Tourism boycotts, human rights and politics

*Update: We've removed all our Russia and Belarus vacations in support of a Ukrainian who works for one of our partners and is in Ukraine*

Responsible travelers can sometimes face an ethical dilemma when considering whether or not to visit a certain destination, particularly those with poor human rights records. At Responsible Travel, we promote vacations, not countries - one reason for this being that it is possible to travel very responsibly in destinations with poor ethical records. Conversely, it is also possible to travel in an extremely damaging way in countries with even the greatest commitments to human rights and the environment.

The other reason is that, when under scrutiny, it would be hard to find a single destination which has a clean record when it comes to the environment, animal welfare and human rights. If we were to boycott every nation which treats animals cruelly, we would be left with just a handful of vacations which we would be comfortable visiting. Likewise with the treatment of its citizens: with human trafficking, anti-homosexuality acts, sweatshop labour, illegal wars, capital punishment, government corruption and political imprisonment rife across the planet, where can we promote as a truly ethical vacation destination?

The issues with tourism boycotts
Every month, we are approached by individuals and organisations and asked to boycott entire countries. Botswana has evicted the native San Bushmen from their Kalahari home, the Andaman Islands have been accused of ghastly human safaris, Namibia carries out an annual seal cull, Myanmar's government has virtually condoned the world's fastest growing refugee crisis, Japan slaughters dolphins and whales in their thousands, Thailand treats its elephants appallingly, China boils dogs alive, and Uganda criminalises same sex relationships.

Elephant and San Bushman
San Bushman (Photo by Mario Micklisch) and elephant in Thailand
But a country is far more complex than just one issue. Britain would not like to be viewed as a nation of foxhunters and badger cullers, and America is far more than just racist cops. Many Spaniards oppose bullfighting, and plenty of Norwegians have never eaten whale meat. We do, however, believe that travelers need to be informed of these issues before traveling to a destination - which is why we cover social, environmental and wildlife issues in our travel guides, including tips on how to be a responsible traveler, to avoid contributing to the negative impacts, and support those who need it most.

How can tourism help?
We genuinely believe that in most cases, if you choose a tour operator with a strong responsible tourism policy, it is possible for your vacation to benefit local communities. If you take steps to ensure your money reaches local hands rather than governments then your trip will ultimately be doing more good than harm. Using local craftspeople, hoteliers, guides, farmers and traders, for example, will bring benefits to the people that need it most.

In some cases, tourism can even tackle some of these issues head on. Romania, for example, used caged and dancing bears as cruel tourist attractions. Today, bear watching vacations support keeping these animals in the wild - with income supporting the conservation of their habitat and rangers to protect them. And one of our most popular volunteering trips is in a bear sanctuary - preparing food and cleaning the enclosures of rescued bears.

In Uganda, the indigenous Batwa people were evicted from their forest home to protect the endangered mountain gorillas. Landless and jobless, they have struggled for two decades, but new tours enable them to re-enter the forest as tour guides, and to demonstrate their tracking and fire making skills, plus their knowledge of medicinal plants, before they lose them forever.

Tourism boycotts: the exception
Previously, there has only been one destination that Responsible Travel has a policy of not visiting, and that was Myanmar. There were two key reasons for this. First, this was the repeatedly expressed wish of democratically elected leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. And second, in most destinations with questionable human rights records, it is still possible to travel and benefit local people by avoiding government-run businesses as much as possible. However, in Burma all hotels were government owned, and as Suu Kyi explained, "the bulk of the money from tourism goes straight into the pockets of the generals."

We upheld this boycott for over 10 years until May 2011 when The National League for Democracy (Aung San Suu Kyi's party) released a statement to say that they welcomed respectful, small scale, responsibly operated tourism to Burma.
  • To read the full history of our boycott see our page on why we lifted our Burma boycott after 10 years.
  • Read more about our stance on visiting Myanmar, particularly in light of the current Rohingya refugee crisis, in our travel guide - and learn how to ensure your vacation there is as responsible as possible.

What you can do
  • You should consider whether you will enjoy the trip and have a clear conscience afterwards. Any responsible traveler would not enjoy witnessing animal cruelty or degrading tribal experiences, for example.
  • Consider the wider message you are sending out if you do decide to visit a particular destination. For some people, this is not a factor in choosing a vacation, for others however, the political implications of being seen to offer approval to a certain destination, are a real issue.
  • Choose tourism ventures that have responsible tourism policies and guidelines in place.
  • Support local people, not governments. Buy from local craftspeople to bring benefits to the people that need it most, stay in locally owned hotels and guesthouses, eat at local restaurants and use local guides.
Can tourism boycotts ever work?
While we do not generally support boycotting countries, there are some instances in which boycotting can be a very powerful tool. At Responsible Travel, we are often alerted to tourist attractions – such as the Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage in Sri Lanka, and Thailand’s Tiger Temple – which have extremely poor animal welfare records. After looking into the issues and speaking with wildlife and animal welfare organisations, we removed these attractions from our site and urged our travelers to boycott them.

As a result of our captive orca campaign, we also encouraged tourists to boycott attractions with captive orcas or dolphins. Here, boycotting can be extremely effective as these attractions exist purely for tourists; if the visitors stop, then SeaWorld or the Elephant Orphanage is forced to close. It also sends out a clear message to other similar attractions that public opinion is changing – and riding elephants, drugged tigers and performing orcas are no longer what people want to experience. Conversely, refusing to visit Botswana because of its policy towards the San people would make virtually no difference to the country as a whole – and particularly not the government – so a reduction in the already small number of visitors is just not significant enough to have an impact and force the government to change its policies.
Written by Justin Francis