Ethical Travel Dilemma: To Boycott or Not to Boycott

From Israel to Myanmar, and Uganda to the USA, the list of countries you could avoid due to ethical travel concerns seems endless. Johan Smits tackles the thorny issue of whether we should impose a travel boycott of questionable regimes.

Opinion / Profiles

From Israel to Myanmar, and Uganda to the USA, the list of countries you could avoid due to ethical travel concerns seems endless. Johan Smits tackles the thorny issue of whether we should impose a travel boycott of questionable regimes.

If you’ve clicked on this link because you feel concerned about ethical travel, then know you’re part of a brave minority. A recent 2018 analysis by Index on Censorship – a non-profit organisation campaigning for free expression worldwide – shows that “most holidaymakers do not take issues such as human rights and freedom of expression into account when choosing a destination”. Or as Tony Wheeler, the co-founder of Lonely Planet, put it in a 2015 radio interview with the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation), “Sadly, most people can easily look past repression, corruption and environmental vandalism provided there is a nice beach nearby.”

Calls to boycott this or that destination regularly surface – a note published last year by Tourism Recreation Research identified more than 130 destination boycotts initiated between 2003 and 2015. But why boycott this country and not that one? And moreover, do boycotts actually work? As may be expected, the answers are not always clear cut. So perhaps it’s not just ignorance or indifference – the dilemmas don’t help in making a judgment call.

New York, Tel Aviv, Kampala, Moscow – everyone’s talking about a travel boycott

There are regular calls to boycott Israel – spearheaded by the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement – until its government ends the occupation of Palestine. Yet while I personally fully support the Palestinians’ right to self-determination, why single out Israel and not boycott other countries with military occupations, such as Morocco in Western Sahara, Turkey in northern Cyprus, and Russia in eastern Ukraine, Abkhazia and South Ossetia? How about China and its occupation of Tibet? All of these countries are top tourist destinations.

ethical travel
Should we boycott Israel and its treasures, such as Beit She’an?

From harsh anti-LGBT legislation in most of Africa – including the death penalty in some cases – and de-facto gender-apartheid regimes in countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran, to rampant corruption, violent state repression and sweatshop labour in popular holiday destinations such as Thailand, Egypt and Brazil – not to speak of our liberal western countries’ support of repressive dictatorships the world over when terrible human rights violations are ignored in favour of arms sales – is there any place on the planet that is a truly ethical travel destination? Perhaps you’ll have to spend your next holiday lounging around in your back garden.

Far from trying to resort to cynical relativism about the scale of abuse, this is a call to step back from relying exclusively on the advice from our government elites with their political agendas, or the pretty destination reports sponsored by national tourist boards and the travel industry. We have the tools available to do our own research – or better, to go out there and make up our own minds on ethical travel.

Would I travel to Israel? Certainly – the two times I’ve already visited the country I was struck by how open people were to discussion, and how not everybody supports their government’s policy. Would I visit Iran, a country that has called for the destruction of Israel? Absolutely – I happen to enjoy Iranian cinema and am fascinated by its rich history and culture. I also believe that travel is life changing – not only for the traveller but also for her host.

Does a travel boycott actually make any sense? In some cases the answer seems to be yes. It could be argued that the international boycott against South Africa’s apartheid regime from the 1960s to the 1990s eventually worked – but perhaps only because the popular movement was backed politically by the UN and foreign governments, and the boycott was comprehensive, from consumer goods and economic sanctions to an academic boycott and suspension from the Commonwealth and the Olympics. But it also isolated an entire generation – the underprivileged black South Africans as much as its white minority elite – from the rest of the world.

“To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries”

South Africa seems rather like a lone exception where a substantial part – but not all – of the international community eventually cooperated in boycotting a country. Imagine, for example, starting a boycott against the US for its impressive record of questionable wars, drone bombings, toppling of democratically elected leaders, support of repressive regimes, state-sponsored torture and opposition to global efforts to combat climate change; all of which amounts to arguably more suffering and loss of life than that caused by the Israeli state against the Palestinians.

But while tourist boycotts, however far-fetched, might have little effect on major powers like the US or China, there’s an argument that they could put real pressure on developing countries whose economies depend on tourism and who invest heavily to market themselves as destinations – such as Egypt, Morocco, Mexico or Thailand.

Myanmar Ethical Travel Boycott

Take Myanmar as an example.

When its military government designated 1996 as “Visit Myanmar Year” in an attempt to attract foreign currencies, it provoked calls to boycott the country from human rights NGOs as well as by then-opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. This was not a line followed by the Lonely Planet travel guidebook which argued that responsible independent tourism would eventually bring benefits to Myanmar. Although “Visit Myanmar” became a flop and the military didn’t attain their target, the year also marked the start of a gradual development of Myanmar’s tourism infrastructure and industry, and since then the Lonely Planet model of “conscious responsible tourism” gained ground.

When in 2010, the opposition-inspired tourism boycott was declared over after Aung San Suu Kyi said she would welcome visitors, western NGOs followed suit. Ironically, today calls are made again to boycott Myanmar and its new leader Aung San Suu Kyi for her failure to speak out against the ethnic cleansing campaign against Myanmar’s Rohingya population.

So, would you today feel comfortable sipping your cocktail at the iconic The Strand hotel in Yangon while elsewhere in the country ethnic cleansing – many even talk of genocide – is ongoing?

If you want to learn more about ethical travel and Myanmar, read: What is the Best Responsible Tourism Model for Myanmar.

Unsurprisingly, most companies in the travel industry adopt the argument that avoiding travel to countries such as Myanmar would deprive local people of much needed money. This may be true, but they forget to add it may also have a profound impact on their sales figures. The travel industry’s “expert views” are hardly amongst the most objective.

I think a difference ought to be made between cruise ship style mass tourism and individual, well-informed travellers who are conscious about how they spend their money. Back in the 90s foreign tourists were required to change $300 into foreign exchange coupons (FECs) upon entering Myanmar while nearly all tourism infrastructure was controlled by the military. Nowadays, as an independent traveller it’s possible to seek out smaller family-run guest houses and restaurants to try and limit how much of your money flows back to the state.

Citizen Diplomacy

Myanmar travel
Travel boycotts of countries, such as Myanmar, would deprive locals of much needed tourism income.

Yet, even in cases like 1990’s Myanmar or present-day North Korea, where it’s virtually impossible to keep your money out of the hands of the state, there are arguments in favour of visiting, not only by partial tour companies but also independent travellers. They point to so-called “citizen diplomacy” where tourists go and bear witness to local conditions, support local people and exchange ideas. Tourism is seen here as a tool to break down barriers, to facilitate cultural and political exchange and to improve the lives of ordinary people.

In my opinion, this may work to some extend with independent travellers who are already aware of some of the issues existing in the place they’re visiting. But in backpacker favourites like Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, and other top tourist destinations such as Egypt, Morocco and Brazil – all of which find themselves in the bottom third of the worldwide Human Freedom Index – this may not be so likely.

I wouldn’t expect a flashpacker, digital nomad, global wanderer, destination influencer or whatever it is tourists prefer to call themselves today, to bear witness to the forced-labour conditions on the Thai fishing vessels before having their fresh shrimp canapés at their infinity pool in Koh Samui. Nor is that their job – journalists are far better suited for that.

After all is being said and done, my inclination would still be to favour the citizen diplomacy model, but with some reservations on how to go about it.

Pyongyang, North Korea
The Reunification Monument in Pyongyang, North Korea..

It’s one thing to get on our high horse about state corruption with a traffic police officer or visa officer in Cambodia during our three-day blitz visit to Angkor Wat. After we return safely to our privileged lives in Paris or Melbourne, the recipient of our lessons in ethics is left behind trying to eke out a living inside the corrupt system of which she is as much a prisoner as we are as tourists. It’s another thing if we spend an extended period of time in a place – be it for business, volunteering, teaching or just having fun – and get at least an inkling of how its society functions.

It seems the more I delve into this complicated issue – ethical travel in repressive countries – the messier it becomes. To make the issue even more complicated, let’s add into the mix countries where its majority population widely supports some of its regime’s excesses. Talk to a Buddhist man, or woman, on the streets in Myanmar and you may find he is in favour of Aung San Suu Kyi’s refusal to speak out against – or even acknowledge the existence of – the ethnic cleansing in Rakhine state. Bring up the subject of homosexuality with everyday people in Uganda and you could be confronted with some shocking and violent views. But is it not in these kinds of environments that “citizen diplomacy” would be most effective?

Four of the countries in which I have lived for two years or longer, rank below 100 in the 159-country Human Freedom Index: Thailand (105), Tajikistan (118), Bangladesh (133) and the Democratic Republic of Congo (152). In each of them I have eaten plenty of humble pie when my prejudices – mainly derived from media and hearsay – were torn to shreds. At the same time, in each of these four countries there are massive human rights and other problems, and plenty of local prejudice that should be challenged too. Or in the words of Aldous Huxley, “To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries”, as it could also be a means to show people in other countries that they may be wrong about us.

2018’s Ten Best Ethical Travel Destinations According to Ethical Traveler:

– Belize
– Benin
Costa Rica
– Palau
– St. Kitts & Nevis
– Vanuatu

ethical travel
Belize is one of the countries praised for its ethical travel by Ethical Traveler – it also has stunning beaches

Whether to visit a particular country or not is a very personal decision, and we all have our red lines. Some people may shun Japan, Norway and Iceland for their wholesale slaughter of whales, while others will never set foot on The Maldives for its institutionalised, horrendous human rights violations.

Personally, I feel sceptical about trying to enforce change through travel boycotts. Considering how subjective and ineffective they are, perhaps we ought to turn the whole idea on its head and travel more to countries that are genuinely trying to effectuate positive change. In other words, throw away the stick and buy more (tourist) carrots.

More Carrot and Less Stick

For example, every year, the non-profit Ethical Traveler reviews hundreds of developing nations and selects those that it believes are making efforts to promote human rights, preserve the environment and support social welfare – all while creating a lively tourism industry. Their research focuses on three general categories: environmental protection, social welfare, and human rights – with animal welfare added into the mix a few years ago.

As they note themselves on their website, no country is perfect, but by visiting these kinds of destinations we can reward them for their efforts, support good practices and hopefully motivate other countries to follow suit. If you think this reeks of charity travel, it is not – in order to make it into their list, a destination also has to offer unspoiled natural beauty, great outdoor activities and an opportunity to interact meaningfully with local cultures. After all, you are on holiday.

So next time you find yourself in an ethical travel conundrum, instead of worrying about which countries to avoid, have a look at the great destinations out there making a genuine effort at improving our planet. Bon voyage, and sleep soundly.

(Note: this article is the personal opinion of its author on ethical travel and does not necessary represent the view of Travel Begins at 40.) Cover photo of Bagan, Myanmar.

Avatar photo

Johan Smits

Freelance writer, translator, web content developer, author of the novel Phnom Penh Express and Tommy, a short story. Johan has travelled extensively since leaving his native Antwerp. He has lived in Taiwan, West Africa, Central Asia, Bangladesh, Cambodia and Thailand, where he now lives. Loves trying out local brews but tends to avoids noise. Chronically indecisive about where to lay down his hat.

Read more posts by Johan Smits →

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *