Image courtesy of Kunal Mehta via Shutterstock.
Image courtesy of Kunal Mehta via Shutterstock.

Perhaps one of the most contentious travel debates out there is the issue of destination boycotting. There are many reasons travelers call for a boycott, from safety issues to unethical tourism practices to immoral government regimes. And while not wanting to support irresponsible practices or put yourself in danger is completely logical, the truth is there is a lot to be considered before taking the plunge to call for a destination boycott.

All destinations have their flaws; however, when, if ever, should these deficiencies be enough to cut a place off from our tourism dollars?

The Risks Of Boycotting

Travelers’ intentions when boycotting a destination are clearly to condemn unfair conditions, and advocate for an end to dangerous or offensive practices. Besides the ideological message boycotting sends, the act is generally also aimed at fostering change. But the effects of avoiding a broad geographical area, or even an entire country, can extend far beyond what travelers might expect. These effects are most often financial: the state of Arizona, for example, estimates having lost over 140 million tourism dollars in the wake of its 2010 prohibitive immigration reforms.

Yet they can also be personal. Many athletes who were asked to boycott the 2014 Saachi Winter Olympics over Russia’s intolerance of LGBTQ rights felt their individual careers to have been unduly compromised. And boycotting can have misguided punitive effects. In response to the recent push to boycott Bali, as the Indonesian government prepares to execute two Australian citizens on drug charges, former Australian ambassador to Indonesia Philip Flood insists a boycott would merely punish the Balinese people, and have “little impact on the Indonesian government” at all.

Image courtesy of Sorbis via Shutterstock.
Image courtesy of Sorbis via Shutterstock.

Localizing Boycotting Practices

One potential solution to this conundrum is to boycott groups or institutions rather than a region as a whole, protesting specific issues without disadvantaging a broader tourism industry. Boycotts in response to Sea World Florida’s treatment of captive animals, for example, called for travelers to avoid the Orlando water park in particular.

This call to boycott within Florida differed from Stevie Wonder’s approach following the killing of Trayvon Martin; Wonder announced he would boycott the entire state, as well as others which defend “stand your ground” laws. While boycotting only a specific organization in, or aspect of, a destination sends a less sweeping statement, localized boycotting does not necessarily have a lesser impact than blanket boycotts of an entire destination.

The success of a boycott, localized or otherwise, often lies in how the event is publicized. If word gets out about an organization’s unethical behavior, prompting others to adopt the same localized boycotting approach, change can be effected with minimal negative side-effects. This view is shared by Michael McColl, co-founder of Ethical Traveler, who explains that “boycotting is a blunt tool, but can be an effective tool if well managed and well publicized”, referring to the Sea World saga, which was highly publicized through blogs and the 2010 documentary Blackfish. However, by focusing a boycott only on specific elements of a destination, the damage to those uninvolved in irresponsible tourism can be minimized.”

Image courtesy of Eric Crama via Shutterstock.
Image courtesy of Eric Crama via Shutterstock.

Boycotting: Walking a Fine Line

But is it our role to decide what’s best for a destination in the first place? Refusing to visit places like North Korea or apartheid-era South Africa sends a very clear message about our condemnation of such oppressive regimes. But in some cases, imposing distance between ourselves and those in offending areas could help perpetuate issues of cultural and political disconnect. As Dr Harold Goodwin, Professor of Responsible Tourism at Manchester Metropolitan University, remarks, “If you don’t visit then you don’t have the opportunity to exert influence by talking with ordinary people and getting to know and understand views different from your own, and they don’t get to hear your views. Travel contributes to breaking down barriers of understanding and respect between people”.

It’s difficult to judge whether the practical or ideological successes of boycotting outweigh the potential damage that can impact a region’s economy and inhabitants. It can also be problematic to impose sanctions on an entire area due to the actions of a select few, especially if we do not entirely understand the complexities of the issue on the ground.

And yet, as responsible travelers, we are naturally hesitant to visit, and subsequently fund, a place that doesn’t operate in a responsible or ethical way, be it environmentally, socially, politically or otherwise. The key to deciding whether or not to boycott a destination seems to lie in careful reflection and assessment of each individual case. According to Dr Goodwin, “there is no simple answer to the boycott question. You need to think about it.”

In other words, the decision to boycott should not be made lightly.

In choosing whether or not to visit a problematic destination, we walk a fine line between not wishing to endorse or support unethical practices, and not wishing to disadvantage local populations who do not take part in such practices in the process.

Have you ever chosen to boycott a destination? Or have you ever decided to visit a destination you found to operate unethically or irresponsibly? Please share in the comments below.

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Jessica Festa

Jessica Festa is the editor of Epicure & Culture as well as Jessie on a Journey. She enjoys getting lost in new cities and having experiences you don’t read about in guidebooks. Some of her favorite travel experiences have been teaching English in Thailand, trekking her way through South America, backpacking Europe solo, road tripping through Australia, agritouring through Tuscany, and volunteering in Ghana.

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