? 

Travel, particularly ethical travel, is a highly personal journey. Traveling exposures us to new ideas and concepts. By opening ourselves to these experiences, we will undoubtedly be faced with difficult moral and ethical decisions. Ethical travelers have a duty to make themselves aware of these issues and to act both appropriately and responsibly.

The best advice is to ensure that you are well informed of the political, social, and economic contexts of your destination before you travel, and make your own decision about whether you want your hard-earned cash to support that particular institution or regime. Wherever possible, try to support local businesses.

“We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm and adventure. There is no end to the adventures we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open.”

- Jawaharlal Nehru, first Prime Minister of India

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