Travel Boycotts and Why They Are Unethical

“I would never visit that country. Haven’t you watched the news? I don’t want to support said atrocities with my money, I’m not visiting it!!” a traveler once told me last week. In fact, it wasn’t the first traveler to tell me that and I’m sure he will certainly not be the last one.

The country in question? It changes each night. Sometimes it’s a traveler denouncing Israel’s bombing of Gaza, sometimes it’s a traveler denouncing Spain’s posture against Catalunya’s independence and the fact that bullfighting still exists, sometimes it’s a traveler denouncing Russia’s treatment of their LGTB minorities, sometimes it’s a traveler denouncing the U.S. military actions on foreign soil, sometimes it’s a traveler denouncing North Korea’s human rights abuses and sometimes it’s a traveler denouncing the treatment of women in Arab Muslim countries.

Are those travelers right in boycotting the tourism of an entire country just because of their own moral standing against the actions of said country’s government? No, they are not. In fact, they are actually hurting the same people they are trying to defend.

Here’s why.

Israel Mediterranean Coast

The Man of Wonders at Haifa, Israel

The reason why travel boycotts are just plain silly

Let’s just sit back for a second and reflect: Do you really think the tourism industry of any particular country in the world has enough pull with the decisions of their government? Unless we count small nations where tourism is the one and only source of revenue, the rest of the world’s countries do care about tourism but come on…

Do you really think that any country in the world will start to change their policies just because tourism suddenly dropped by 99%? Will Israel suddenly stop bombing Gaza just because tourists are no longer visiting? Would Arab Muslims countries suddenly start recognizing women’s rights just because tourists are no longer visiting?  Would Spain allow Catalunya to secede and actually ban bullfighting just because tourists are no longer visiting?

Yes, sometimes it’s alright to make a moral standing and draw a line between you and the things you will not tolerate. However, you have to realize that you’re not hurting the government itself, you’re only hurting the economy of the country. And a country is not made by its politics. A country is made by its people.

And you? You are taking away the livelihood of innocent people who have no saying whatsoever in their government’s actions.

Israel Mediterranean Coast

Young Israeli boys at Akko

By embarking on travel boycotts, you are just hurting those who need it the most

Just think about it for a second: Do the politicians receive a reduced paycheck if tourism drops? “Of course not, Raphael, don’t be silly” the last traveler told me to which I replied: “I’ll tell you who looses money when tourism drops: Hotel/Hostel and Restaurant owners. And that’s not the end of it. It starts a chain reaction where employees soon will lose their jobs and won’t be able to get back on their feet”.

Engaging on a travel boycott might seem like ethical travel since you’re taking a stand against an injustice, however, by doing so you are committing an even greater injustice since you’re actively causing innocent people to lose their livelihood.

Yes, I totally understand that you didn’t mean any harm to happen to innocent people, after all, you are a good person. But hey, you probably know by now what the infamous phrase says about how the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Let me rephrase it: It is unethical to participate in a travel boycott. Plain and simple.

“So what can I do to help with my moral cause?”

Simple: educate people so they become aware of the issues in an objective way in which you present both sides of the argument. Speak out against governments that allow these abuses to take place but please, don’t take it out against the innocent people of said countries.

Don’t let your anger and impotence misguide your quest for justice. In fact, I would actually want to encourage you to visit those places that you campaign against and search for the truth. Don’t let the media cloud your judgment. Travel, speak out with the locals and be educated in what’s really happening in this amazing world we live in.

And even if your travel experience actually worsens your opinion of the country you were lobbying against, at least know you will have a first-hand account of what happened and you will actually be speaking with enough authority for people to take you seriously.

Don’t just share tweets denouncing something. Investigate. Learn. And yes, love. Because in the end that’s all that matters.


Jerusalem, where tradition is stronger than facts

Jerusalem, where tradition is stronger than facts

19 Responses

  1. Katrina Elisabet

    I see your point, but I do think it’s valid to “boycott” or avoid countries altogether. As an American, I will never travel to North Korea. Why? Their brutal totalitarian regime commits atrocities upon its own people everyday…AND they are known to put American tourists in jail on the pretense that they are “spies.” So it’s as much a matter of my personal safety as my disapproval of the NK government to never travel there while that particular government is still in place. My reasons for not visiting Iran are also due to political and personal safety. There are at least half a dozen American citizens languishing and being beaten in Iranian prisons. I will not travel to a country where I’m likely to be arrested simply for my citizenship or my religious beliefs. Again, I understand the argument you are trying to make, but I can’t fully agree with it.

    • Raphael Alexander Zoren

      One of my favorite travel bloggers who specializes in ethical tourism has been to both North Korea and Iran (she’s from the UK). Ethical tourism is not about boycotting, ethical tourism is about spreading compassion to the world.

      • Grant

        I’m not sure you can say on the one hand that you staying away won’t affect a country’s position on something, but that going there might…

  2. Antonette Spaan

    I don’t entirely agree with you. Sure, it’s sad for the locals that tourists don’t visit any longer but to be honest, if I don’t feel like visiting a country I don’t go, no matter what. For eaxample with their stupid anti-gay rules and now the MH17 thing, I have no desire whatsoever to visit Russia. I don’t want to spend money in a country like that. And I’m sorry for the locals but that’s just the way I feel…

    • Raphael Alexander Zoren

      But where do you draw the line? Most Arab Muslim countries also have anti-gay rules that go way beyond what Russia is doing (in the sense that you can actually get prison time for the sole fact of being gay).

      I think traveling is about taking the good and the bad of a country regardless of what the laws of said country might imply about their shared cultural behavior.

  3. Mytanfeet

    I wouldn’t travel somewhere that is honestly dangerous, so maybe not an outright boycott but just being careful and making sure I don’t get myself into a situation that’s over my head.

    • Raphael Alexander Zoren

      I agree. There’s a difference between a personal travel decision (“I won’t visit Iraq”) and a outright travel boycott (“I will campaign so nobody would ever visit Iraq”).

  4. Jenna

    Interesting points. I agree that people should definitely think about what it really means to boycott traveling to a specific place–sometimes people’s good intentions can do more harm than intended.

  5. The Crowded Planet

    This is a really interesting argument. For instance, I know people who would never visit the US because of Guantanamo. I don’t personally agree with it, but I see their point, and I see the point of Americans not wanting to visit Iran, Cuba or North Korea. As for me, I remember the big debate around tourism in Myanmar up until a couple of years ago. Having a strong desire to visit the country, I went, but I tried my best not to give money to the government (i.e. I avoided paying for tourist attractions and paid locals to smuggle me in instead).

  6. Christine Messina

    I wouldn’t boycott. I would stay away for a bit if I think the area is dangerous but I don;t feel the need to stay away for good.

  7. Lauren | Justin Plus Lauren

    Great topic for discussion! I can understand that boycotting a particular country does hurt the people that live there that don’t necessarily have anything to do with the boycott, and it can really hurt their livelihood. With that said, there are so many places to visit in the world that I won’t necessarily travel to a place that puts me into a dangerous situation or if I don’t think I would enjoy myself there. I think we all have different reasons for travel so it would take a lot for me to outright boycott a country or spread the message encouraging others to boycott. For instance, I might disagree with Japan’s dolphin slaughter yet I will still travel there….heck, I disagree with my own country’s (Canada) slaughter of seals, but I still want to live here. I might write articles and volunteer for organizations that fight against things that I don’t agree with to help make the whole world a better place.

    • Raphael Alexander Zoren

      Yes, I’m actually traveling to Canada next year and the culling of the seal population is a very interesting topic to investigate in terms of tourism since some people from abroad actually travel to Canada to participate in said activity.

  8. Grant

    I can see your point but I don’t completely agree with it. As a gay man would I go to Uganda, a country that recently tried to make my existence a crime punishable by death? No, I would not. Does that mean I will most likely never see mountain gorillas in the wild? Yes, probably. But to go just to see gorillas would be taking selfishness to a new level.
    Taking your argument about travelling to a country to go and learn from locals and “speak out”…well I’m sorry but I wouldn’t out myself in places like Russia/Uganda/Saudi – who honestly would?
    I don’t think my stance will make a difference to a country’s position on LGBT rights, but as an individual I will not spend my money there if I find it intolerable . If I was a woman I’d probably feel the same about Saudi / Brunei / *insert other countries where women aren’t allowed outside without male escorts*

    • Raphael Alexander Zoren

      I totally see your point, Grant. When I encouraged people to “speak out” I meant for them to do so only after their visit to said country, not during it. I would never advice anyone to engage in activities that would get them arrested abroad.

      That being said, most human rights activists actually make the effort and take the risk of visiting the very same countries where human abuse are taking place since that’s the only honest and credible way of denouncing them.

      • Grant

        Completely agree.. But with places like eg Uganda it’s not really up for debate. Twice (at least) now they’ve tried to pass legislation leading to the death penalty for LGBTs