The Guilt Trip

Should travellers boycott dodgy nations?

Words: Lee Tulloch

Have you been on a Guilt Trip lately?

You know the kind:  you’re travelling in a picturesque but impoverished country where food, service and the prices of goods are astonishingly cheap because of low wages, and you do your bit for the local economy by spending up big in hotels, restaurants and shops. All the while, though, you’re feeling a tinge of guilt that your tourist dollars may in fact have propped up some dodgy regime with a poor human rights record, one that exploits or oppresses those same friendly citizens who were so eager to sell you a sarong by the side of the road?

The world is a moral minefield at present, with alleged human rights abuses in some of its most popular destinations. If you’re a sensitive traveller and wish to navigate your way around them, there are some hard choices to be made. Do you avoid travelling to the UAE because of the way its guest workers are treated? Do you boycott the Maldives because of its appalling record on women’s rights? Do you avoid Shanghai until the Chinese stop imprisoning dissenters?

And if you do, does it do any good?

I’m not convinced about boycotts, which isolate the people of a nation from the outside. Besides, calling for tourists to boycott a destination is rarely effective. They’ll voluntarily boycott a country when it becomes dangerous, like Egypt, but try to stop honeymoon couples from holidaying in the Maldives because on another island, hidden from tourists, a 15 year-old girl has been given 100 lashes for being raped, and you won’t have much luck.

Beautiful Sri Lanka is a case in point.

I travelled through Sri Lanka a couple of years ago in the most comfortable of ways. I journeyed with a small group of people and at our disposal we had a driver, tour guide and host.

I tried not to be an obnoxious traveller. I read quite a bit about he country’s recent history before I went and I spoke as often as I could to Sri Lankans –  Buddhists, Hindu and Moslem – not because I felt I was obliged to, but because they were delightful.

I’m not convinced about boycotts, which isolate the people of a nation from the outside.

The tour operator, Seven Skies, was ethical and extremely knowledgeable about the country. Our guide spoke honestly about the political situation. But I can’t pretend to have been much more than a pampered tourist on that trip. You’re not experiencing the hardscrabble realities of Sri Lankan life from the pool at the five-star Amangalla, which was a very seductive place in the heat.

I can hear the Guilt Trip nagging away at me. Did I inadvertently endorse the suspect human rights record of the Sri Lankan government by travelling there? In my defence, I was on a holiday, not a fact-finding mission for Amnesty International.

I’m not advocating that visitors to Egypt link arms with the protestors in Tahrir Square but certain countries do demand a level of awareness about the social and political situation beyond the confines of an international resort. At the very least we should respect the lives of the people who invite us into their country by understanding the circumstances under which they exist.

It shows fundamental courtesy to visit a country armed with some knowledge of that country’s current affairs. And quite selfishly, travel is made more interesting with the illumination of knowledge. There’s really no excuse for blissful ignorance in this age of mobile information technology. In my opinion, ignorance is never blissful anyway.

Some people go further and give back, by spending part of their holidays working in impoverished schools, for instance. But I’ve never heard a person who has volunteered in this way talk about anything other than what they were given in return.

In Sri Lanka’s case the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace & Justice is running an Ethical Tourism campaign that lets you know which resorts and tour operators are actually legitimate local businesses and those to avoid on grounds of alleged human rights abuses. If you’re going there with a group, as I did, check that you’re not staying in hotels run by government cronies. There are many good and ethical places to stay.

It doesn’t have to be a Guilt Trip.



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