To Boycott or Not: No Easy Answers

travel boycott BurmaIf you want to get in a heated discussion with a group of travelers, one sure-fire winner is to bring up which countries should be avoided on moral grounds. At least one person will usually argue that the answer is “none,” others have memorized the lists of which places have the worst human rights records, and the remainder will fall somewhere in the middle. For once, there’s an article on the subject that manages to be brief and balanced at the same time, in June’s Budget Travel. (It also quotes Ethical Travel hero Jeff Greenwald.)

It mentions the Freedom House “Map of Freedom” in the article but doesn’t link to it, so go here. There are some interesting traits on that map, such as the fact that Thailand is an oasis of freedom among lots of repressive neighbors. That Russia and many of the “stans” are not places where you’re going to find intense public debate over the issues of the day, or newspapers telling you the real deal. Or people smiling a lot, for that matter.

As anyone who has read The World’s Cheapest Destinations knows, I tend to side with the boycotters much of the time. I don’t like the idea of my money going into the pockets of regimes that are holding people back, and it’s very hard to avoid giving them money in the spots on the globe that are the worst offenders. I’ve never been to North Korea, Burma, or Cuba and probably won’t set foot in any of them until the leadership changes. That day may be getting closer in Cuba, but reality is that the old “tourism fosters change” argument has been proven completely baseless in that country. Tourism has just created a class of (relatively) wealthy prostitutes and provided much-needed hard currency for the regime. Not that isolation has accomplished anything either, I’ll freely admit. When you’ve got an entrenched dictator in place who rules with an iron grip, one who won’t let anyone leave the country, there’s not much that’s going to rattle the status quo no matter what strategy you follow.

The best advice in the article, whatever you choose to do, is good advice for anywhere really. “‘Buy local, stay local, and hire local,'” says Malia Everette, director of Global Exchange’s Reality Tours. Choose privately run B&Bs and inns over government-owned hotels and buy souvenirs at community markets.”

If you can engage people, do, but that’s easier said than done in a county like North Korea where the whole population is brainwashed from sunup to sundown. More likely, you’ll come away just feeling depressed and maybe a bit more thankful you were born where you were. I once asked a Canadian friend about his time in Tibet. He thought for a moment and just replied, “We felt the need to really drink a lot there. Getting numb made it easier to take.”

Tourism in sensitive areas:

Black Market Biking (Cuba), by Lea Aschkenas

A Railway Runs Through It (Tibet), by Michael Buckley

Check out the September issue after 9/1 for a story set in Turkmenistan, another bizarre place run by another bizarre leader for life. Should we all pile in a plane and go there…or not? I’m leaving the room for that argument.

  1. Jennifer Campbell (US citizen now living in Australia)

    This is such a tough topic! Really….

    By and large, the reporting about the harsh dictatorships comes from a western viewpoint, with western values. I’m not disagreeing that there a vast number of countries which fall into this basket — but once you leave the continental US and live elsewhere, you get an entirely (as in 360degree) different set of reporting without the UScentric slants and biases.

    As you say, no easy answers :(

  2. tim

    Agreed. I’ve lived in Turkey and South Korea, and have a little house in Mexico, so I can see where a wider viewpoint is necessary.

    The real test, regardless of “western” or “non-western” values is, are the people free to leave and go elsewhere? If the answer is no, that’s not a country, it’s a prison.

  3. Marie

    As are so many things, boycotts should be viewed on a case-by-case basis. To me, a major factor is: Who is asking me to boycott? If the boycott is driven internally, you bet I’ll honor it. If someone in an office in the US or UK asks me to boycott… well, I’ll read up and make my own decision.

    A good example of a way around supporting governments but still helping the people is Zimbabwe–if you’re in Zambia, you can go on a day pass (no visa) to Vic Falls, and you can go to the crafts market and use hard currency to buy all kinds of things straight from the (hungry) people. Then you go back to Zambia, having not given Mugabe’s goverment USD 30. At least I think the day pass is still valid…

  4. tim

    This Just In. If anyone still wonders where their tourism money goes in Cuba, check out this description of his brother Raul, who is currently leading the country. From The Week magazine:

    “Officially he is first vice prsident of the Council of State and second secretary of the Cuban Communist Party. In recent years, he’s also overseen the country’s increasingly lucrative tourism industry. But it is as defense minister and ‘maximum general’ of Cuba’s armed forces that he holds the greatest sway.”

    Western values or not, when a guy who has led (and participated in) firing squads and runs the armed forces is also in charge of where the tourism revenues go, well, take a guess on where those beach holiday funds are ending up.

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