19 Apr Travel Boycotts: Taking Your Adventures Elsewhere
Right away, I felt like Canada had my back. And immediately, I fell in love with the country.
It was fall 2002, and it was the first time I had ever traveled outside the borders of the United States. We Americans were barely 12 months out from the horrific events of 9/11. The wounds were still fresh. But as I rode in a cab through the downtown streets of Winnipeg, every few blocks I saw huge billboards that proclaimed, “We stand with America.”
It was such a warm and welcoming feeling that I wondered why I hadn’t traveled beyond the United States before. Unexpectedly, I felt embraced and comforted by the Canadians; these people from another country seemed to understand me and what the people of my nation were experiencing. And Canada had decided it was on my side.
But what happens when the country you visit doesn’t seem to grasp your perspectives? What if its policies and beliefs are the opposite of yours? Should you still visit it, or should you shun it in protest? If you do go, does that mean you approve of its laws and regulations?
Travel as testimony
Our travels used to fall into nice, neat categories. As little as just a few decades ago, older people tended to go to warm places to escape winter snows, students and younger people flocked to beach communities for spring break, families loaded up the car for summer road trips, and almost everyone took weekend jaunts to find the best fall colors. If anything could be said to inform our journeys, it was probably the seasons.
Things have changed dramatically. Our travels now are often dictated by our political beliefs — or more precisely, we let where we won’t go say more about us than where we will.
There are several examples of tourism boycotts over the past few decades and years. In the early 1990s, Alaska backed down from its plan to shoot hundreds of wolves from the air after environmentalists announced a boycott. According to The New York Times, cruise ship companies, which provide a majority of the state’s summer tourists, reported numerous cancellations after several national environmental groups took out advertisements urging people to stay away as a protest against the wolf kill. Alaska officials said the boycott was having a “real effect” on its annual $1 billion tourist industry, which then caused the state to abandon the controversial strategy.
In 1999, National League for Democracy leader and Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi called for a tourism boycott of Burma (now Myanmar) believing that money spent by visitors would be supporting the military regime and showing international support for its practices. A tourism boycott against Namibia was called for in 2012 over its culling of seals, against Uganda in 2013 over its legislation against homosexuality and against India in 2014 for its violence against women. In spring 2015, Indonesia executed seven foreigners convicted of drug offenses. That action sparked a boycott of Bali, Indonesia’s major tourist hot spot.
Such tourism boycotts are intended to hit the government where it hurts. The travel and tourism industry is one of the world’s largest, with a global economic contribution of almost $7.2 trillion in 2015. That kind of money wields clout.
No perfect places
The problem is that tourism boycotts may not work as we intend. In fact, they may harm the very people and localities the boycotts were meant to help. Workers in the industry — usually low-wage employees in hotels, restaurants and at tourist sites — who might even share the viewpoint of boycotters, could get laid off. Those with the least say in things may suffer the most.
There is probably no perfect destination to go to on Earth. How many places have a clean record when it comes to animal welfare, the environment and human rights?
Botswana removed native San Bushmen from their Kalahari home, Japan annually slaughters hundreds of dolphins and whales, and Thailand has a reputation for its shockingly bad treatment of elephants. The United States is not immune. In January 2017, an opinion article in the Toronto Star called for Canadians to avoid the United States, saying the U.S.’s recent travel ban targeting Muslim-majority countries is a policy that can’t be ignored.
But a nation is usually far more complex than just one issue or its government. The United States is more complicated than any specific executive order, England is more than badger culls and Icelanders almost never eat whale meat — despite its being on restaurant menus. All countries have animal and human rights activists, local businesses and responsible travel organizations worthy of your support.
Boycott small, but travel big
Choosing a tour operator with a strong, responsible tourism policy — one committed to using local craftspeople, hoteliers, guides and suppliers — may do more than a travel boycott and benefit people in need.
In Uganda, for example, the indigenous Batwa people were evicted from their forest home to protect endangered mountain gorillas. Landless and jobless, they struggled to provide for their families for two decades. Now, ecotours enable them to re-enter the forest as tour guides, making good use of their tracking skills. Both the people and the gorillas would suffer if Uganda were avoided as a tourism destination.
If you’re thinking of actively participating in a tourism boycott, it helps to keep it focused and small. Regarding captive orcas, for instance, boycotting can be extremely effective. Places such as SeaWorld exist purely for tourists; and if visitors stop going to them, those venues will be forced to close. Or seek to engage with an issue in a nation you’d like to visit in another way: When you’re there or still at home, support groups working within the country to remediate the problem.
It might be best to keep our boycotts small but our hearts, minds and wanderlust big, wide-open and fed.
Here’s to your adventures, in whatever corner of the world you find them,
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