Should Travellers Boycott Controversial Destinations?

Michael Huxley Masada Sunrise Tour clifftop view over the Dead Sea Israel

There are plenty of destinations around the world that have controversial political or cultural stances on many issues, from women’s rights and human rights abuses to LGBTQ rights and oppressive dictatorships to name but a few, but does that mean travellers should boycott a destination? Should your ethical or moral viewpoint dictate where you travel to? What would you do?

When countries, states or political regimes act in a way that many people find socially or ethically immoral, then quite often there can be many calls to boycott that destination. There are quite often concerns that when people do travel to those destinations people are putting their own selfish desires above what are to many extreme moral injustices, and accusations that tourism money is supporting an immoral regime or tacitly supporting an issue that many may find abhorrent.

But is this really the case?

What is a travel boycott?

A travel boycott is a form of mass protest. It is not just a personal decision to not travel to a country, it is a call for everyone else to do the same, a call for travellers in general to punitively withdraw economic and social relations with a country in response to a perceived social, moral, ethical or political stance on a particular issue in an attempt to raise awareness and force social or political change.

The understandable ethics of a travel boycott.

A lot of the times the calls for boycotting a destination or a country because of social or ethical injustice can come from a good place. I think it is important to remember that. Travellers who would consider themselves conscientious may feel that they have a moral obligation to act or an imperative to speak up about an issue they feel strongly on. In many ways that is completely understandable and in many ways laudable. But is the call to boycott a destination as a result of that the right choice to make? Is applying a moral stance on a political party, a type of government or any other issue for that matter to travel to any given destination the right thing to do? I don’t think so.

Do travel boycotts work?

Travel and tourism is certainly a powerful economic force in the world, with many countries even relying almost completely on the industry as a source of income. When that income drops it can have a devastating impact on the economy.

Calls for a travel boycott can also raise international awareness of an issue to an extent, in the short term at least, just as it did in the case of Brunei’s recent internationally condemned anti LGBTQ laws  or more recently the anti abortion bill passed in Georgia, Alabama and other states.

The truth is however that with few exceptions a travel boycott on its own will have very little effect in the long term. Where social or political change can take place after direct action, that is usually when political trade sanctions are put into place and banks and large corporations remove their business over a long period of time. The economic pressure of numerous large corporations is what led to a slight climbdown – although not a full retraction – of the Sultan of Brunei’s stance, not a call from travellers to boycott the destination. The tourism industry – despite its economic benefit and power – is often only a small part of that economic decision.

In the case of Alabama in the United States it is the economic and political pressure from neighbouring states and the almost mass boycott by Hollywood film and TV studios against the anti abortion bill in Alabama that is causing the largest impact, not calls from tourists to head elsewhere.

A call for a travel boycott in Israel by Amnesty International is doing nothing to solve any ongoing issues between Israel and Palestine. Iran only began opening up after political and economic sanctions from entire states and international corporations, as did Burma when – despite the tourism industry boycott having some impact – the military junta faced international sanctions and condemnation.

I would personally argue that whilst a travel boycott when done on a specifically large scale with wider industry and corporations involved, can have some impact, it is never enough on its own to have enough of an impact to matter. When done by an individual, no matter for what conscientious or ethical reason, the impact is non existent, the morality of the action is misplaced and it can cause much more harm than good in the long term.

Michael Huxley walking Aruba desert

What is a ‘bad’ destination exactly?

The biggest problem with travel boycotts is the definition of what is wrong or right, of what country should and shouldn’t be boycotted. It can be really easy to point to examples that most right minded people would agree are appalling, but where does that end?

You may have a moral stance against a dictatorial regime in any given country, or the current Egyptian government for a specific policy or law they are enforcing or Israel for  their politics for example, but does that condemnation and decision to boycott also extend to the UK government over Brexit policies or the US because you don’t like the current President?

I understand completely that to many people there are a variety of issues that are considered extremely morally, ethically, socially or politically immoral, but who is the moral arbiter on that? Not everyone agrees on every issue.

All countries all over the world have something that someone would disagree with for a variety of reasons, that is even more so when you take into account historical behaviour. I doubt there is a country or significant power in the world that hasn’t done something questionable in the past, the UK certainly isn’t exempt. Australian travellers may choose to boycott Sri Lanka for example for the governments treatment of Tamil Tigers, yet what about Australia’s own history with its own aboriginal population? The politics of individual moral high ground suddenly look a lot more murky. Not everyone agrees on the same thing.

If everyone boycotted every country over a specific political or social issue they disagreed with, that would mean a lot of travellers would never be able to go home to the USA or the UK again. It means that travellers would actually rarely travel anywhere at all ever again.

The safety issue.

There is also the issue of travelling to supposedly ‘dangerous’ countries, and I use that term very loosely because frankly most people don’t know whether a country is safe or not beyond what biased or sensationalist information they get sporadically fed through the media, and never bother to make a genuine risk assessment beyond that.

Too many people confuse boycotting a destination over ethical or moral issues with boycotting an issue because the destination is supposedly dangerous and they shouldn’t. The two are very different issues that should never be conflated.

Of course there are destinations in the world that are in the middle of an active conflict or have some form of humanitarian issue that with reasoned and common sense risk assessment means it is generally not safe for travellers to head there.

There are also plenty of destinations that are supposedly ‘dangerous’ based on false perceptions and negative media stereotypes where many travellers are berated or shamed for going to because everyone says it is dangerous or believe a one sided narrative.

After spending twenty travelling to many of the worlds supposedly most dangerous destinations myself, from Israel and Iraq to Afghanistan and Sudan and many more beside, rarely have I found the negative stereotypes to be true. Destinations that may have once lived under a dictatorial regime may be under democratic rule now, places that were once torn apart by war may have had a decade of peace, political unrest may be rife in a small section of one city but that doesn’t mean the entire country is dangerous.

Even if a destination is actually dangerous that is for each individual traveller to assess the safety situation for themselves on a case by case basis and is not in and of itself a reason to boycott the entire country. A destination may or may not be dangerous, terrible things may or may not have happened there once, but to say it is wrong for travellers to head there based on that alone is the height of arrogant hypocrisy.

The negative impact of travel boycotts.

The reality is that more often than not travel boycotts only have a negative impact on the wrong target. It is often not the government who is affected by a country wide travel boycott, but the locals who may rely on tourism to earn a living.

Quite often, regardless of whether you agree with a law, or a governments stance on any given issue, or even the elected government itself, that has very little to do with the small family running that guesthouse or inn or that elderly businessman trying to eke out a living selling fruit juice on a street corner.

Not every single individual in a country may agree with the stance their government has taken or the issue that you as a traveller are protesting, and assuming they are all willing participants in a hegemonic state is unethical in and of itself.

It is the people at the bottom a travel boycott will punish, the people who rely on money from the travel and tourism trade, often for something they have very little if any control over.

Travel boycotts not only hurt those who rely on tourism, but they do them a huge disservice too by denying them the light of a global, watchful eye.

Travellers have the unique ability to shine and keep a spotlight on destinations, governments and issues that would otherwise be allowed to operate in secrecy, and at the same time the ability to expose locals who may be suffering under a regime or political or ideological oppression to the ideas and hope that the whole world does not agree with that stance or operate in that way.

It can also be argued that by isolating a community away from outside thoughts and paradigms only increases the power of the thing that you want to boycott in the first place, increasing the gap between opposing, extreme ideologies instead of creating bridges and dialogue.

Travel boycotts take that power away. It is far better to shine an international light on a problem than to ignore it.

Travel is a wonderful, powerful force for good in the world. It brings people together, people from different backgrounds, races, cultures and creeds, and shows everyone that despite our unique differences that we are fundamentally the same, and those differences can be celebrated. By boycotting destinations, by removing that powerful force for good, the world will be a far more isolated, disparate and extreme place.

Is there a better way?

Mass boycotts of entire countries are largely the result of the outrage culture that is prevalent in society now, a knee jerk reaction that rarely looks at the nuances of any given issue or provides any real answer beyond outright condemnation and demands for a scorched earth policy. Travel boycotts are by definition a sledgehammer to a singular ethical or moral injustice with no sense of scale or awareness of conflation of the issue.

That does not mean however that boycotts are a powerful tool when used in the sparingly in very specific circumstances. When used with pinpoint precision against very specific businesses or individuals they can have a much more positive effect.

There is a huge difference between holding one specific company or organisation to account over a single issue and using a boycott as a way to take punitive action until they ‘reconsider’ that specific unethical policy, and boycotting an entire country where the only people who suffer the impact from a blockade are those businesses and families who rely on tourism to earn a living.

I myself for example have called for boycotts of specific organisations supporting captive dolphin attractions, and very specifically for the boycott of the despicable Tiger Temple in Thailand. Calls that incidentally had a lot of impact.

But despite the fact that I find the Tiger Temple in Thailand extremely offensive and reprehensible that does not mean that I believe a call for everyone to boycott Thailand as a whole. Thailand has its problems don’t get me wrong but on the whole it is an amazing, wonderful country with a great culture and amazing people, people that rely on travellers to provide them an income through their hostels, guesthouses, street stalls, food courts and other tourism orientated businesses.

I personally find the abortion bill in Alabama horrific in many ways and on many different levels, yet I know that not everyone in Alabama supports it and I would be happy to visit the amazing state of Alabama again in a heartbeat.

I can’t personally stand the current President of the United States, yet will still happily visit the US. I’m not a huge fan of my own government options here in the UK but will still come home.

Destination wide boycotts make no logical sense when dealing with these issues.

What I will do however is on a personal level not support specific businesses that profit from or support those policies, actions or paradigms that I fundamentally disagree with.

And I do understand to an extent the argument made that travellers don’t want to give their money to a regime, or be seen to support a moral or ethical injustice by spending their hard earned money in those destinations just to have it go straight to that government, but that doesn’t always have to be the case, and this paradigm is causing more harm to the local population than they are having any affect on the injustice or the regime they disagree with.

I will go to places like Zimbabwe or Myanmar or Brunei for example, where I may not agree with their regime or their specific politics but will ensure that as far as possible I will choose to stay with locally run guesthouses, eat at small local street stalls or support local travel related businesses.

I travel to discover the culture of a destination, meet it’s people and hear its stories, and when I do that by travelling as slowly, locally and ethically as possible that rarely has anything to do with the political regimes or their ideologies, and it is those small, local decisions that make the difference.

Boycotting an entire country based on something you disagree with is ridiculous, often pointless and frankly more than a little close minded. I won’t do that.

What I will do is make moral and ethical decisions on the ground as to what specific businesses or tours or operators I will support based on their actions on various issues.

I support many zoos as part of an ethical and responsible wildlife tourism industry, but I will do my research and not go near any zoo that does not live up to international animal care standards. That doesn’t mean I will not travel to any country that has bad zoos in them.

When I come across wildlife attractions that I find unethical but didn’t know beforehand, I will simply refuse to support them with my money and walk away as soon as possible after letting them know why, such as the horse riding at Mount Bromo or the elephant safaris at Minneriya National Park, but that does not mean I will not go to Indonesia or Sri Lanka again.

I wrote about unethical elephant tourism more than six years ago now when there was very little information or awareness on the issue of elephant rides, and will in general boycott those specific businesses that still offer those services and are refusing to do anything to improve. Instead I will go and suport the ethical alternatives or those that are making significant steps to improve animal welfare.

That type of boycott works, and works well. Just look at the awareness around unethical elephant trekking now and look at the positive changes that are being made industry wide as a result of these actions.  A universal countrywide boycott did not do that. Specific boycotts implemented where they will have an actual impact and raise awareness did.

That is a very, very different thing than boycotting an entire country.

It is about being part of an impactful solution, not ignoring a problem.

A personal choice.

At the end of the day the moral stance you take is yours and yours alone to make, and I can’t make that for you. No one can, and nor should they try.

There are of course a variety of other personal factors that can come into play as well, if for example a destinations stance on LGBTQ rights puts you at physical risk then obviously that should take priority in ways that it won’t for others, but that is not always the case.

If you choose to boycott a destination over a specific issue because you just feel like you cannot bring yourself to support it in any way shape or form, or feel like that specific issue is one step too far for you personally then that is down to you, you have to make a choice based on your own moral principles after all and that is fine.

But calling for a mass boycott by everyone of an entire country, region or destination is an entirely different thing. Travel and tourism can in many more cases than not have far more of a positive impact than a negative one.

Travelling the world and immersing yourself into a culture, allowing yourself to see the reality of life as much as is possible is a much better way to ensure you can connect to and better understand the issues involved, and much more likely to care about them as a result, rather than hiding yourself away at home in a boycott.

Did you enjoy this article? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below or on my Facebook or Twitter pages and please feel free to share it with any or all of the social media buttons. If you want to get more great backpacking tips, advice and inspiration, please subscribe to updates via email in the box to your right.

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Michael Huxley is a published author, freelance travel writer and founder of Bemused Backpacker. He is also a charge nurse by vocation with an interest in emergency nursing and travel medicine, but his real passion is travel. Since finding his wanderlust a decade ago in South East Asia, he has bounced from one end of the planet to another and has no intention of slowing down.

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Posted in Responsible Travel, Travel Talk
37 comments on “Should Travellers Boycott Controversial Destinations?
  1. Ali says:

    Such an interesting post! I had heard of travel boycotts before, with that furore over Brunei in the news not so long back, but honestly it’s never been something I have looked into so much and had no idea of the ethics behind it, especially the negative side of them. Thanks so much for such a thought provoking post.

  2. Simon says:

    I think so many of these ‘boycotts’ are a result of the current professionally offended cancel culture that we have in society, and I think a lot of the time it is about virtue signalling far more than it is about taking a moral stance on any given issue. As you very rightly say the issues with specific governments or laws or whatever often have very little to do with ‘on the ground’ tourism for lack of a better word. Great post!

  3. Lisa says:

    A lot of the time when I hear or read about people boycotting a place it is often because of their governments and I worry that in boycotting an entire destination, that hurts all the people, places and things that do not have a voice or role in the government of those places. How else will people who are oppressed or issues around animals or the environment have a connection to the outside world if no one goes to connect with them? We can’t rely on the mass media obviously.

  4. Tim says:

    I hate the idea of boycotts, and it isn’t because it is that I disagree with the issues people are talking about per se, just the way they are choosing to take a stand on it. If people stop going to see what might be going on in a country (even with the relative limitations of tourism) then we are then we are relying on the governments and media of those areas to report on those issues, and that is always the worst option.

    • Very true Tim, and one thing I hate is the false moral outrage by some people when people don’t agree with a boycott, as if we supported the issues instead of just disagreeing that boycotts are a solution.

  5. Hayley Jo says:

    So you would go to North Korea then would you? One of the most disgusting regimes in modern times?

  6. James says:

    Do you not think you are being hypocritical? As a travel blogger you should not be supporting corrupt regimes or anything unethical by travelling to those places.

  7. Aaron says:

    Such an interesting topic. I think a large part of the problem with boycotts is that in very general terms those who say they are boycotting a country do so based on inaccurate information, or even worse misinformation. It is just virtue signalling by just ‘adopting’ a cause they know very little if anything about.

  8. Chris Sankey says:

    I would never boycott an entire country, it’s more than a bit ridiculous and quite pretentious too. I have very strong opinions against whale and dolphin hunting in Japan for example but absolutely love Japan as a country! My not going as a tourist wouldn’t make any difference one way or the other to their fishing industry.

  9. maninahuff says:

    Boycotting on a mass scale is never a solution to issues. I take your point about using it selectively on very specific organisations, yes, but not entire countries. Just people wanting toprove how good they are by making a useless vacuous statement about an issue.

  10. Stefi says:

    The world can be a crappy place full of crappy people doing crappy things to each other, or it can be an amazing place full of amazing people. Neither one will make me stop travelling either way. Politics won’t influence my decision to travel anywhere.

  11. Emma says:

    Travel is all about exposing yourself to new cultures and new ways of thinking. Just because you have a different opinion on something does that automatically give you the right to judge and boycott? All countries have their own customs, relics, habits and traditions that have nothing to do with their governments. I travel because I want to see first hand what is happening, and where I do see things I disagree with, at the very least see it first hand.

  12. Dan says:

    You know, as a solo traveller of almost 9 years now I like to think I’m pretty experienced and relatively savvy when it comes to travel, and boycotting a country based on sometimes transient, often arbritrary political decisions and the fact that yes, evil does exist, just seems ultimately self defeating to me. I’m not put off by issues internally in country, I travel where I like (within legal and practical boundaries of course), I make common sense decisions about travel and I take calculated risks by doing a lot of research. I certainly don’t let moral issues or political decision influence where I go and I make my own mind up on issues based on what I see on the ground as much as what i in the news, unlike many of the boycotters.

  13. Kim says:

    Yes absolutely! I have read all your arguments but at the end of the day if you go to any country like Korea or Syria or anywhere then you are supporting those regimes and that is not acceptable. Simple as.

    • Really Kim? So first off by Korea I assume you mean North Korea, because we wouldn’t want to stereotype a whole other country too, right? So in what way does travel to a country automatically mean you support that regime? Do I automatically become a dictator supporting communist? Do my own ideologies somehow soak up all those of my host country? Perhaps you think I’m giving the regime legitimacy? So are you automatically a supporter of Brexit if you visit London? Do I support Trump if I visit the US or perhaps I’m helping to fund the wall he is so fond of? Not quite as simple as you assume is it, so please, do tell me WHY I am supporting these regimes exactly?

  14. Greg says:

    Yes! I am not giving any regime I don’t agree with my money.

    • So you’d never come to the UK or US if you don’t like the current governments? What about that policy the Australian government had that you didn’t like? There goes that trip to Sydney! Where does this selective boycotting stop?

  15. Alexander says:

    Ah good old moral absolutism at work. You are exactly right when you say who is the judge of what is right and wrong. Great post.

  16. Jess says:

    An interesting thought. My initial reaction is yes, I don’t want to give my money to any destination that persecutes anyone or has regimes I can’t support, but you are right about it not being that simple.

  17. Lucas says:

    Absolutely. We have such privilege to be able to travel at all we have the moral responsibility to not support unethical or evil practices.

  18. Howard Medlock says:

    Some very interesting points and I do generally agree with you on most of them. I do think it os a personal choice at the end of the day though.

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