Last week Stevie Wonder hit the headlines when he announced in the wake of the Trayvon Martin decision that he would not be visiting Florida until the state changed its ‘Stand Your Ground’ laws. He wasn’t alone. A travel boycott of the state at online campaign site Moveon had gathered 12,073 signatures by 21st July. Elsewhere there were calls for a travel boycott of Dubai, following the news that a Norwegian woman who had been raped while there was herself being sentenced to 16 months in jail for ‘drinking alcohol, having sexual relations outside of marriage’. She has since been ‘pardoned’. And on my twitter feed as I sat down to write this article, a campaign was asking me to boycott Namibia due to its continuing seal cull.
A quick search of the internet brought up further travel boycott stories concerning Uganda for its treatment of homosexuality, Alaska for allowing wolf hunts, and the Maldives over human rights abuses. The web has made it easy to create and disseminate such protests. But has it made them more effective? Has their omnipresence reduced them to online knee-jerk reflexes with all the real world impact of a Facebook like, or made them powerfully immediate expressions of our collective ire? And how should companies and individuals working in responsible tourism respond?
History of travel boycotts
The origin of the travel boycott can meaningfully be traced back to Apartheid South Africa. The sports boycott, which in 2008 Desmond Tutu said: ‘played a crucial part in our liberation’ may be the best known part, but there was also a wider travel boycott. Certainly growing up in the 1980s I felt that South Africa was ‘not somewhere you went on holiday’.
More recently the long-running tourism boycott of Burma was only lifted by the Burma Campaign in 2011 when Aung Sun Kui’s NLD party announced it now welcomed “visitors who are keen to promote the welfare of the common people and the conservation of the environment and to acquire an insight into the cultural, political and social life of the country while enjoying a happy and fulfilling holiday in Burma.” Responsible tourists, in other words.
This had been a very effective campaign, in no small part because it focussed on the companies involved. Since it was lifted Burma has moved rapidly – many would say too rapidly – from mustn’t do to must-see list, despite the fact the Burma Campaign actually still has a tourism boycott in place – only now it’s just on package tours. Such nuances usually get lost in the rush to have something new to promote.
Do they work?
The examples of Burma and South Africa suggest such protests can be effective. Likewise the 2011 travel boycott of the state of Arizona over controversial immigration laws cost its economy $141m in just seven months. And 2007 research by the Co-operative Bank valued UK travel boycotts alone at £817m. According to Corporate Ethics International: “The reality is that the mere awareness of a boycott causes the target constituency and its supporters to attend more to criticism of their government’s or companies’ policies and inevitably they become more aware of the legitimacy of the criticism.”
However, just as the media often misses subtleties in a campaign like Burma’s, so too it is possible for those calling for a boycott to miss their mark and cause unnecessary harm. On three occasions in the last few years I have encountered high profile tourism boycotts whose targets I considered misplaced, despite agreeing with the issues on which they campaigned. In one case, following a considered challenge from several in the Responsible Travel community, a company was removed from their campaign. (I am not naming the campaigns or the companies they targeted because such boycotts rely upon publicity).
The mountain gorilla is probably only alive in Uganda thanks to responsible tourism. Namibia’s wildlife has not suffered as badly as in many other African countries from poaching, mostly because of its community-based tourism model. But both would suffer if the countries were shunned as a result of unrelated campaigns. As David Macray wrote earlier this year concerning a proposed boycott of Bangladesh clothing following the factory fires: ”the problem with boycotting a particular brand name or, as has been suggested, any item bearing a “Made in Bangladesh” label, is that you hurt the wrong people…if a boycott were anywhere near successful, factories would be shut down and jobs would be lost. It’s a double-edged sword.”
When one single issue campaign comes up against another single issue, who is to say which should be prioritised? Are human rights more important than the climate? Do gender issues trump conservation? Your answer will always depend on where your passions lie. And even when it is as seemingly clear cut as, say, Apartheid South Africa, there are always realpolitik counterexamples that can be offered, depending upon your political perspective, of countries equally deserving of boycott as those cast out.
So where does all this leave those working for Responsible Tourism? The answers are not simple, nor should they be. Slogans may need to be catchy. But the issues behind them are inevitably multi-faceted and demanding of constant and complex analysis when making a choice in how to respond. Responsible Tourism is about making these choices. It’s about ensuring and believing that my presence, as traveller or travel business, is ‘making better places for people to live in’. And because we seek to respond to local conditions in the most appropriate way, there can be no one-size-fits-all answer.
Yes, tourism boycotts work. Sometimes. But not always in the ways intended. And we need to address each one on its merits. Because in our ever-online world only one thing about them is certain. They aren’t going to go away.