The Week recently ran a story about China’s systematic brainwashing of hundreds of thousands of Muslim Uighurs in a network of high-security prison camps in the west of China. It was corroboration of a pernicious campaign of abuse that the Chinese government has waged against a people based purely on their ethnicity. It prompted Steppes Travel’s owner, Nick Laing to ask what we should do to take a stand.
Nick’s question stimulated an ongoing debate at Steppes which boils down to a simple question; should we boycott travel to countries with abhorrent human rights records? The instinctive reaction, and on face value, the conscionable decision is to stay away. However to boycott a country, ignores the myriad benefits that tourism can bring to local people. Tourism is an essential source of income for millions of people around the world and so by staying away, one can imperil the social and economic situation of local communities, making them more susceptible to the whims of their capricious rulers.
A boycott creates a dark vacuum in which human rights violations can continue to fester. Responsible travel shines a spotlight on such abuses and creates a heightened sense of accountability amongst the perpetrators. Just as important, this level of scrutiny can act as a deterrent, making would-be violators of human rights think twice about their actions. Travellers are rightly ridiculed and criticised for their, at times, insensitive and narcissistic use of Instagram however, when used intelligently, social media can provide a powerful window through which human rights abuses are exposed. But we cannot speak out about issues we know nothing of. Boycotts compound ignorance and may inadvertently give oppressed people the impression that the outside world simply doesn’t care. So, it is far better to travel and engage with local people and the challenges they face in order to develop an opinion of what is happening. From this informed position, we can return home and act as vocal exponents of change in the countries we have visited. We are far more likely to be listened to if we speak from a position of first-hand knowledge and experience.
It is not a question of whether one should travel but more a question of how one should travel. Provenance has for several years been the buzz word amongst consumers when making choices of which food or fashion items to purchase. In 2020, Steppes Travel will be encouraging travellers to give the same considerations to their purchasing, when booking a holiday. If one is to travel to a country where human rights are an issue, then it is paramount that one ensures the monies you are spending reach the local people. It is also important to ensure that you personally encounter local communities – real people living real lives, not people cynically put on show for your benefit.
Travelling to a country that has a poor human rights record is not a tacit endorsement of the regime that perpetrates human rights abuses. As Steppes Travel’s MD, Justin Wateridge says ‘just as I don’t want people to judge me by my government, I won’t judge people overseas by the same measure.’
A boycott hurts the wrong people. It turns a blind eye to oppression and isolates the people being oppressed, leaving the oppressors to act without opprobrium or fear of reprisal. So, we urge you not to rule out travelling to countries where human rights abuses exist but do so from an informed perspective, with sensitivity and compassion. Ask questions before you travel to ensure the cash you are spending will support the local economies of the places you are visiting. Make sure the encounters you have with local people are genuine and not merely contrived for your benefit. Go out of your way to interact with local people – ensuring that by doing so you are not compromising their safety – and listen to their stories and personal anecdotes. And fill yourself with the brave resolve to return home and lift the lid on oppression wherever you may have encountered it.