On my first day in Beijing, my companion and I were stopped by two armed policemen at a busy junction near the Wangfujing shopping street. ‘We’ll need to see your passports’, they said. We explained that we were just crossing the street. They repeated their command, and it became clear that no negotiation was on offer. Jet lagged and increasingly alarmed, we fumbled around in our handbags and pockets. Normal travelling sense would dictate to not keep your passport loose in your handbag where it could be easily lost, but this time our tired neglectfulness came in handy. After a tense eternity, we both found the necessary documents, and the policemen let us pass. We exchanged concerned looks and went on our way – until the same thing happened again a couple of streets later. And later in the day, a third time.
This was in late February 2011, at the height of the Arab Spring. In China, pro-democracy groups had started to assemble in several cities, naming themselves after the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia. Only a few days earlier, there had been a call for protesters to meet at the McDonalds at Wangfujing, right where we had been strolling, however, the movement was quickly shut down. Across the country, activists and journalists (including foreign correspondents) were beaten and arrested. Of course, we could only find out about all this through foreign media, accessed online in our hotel room. The English-language newspapers we read at breakfast were completely silent on the issue. I had of course been made aware of The Great Firewall of China before arriving, but in my growing concern, I tried my hand at testing its limits. Often, the censorship felt laughably obvious; searching for Tiananmen Square on Wikipedia suddenly prompted the browser to seemingly lose connection.
I was only in my mid-teens at the time, but looking back on it, I am unsure if I would have felt comfortable travelling to a country like China during such a tumultuous time knowing what I do now. Not only should I have thought more about what consequences the global political situation could bring for me as a tourist, I should also have reflected more on the ethics of travelling to states where the regime might not go hand-in-hand with my own values. The question I am less sure about is whether or not I should have boycotted China altogether based on these concerns.
In 2015, tour companies are beginning to offer trips to more closed-off countries such as Iran and even North Korea. This has sparked debate about who actually benefits from these trips. Do they offer an opportunity for valuable international interaction and a chance to subvert propaganda, or will the nature of the tourism industry inevitably only legitimise (and fund) problematic regimes? Of course, most of us will not be contemplating the pros and cons of paying North Korea a visit anytime soon, but the questions raised by the more extreme cases also apply to many other countries.
Boycotting tourism to particular countries is a common tool of activists. In 2013, the international activism community Avaaz launched a petition discouraging all travel to the Maldives, in response to an outdated law causing a 15-year old rape survivor to be sentenced to a public whipping. The petition gained over 2 million signatures, resulting in the sentence being overturned, showing the power in numbers that tourists can have. The intention is to ‘hit the government where it hurts’, as tourism is a vital industry to many countries around the world. It is also not rare that the call for boycott comes from within the country itself, as when Aung San Suu Kyi asked tourists not to visit Myanmar in 1999, as this would only support the military regime morally and financially. More recently, last summer, many posts were circulated on social media encouraging the tourism boycott of the Dominican Republic following the government’s proposal to deport hundreds of thousands of Haitian immigrants. Boycotts are far from a radical strategy.
However, boycotts can also be counterproductive – it’s not just anonymous government monoliths that might be reliant on tourism, but local people whose livelihoods depend on it. In the case of the Dominican Republic, many locals protested the boycott, especially as most resorts in the country are not owned by Dominicans, but foreign investors, who have no interest in human rights issues or race relations in the country and would not attribute their loss of income to such causes. A boycott is almost without fail a delicate balance between contradictory interests.
What is certain is that we as tourists could exercise a little more reflection and research more thoroughly the political, social and economic conditions of the place we’re visiting. After all, travelling does mean a certain degree of ‘voting with your wallet’, as we invest our time, money and attention in our destinations of travel. We need to think about what we are supporting and whether or not we are comfortable doing so and undertake a personal sit-down with our own ethical values. It is also important to keep in mind that you are never immune to political instability or social unrest as a tourist: your personal safety might be at stake along with your moral backbone.
In order to make these decisions, you need to gather as much knowledge as possible, preferably before you book your flights. Read up on history, as well as current events. Country-specific guides can be found on sites such as Responsible Travel, as well as the Foreign Office’s travel advice websites. For many countries, it is also important to take extra care with the visa application process, as failure to show a valid visa while there could lead to harsh punishments. It’s easy to imagine worst-case scenarios when visiting countries where consular support is likely to be difficult to obtain, so an extra helping of common sense is usually well-justified. I know I should have carried photocopies of my passport that time in Beijing.
I still feel ambivalent when thinking back on that trip. Despite my ill-advised timing, I still had more amazing experiences than I can count whilst diving into the diversity of the Chinese capital. This is the crux of the problem with boycotts: a country is more than its government. There are ethical arguments to be made against visiting every single country on this earth, but all of them contain small universes of local businesses, activist movements, responsible travel organisations, and wonderful people to support. It becomes an incredibly complex, context-dependent issue. Boycotts will likely remain an important political tool (and rightly so), but they should not be wielded as a blunt instrument.