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Is Boycotting the Answer? 4 Questions to Consider Before You Decide

Be it oppressive governments, human rights violations, or unethical animal welfare practices — what happens when you realise a destination you’ve dreamed of visiting directly opposes your fundamental values?

As conscientious travellers, it makes sense that boycotting is typically the first thing that comes to mind. Refusing to visit a particular destination is a meaningful way to show your opposition and take a stand against discrimination, injustice, and cruelty.

But is boycotting always the best practice? And should we be concerned about the negative consequences associated with travel boycotts?

There’s no doubt that choosing to blacklist a specific country is a deeply personal and subjective choice. Before you decide to write off a destination completely, here are four essential questions to consider.

1. Do travel boycotts work?

The intention behind boycotting undoubtedly comes from a good place: travellers often choose to avoid specific countries to send a message of nonacceptance, and ultimately, contribute to a movement that will help eliminate immoral authorities.

When boycotts are effective, they can lead to sweeping policy changes; however, it’s unlikely a country will reverse course solely due to a decline in tourist numbers.

As Nomadic Matt stated in this article, change often comes as a result of various factors, including domestic activism and international pressure: “What caused Myanmar to change, Iran to open up, or South Africa to end apartheid? It wasn’t a drop in tourist numbers. It was governmental and corporate sanctions on a massive scale.

Indiana softened its anti-LGBT law when corporations and conferences pulled out en masse. The Apartheid government in South Africa collapsed when governments, major banks, and other corporations stopped doing business with it and lending it money. Iran finally yielded under the weight of sanctions that drove it toward bankruptcy.”

Of course, there are some instances in which boycotting can be a very powerful tool — like in the case of helping to influence Thailand’s attitude toward captive elephant tourism. Refusing to visit a specific country due to a particular policy, however, may not be significant enough to force the government to change its regulations.

2. Do boycotts impact the right people?

One of the biggest downsides to boycotting is that the very people we’re trying to defend end up suffering the most. When tourists stay away, it’s not only the oppressors who end up being punished — the locals take the brunt of the impact.

The individuals who rely on the tourism industry to put food on the table, support their families, and keep their business afloat are directly affected by boycotts — even if they don’t support the regime or policies you’re attempting to object.

According to information from a study centred around this topic, tourism boycotts are likely to have a more profound socio-economic impact than their consumer boycott counterparts. Additionally, tourism boycotts directly and indirectly impact a wide range of stakeholders — local residents and communities included.

3. Does legislation reflect the masses?

In many countries, the government doesn’t necessarily represent or mirror the beliefs of the masses. With this in mind, is it fair to boycott a country because you don’t agree with the ideologies and policies held by autocratic regimes? Is it wise to write off an entire country due to the actions of a select few?

Most Canadians don’t slaughter seals, and many Spaniards are increasingly against the traditional spectacle of bullfighting. People don’t actively choose to live under an authoritative dictatorship, and the wider populace may very well be in opposition to their country’s controversial laws.

For every tyrannical leader and abhorrent regulation, there are thousands of compassionate citizens who are leading the charge and championing for change on a domestic scale.

4. Is there an effective alternative to boycotting?

Since the tourism industry is a vital economic driver in many countries, travellers are in a position of power. From the places we stay to the people we interact with to the ways we spend our money, every one of our actions — no matter how seemingly trivial — can make a significant impact when we travel.

If you ultimately choose not to boycott a destination outright, here are a few ideas to help drive change in other ways:

  • Ensure your money goes to the right people. Staying in family-owned guesthouses, spending money at small businesses, and choosing tour companies that prioritise local interaction are a few easy ways to limit the amount of tourism dollars that land in the pockets of corrupt governments, and support those who need it most.

  • Practice selective boycotting. Rather than choosing to avoid a country entirely, try blacklisting specific attractions or tourism companies that act unethically. This type of boycotting can be extremely effective as these types of businesses rely heavily on tourism dollars.

  • Make micro-level decisions that align with your values when you travel. For example, if you choose to visit Amber Fort in Jaipur, India, make a point of refusing to ride an elephant to the entrance.

  • Spread the word when you come home. If you have a blog or social media platform, use it to sound the alarm and shine the spotlight on what you’ve experienced abroad. Additionally, you can lobby and write to your elected officials to make changes at a local government level.

When it comes to the question of travel boycotts, there’s no black or white answer; this decision is one that’s nuanced and complex, and brings a slew of noteworthy factors to consider. 

Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide whether or not to travel somewhere. If you find yourself grappling with this decision, remember to do so from a place of empathy, awareness, and open-mindedness. 

Those of us who are privileged enough to have visited other countries and continents know this to be true: travel has the power to change not only the lives of travellers, but also of the people they interact with.

Woman on a bus looking out the window in East Africa
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