TO GO OR NOT TO GO: The Case Against Traveller Boycotts

Author: Douglas Shachnow, CTC PATA-Florida co-chair, editor of THE CHAPTER
Posted: Thu 11 Feb, 2010 3:15 PM

When I returned from a recent trip from Myanmar with 5 hours of video material and accounts of a 10-day journey up the Irriwaddy River, I expected curiosity and interest in something unique to cocktail party conversation in my part of the eastern United States.

To my surprise, what I got were stares of contempt. “You went where?” one asked.  From another, I got “How could you travel where the government slaughters innocents? I wouldn’t travel to Myanmar – or anywhere else like that – even if they gave me the trip free. I think it’s a disgrace that any American would consider it. I’m boycotting the place and I think it’s the responsibility of every American to do the same. We have to send them a message.”

It’s surprising how such fanatical parochialism can take possession of persons who otherwise consider themselves sophisticated and worldly.

To the contrary, many upstanding Americans do – and I believe should continue -- to take the opposite tack. While declaring one’s contempt and wanting to send “a message” to tyrants may certainly be emotionally satisfying, righteous indignation unguided by careful reasoning can also take us where we don’t want to go.

First, a boycott of any kind is worthwhile only if it can realistically be expected to achieve its stated purpose. The expectation that a travel boycott would bring down a regime is totally unrealistic. Such actions don’t bring down regimes and tourism by itself doesn’t support them. In most cases the leaders couldn’t care less one way or another; they have other ways to keep their regimes and their lifestyles propped up. There would likely still be a Soviet Union today if the steady stream of visitors there since  mid 1950s had anything to do with it.

 Worse, a repressive government can use a boycott as another weapon against its own people, saying in effect, “See that? They  (westerners) don’t care a kyat’s worth (pr. chot, the Burmese unit of currency), not one bit. They’ve abandoned you!”

 A boycott? What a great way to support  an objectionable regime! Many who would champion this strategy don’t understand that more often it helps the regime it’s intended to damage by encouraging the world to look away and ignore its abuses, at the same time  punishing the hundreds of thousands or millions of ordinary citizens, scraping every day to make a living, none who have any part in the regime we object to. Abandoning them is what should really raise the ire of any citizen of the free world, and be contrary to the values which inspire our concern for the down-trodden.

Everywhere we traveled during those 10 days, pulling up to muddy, rocky beaches, the locals greeted us with smiles and warm greetings, delighted to have visitors from afar coming to spend a few hours, take an interest in their village, their culture, and maybe buy a few local handicraft items. It breeds good will. Even with few resources or power to change the political climate, they can still go to bed at night comforted that some folks from the outside world are watching and caring enough to take the time to come great distances to visit.

In mid 2009, Nobel laureate and leading Myanmar freedom fighter, the embattled Aung San Suu Kyi, changed her thoughts and dropped her opposition to travel to her country.

Now, even with the remote possibility the political climate could suddenly change, it will always be better to be known in her countrymen’s minds as the foreigners who cared in dark times, not ones who stayed away over political differences with a regime not of their own making.

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