What do you do when you discover a destination on your list is an ethical nightmare?
If there are human rights abuses, oppression, dictatorship, denial of democracy, corruption, unethical practices (animal welfare, environmental issues) or enforcement of manifestly unjust laws, what should you do?
The obvious answer, is to take the destination off your list. Why support an unethical regime or practice by traveling there?
Tourism is vital to the economy of many countries, contributing 10.2% of global GDP in 2016. That makes travelers very powerful people in economic terms.
Let’s take a look at what happens when tourism dollars go away in the case of Egypt. Prior to the 2011 uprising, tourism contributed $13 billion to the Egyptian economy. In 2015 it was down to just $8 billion. While that’s because of fears about safety and terrorism, it shows the power of the tourist dollar when the entire world decides to “boycott” – whatever the reason.
And there are instances where a boycott based on ethical reasons has worked – South Africa for one, and the worldwide boycott of their products because of apartheid. The popular movement was backed by the political clout of the UN and foreign governments imposing sanctions, but it worked – eventually.
Then there’s your own internal moral compass. If you don’t have the courage of your convictions, then you’re lost. Visiting a country that conducts atrocities condones them, and does that make you complicit?
There’s an opposing school of thought, those who say you should go anyway. They’re not advocating ignorance or blindly venturing into countries that condone atrocities, but instead say to make an informed decision to go and make a difference.
Travel changes lives – not only of the traveler, but of the people they visit too.
Oppressors need secrecy and compliance to conduct their oppression. By turning the spotlight on them, by exposing their actions to the eyes of visitors, they are less likely to do their evil (this is also why media attention works). The oppressed desperately need someone to hear their story. They need their plight to be known.
Even if the unethical behaviour is supported by the majority of citizens, engaging with the wider populace and exposing them to thoughts, ideas, and beliefs of a wider audience may cause a change.
To not visit punishes the most vulnerable. Oppression, and abuse, by its nature, denies the victims the wherewithal to fight back. It robs them of their wealth and the power that allows them. They are always among the poorest people on Earth. If you stay away, you condemn them to that existence. If you visit, and spend wisely to encourage local businesses, you empower the powerless.
We contacted our friends at like-minded travel businesses and asked them – in the most unbiased way possible – boycott or not? Here are some of their answers.
“As the former President of Geographic Expeditions, I can weigh in. My perspective was shaped when Amnesty International called for a boycott our company because we were operating trips to Myanmar/Burma. At the time, Aung San Suu Kyi urged travelers to stay away. I managed to dig up our position paper, which I support to this day.
“We're not in the business of sheltering our travelers from reality, good or bad. (when they return) they know that they've had the paradoxical, and all too common, experience of traveling to magnificent destinations, seeing magnificent sights, meeting magnificent people, who are in trouble. And they almost invariably come home eager to help, not forget, those people.” – Jim Sano, Geographic Expeditions
"Traveling and immersing yourself in a culture is a far more impactful way to affect change in the world when compared to boycotting travel to a particular country in an effort to encourage it to change its ways.
"Travel enables greater awareness of important issues such as human rights, species vulnerability or environmental degradation, and expands our understanding of the diverse perspectives that exist around a wide range of issues and challenges. Through visiting a country and engaging in immersive types of experiences such as volunteering, travellers are able to make a valuable hands-on contribution towards tackling important local challenges, while at the same time heightening global understanding and empathy, both in themselves and in the people they interact with. Abroad experiences influence the decisions that people make in life for the better and encourage us all to think more globally.
"IVHQ research shows that 91% of volunteer travellers believe their experience challenged them to think differently about how they understand the world and other cultures, customs and norms." – Ben Brown, Head of Risk, Impact and People at International Volunteer HQ
“The ethics of visiting places like Myanmar and North Korea have previously been the subject of passionate company-wide debates at Intrepid. The majority decision has been that we don’t boycott, but that our trips include as much genuine real-life local interaction as we can, because it exposes both our travellers and locals to the reality that we are all human. We genuinely believe that travel connects people, it builds understanding, it makes us less prejudiced and more empathetic. We need more of that in the world right now.” – James Thornton, CEO of Intrepid Travel
“Instead of boycotting a place outright, I make micro, person-to-person decisions in the moment that fall in line with my values. I’ll go to China but I won’t pay to pose for a picture (or pose at all) with a mistreated panda. I’ll get out of your taxi in Port of Spain if you talk smack about your minorities. I won’t even stay in your inn in Krakow if you’re mean to me. But we travelers have a unique chance to be something like the rivers of the world. We can gather little pieces of the lands we touch, carry them great distances and let them settle into something rich from which a higher perspective might arise. Cutting off that flow does more harm than good.” – Tim Neville, travel writer and World Nomads travel writing scholarship mentor
“The arguments work both ways, for just as it is true that withdrawing and boycotting has an effect, so it is also true that striving to remain in contact may also have beneficial results, and certainly help to limit the suffering of broader communities in the countries concerned. It may be that only by maintaining some kind of contact that we can hope to have influence for the good.” – Helen Jennings, The Ethical Travel Guide
“In the face of an ethical dilemma, it is better to contribute to the solution rather than turn your back on the problem. All cases need to be considered for their individual set of circumstances, but at World Expeditions we will always think of how we can assist in finding a solution. While we do choose to boycott businesses whose practices do not adhere to our Responsible Travel code of conduct, we would look to find ways to support those individuals trying to do the right thing.
"In short, we believe that travel and tourism can make the world a better place. Our goal is to support ethical operators and practices across our entire product range to ensure our travellers are doing just that.” – Sarah Hunt, marketing manager for World Expeditions
We believe travel has the power to change lives and challenge mindsets. Making local connections and sharing experiences and ideologies not only breeds understanding and fellowship, but also broadens perspectives and breaks down barriers. We see this as the ultimate purpose of travel.
As World Nomads, we feel that there is a greater positive impact to be made by traveling, than staying at home and avoiding the world’s problems. By going, spending travel dollars locally, choosing experiences responsibly and engaging in meaningful dialogue with others, we believe that travelers can be incredible ambassadors for change.
That is not to say that we condone putting yourself at risk (obviously, we’re a travel insurance company). We do not encourage you to travel if the circumstances are unsafe – or take part in activities that will land you in trouble. Always make sure you are informed and up-to-date on the latest developments and heed “do not travel” warnings.
In the end, the choice is yours – you are the only one who can set your own moral compass. We only ask that when you decide, you do so from a position of knowledge, awareness and sensitivity.