‘Gun Control Australia’ calls for US Travel Boycott: ethical travel and boycotts

An Australian gun control campaign group are calling for a boycott on travel to the USA following another mass shooting in the USA. Image: Boston waterfront skyline by Stefano Montagner licensed under creative commons via flickr.

An Australian gun control campaign group are calling for a boycott on travel to the USA following another mass shooting in the USA. Image: Boston waterfront skyline by Stefano Montagner licensed under creative commons via flickr.

10th October

Following the recent mass shooting in Roseburg, Oregon, the Director of Gun Control Australia has called on Australians to cease all non-essential travel to the US in protest against the country’s policies on gun control. Whilst this call for a travel boycott is likely to have little impact on traveller numbers, it sends a strong message. Travel boycotts have become a popular and often controversial form of protest; for example just recently there have been calls to boycott travel to Zimbabwe over the sale of baby elephants to Asian zoos, and boycott of The Maldives over human rights.  More famously, travel to South Africa was widely boycotted during Apartheid, and until recently travel to Burma was boycotted in protest against the military dictatorship there (some campaigners still maintain this boycott, despite the call for it to be lifted by Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition party in 2011).

Many tourists are keen to make ethical choices about their travel; and whether such boycotts are effective in bringing about the changes they intend, or whether they end up only harming ordinary people who depend on tourist revenue, is a hotly debated topic. With tourism making up a tenth of the world’s GDP, the economic power wielded by travellers is certainly immense; and for some countries and regions a travel boycott could potentially be economically devastating. In many cases it can be hard to ascertain the extent to which boycotts do reduced tourist revenue, let alone what impact this has had on changing the policies and practices of the places being boycotted. In 2010, a boycott of tourism and conventions in Arizona in protest over the state’s newly tightened immigration laws led to losses of $141million in tourist revenue, a figure reproduced in a number of ethical tourism resources to illustrate the impact of such boycotts. However, these losses only represented approximately 0.8% of tourist revenue for Arizona – the Grand Canyon state – and there is little evidence that the economic impact of the boycott changed the state’s policy.¹  The greatest impact of a boycott in many cases may not be economic so much as it is about publicity and image, about providing a space for publicly expressing disapproval. According to Corporate Ethics International: “The reality is that the mere awareness of a boycott causes the target constituency and its supporters to attend more to criticism of their government’s or companies’ policies and inevitably they become more aware of the legitimacy of the criticism.” In her discussion of the boycott of the Guatemalan tourist industry during the dictatorship of the 1980s, Jennifer Burtner reports that the travel boycott had a huge economic impact, reducing tourist revenue by over two-thirds. But, the loss in revenue itself did not stop the regimes’ human rights violations (the regime responded with publicity and advertising campaigns countering the protestors’ claims). What the boycott did seem to do, though, was to have “a catalytic effect in mobilizing the Guatemala international solidarity movement… [to increase] news coverage of the political situation… and … to keep the image of indigenous Guatemalans in the public eye and in that way to keep the Guatemalan State accountable.”²

Conversely, tourists can choose to use their economic impact to aid causes they support, by example through volunteering and ensuring that their money goes to local people rather than state-run or multi-national corporations. Gorilla tourism within Rwanda, Uganda and The Congo has played a major role in saving mountain gorillas from extinction by raising awareness and money for their protection. The relatively small number of tourists spend per capita large amounts meaning that the impact on local environments and cultures are relatively small but the economic impact is large, supporting the running of national parks and providing incomes for local people so that they have a financial stake in the gorilla’s survival.

In this context, international travel has become a consumer good, and consumers can choose to exercise political power through their choices of what and where to consume. Some academics have even described this “political use of tourism as a means to conduct international politics” as a “political weapon.”³  The economic, political and ethical roles of travel are a central concern to the Independent Transport Commission’s Why Travel? project. The project aims to better understand why we travel in the ways that we do, with the ultimate goal of using this understanding to improve the decisions we make about travel. Integrating perspectives from across the sciences, arts and humanities, the project looks to the past, present and future of human travel. For more information on our research as well as regular news items and talks from travel experts, please see our website www.whytravel.org


¹According to a report by think-tank Center for American Progress http://www.reuters.com/article/2010/11/18/us-arizona-boycott-idUSTRE6AH55W20101118#XeKafxlix9WuH8Yc.97

²Boycott as Political Instrument, Jennifer Burtner, 2002. http://revista.drclas.harvard.edu/book/boycott-political-instrument-case-guatemala

³Tourism as A Force for World Peace, Jennifer Burtner and Quetzil E. Castaneda, 2010. http://www.osea-cite.org/class/quetzil/Castaneda_&_Burtner2010_Tourism_as_Peace_Force.pdf