Why tourists should think twice before boycotting travel destinations

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February 26, 2018, 11:46 AM ·

Should theme park fans avoid certain destinations? Do you have any social responsibility as a travel consumer? And if you do, are travel boycotts even effective?

These questions bubble into the conversation every time I write about the development of new theme parks in the United Arab Emirates and sometimes when I write about China. But they emerge from time to time over theme parks in Florida and other destinations, too. Within the past week, some people have started talking on Twitter about boycotting travel to Florida over the state’s lax approach to gun control.

So what should you do? Are there places you should not consider traveling to visit theme parks, or for any other purpose?

Here’s my take: Let’s start with what ought to be obvious. You should not plan to visit any destination that you are not legally allowed to visit. For international visitors, there are very few countries completely closed to certain visitors. But there are many countries that you cannot legally enter without a visa or proper documentation. So get a passport, do your research and get the necessary visas before traveling to a specific destination. Never try to sneak your way into a vacation.

Okay, that was obvious. Let’s dive into the stickier ethical issues.

In my view, it’s your money. If you don’t want to spend it somewhere, then don’t. Outside of paying taxes and settling debts, you are not under any obligation to hand over your money to anyone you don’t wish to support. If you don’t want to spend your money in Dubai, or China, or Florida, or going to SeaWorld or Disney, then don’t. Go somewhere else, where you do want to spend your money.

But what if you do kinda want to go somewhere, but other people are saying that is socially irresponsible?

Again, it’s your money, so it’s your choice. But I believe that consumer boycotts are typically ineffective unless they cost a business or a community a measurably significant share of its income — something far more than the seasonal variance in the amount of money it makes in any given period. But to do that, a boycott must be (1) well organized, (2) sharply targeted and (3) widely communicated. Unless you are a free-spending billionaire who alone counts of a significant share of someone’s income, your individual business means nothing to anyone’s bottom line. You must organize with others to have an effect. And the target of your boycott must know who’s costing them money, and why.

This is why I think the “boycott Florida over gun control” argument is silly. It’s not sharply targeted enough. Boycotting specific businesses that support the gun industry or supporting campaigns against pro-gun politicians are more sharply targeted efforts. Disney and Universal are not players in the gun debate, so why drag them into this?

I believe that travel does much more social good in this world than having everyone stay at home and never getting to meet or experience people from other regions, countries, or cultures. I think it is better for people in the Middle East, or Russia, or anywhere else in the world to see and meet and interact with a respectful and curious American tourist than to never see an American IRL and have their opinion of my country shaped by people with an anti-American agenda.

Feel free to flip or substitute the names of other counties in that statement, too. We Americans could stand to meet a lot more of the world, as well.

There’s a reason why totalitarian regimes close their borders and why cults work to keep their people from straying too far from the flock. You can’t control a narrative if people are free to meet others from outside the bubble. In general, I believe that travel is an inherently socially responsible act.

Yes, there are places where tourists are collectively now doing more harm than good. I have written before how I dislike how some massive cruise ships distort communities by belching ten times the local population into them for shore excursions. And some destinations simply can’t handle the environmental impact of all their visitors. (I have a fantasy that we pay for the maintenance of our national parks by magically fining $100 anytime someone cuts a switchback on a trail and $1,000 anytime someone guns a motorboat through a shallow channel. And it’s jail time if you don’t pack out or responsibly dispose of your trash. Yeah, I’m a dreamer.)

But it would be the height of irony to withdraw from the world around us in the name of “social” responsibility. So go. Engage. Interact. Learn. Grow. And let’s pop some more of the social bubbles that keep us from working together to make ours a better world. Travel is good for us.

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