Should the travel industry boycott certain destinations, and how impactful would that be?

Saudi Arabia began issuing tourist visas in 2019 and has since launched a large-scale marketing campaign to attract western visitors to the kingdom. But what are the ethics of travelling to countries with contentious human rights records?

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is the largest country in the Middle East. Home to one of the world’s largest sand deserts, Rub al Khali, it has six UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including the ancient sandstone tombs at AlUla and an astonishing range of landscapes that go beyond arid dunes – from lush oases to mountain ranges and woodland.

Until 2019, only Saudis, religious pilgrims on Islamic Hajj or travellers on official business were privy to the vast kingdom. But three years ago, tourist visas on arrival began to be issued as part of Saudi Vision 2030: a campaign initiated by the Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman (MBS) to modernise the country and reduce its reliance on oil. Tourism is a big part of the plan, with the monarchy aiming to increase the sector’s GDP contribution from its current rate of 3 per cent to 10 per cent by 2030. Vision 2030 aims to create an additional one million jobs in the tourism sector by 2030, with 50 per cent going to women.

This is an indication of huge social change in the kingdom. Before 2017, when MBS became de facto leader, women weren’t legally allowed to drive and conservative dress codes (including full black abayas for women) were enforced by the mutawa religious police. Now, Saudis are enjoying new freedoms, with cinemas and concert venues opening since 2019 and foreign visitors beginning to appear in once-segregated public spaces.

Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Tourism has also launched a huge marketing campaign to entice visitors to the kingdom. Social media feeds around the world are filling up with positive images of music festivals and camel rides through expanses of ochre desert. It’s part of an US$800 million cash injection that’s going into remodelling Saudi from the ground up – from building entire new cities to reshaping its international reputation.

But despite some notable social progress and a lot of PR work, Saudi Arabia still has one of the world’s worst human rights records. Amnesty International notes that a crackdown on freedom of expression has actually increased under MBS. Human rights activists and government critics are arbitrarily detained, migrant workers are systematically exploited and courts ‘extensively’ resort to the death penalty. So far this year, 92 prisoners have been executed in the kingdom, and crimes punishable by death include homosexuality, converting to a religion other than Islam and extra-marital sex.

Many of the women’s rights activists that fought for the recent, hard-won progress for women’s rights are still in prison, and those that have been released – like high-profile activists Loujain al-Hathloul, Nassima al-Sada and Samar Badawi – are banned from travelling, public speaking, social media use and human rights work.

Clearly, there’s a clash between the PR image being exported by the Saudi monarchy and the story on the ground told by activists and human rights groups. And for every Instagram picture of AlUla’s golden-sand tombs, there’s a parallel debate storming Twitter, Reddit and Facebook: should travellers boycott Saudi Arabia in protest of ongoing human rights abuses?

Are boycotts effective?

There’s a common counterpoint to the debate: why single out Saudi Arabia?

“There’s less fear of the unknown in places like Dubai, Thailand, Bali, Egypt or China, because everyone knows someone who’s travelled there,” says James Willcox, founder of adventure travel company Untamed Borders.

“But then there’s what’s happening with the Uyghur people in Xinjiang, or the fact that Thailand and Egypt have military dictatorships. These things are overlooked by tourists in well-known destinations, while it’s easy to have the fear of the unknown in lesser-known destinations like Saudi and Syria that have been closed for so long.”

Saudi Arabia’s about-turn when it comes to welcoming tourists has created a sense of decision-making among the global tourism community.

“Saudi is so high profile when it comes to women’s rights,” says Justin Francis, co-founder and CEO of Responsible Travel, “and because they’re new to the tourism market and visibly keen to attract tourism, there’s a situation where we’re asking: how do we deal with Saudi Arabia from the very beginning?”

Those that advocate boycott generally cite the success of the first international boycott movement: the anti-apartheid sanctions that crippled the South African economy during the 1980s and excluded the country from international cultural and sporting events. In 1990, the Anti-Apartheid Movement made tourism a major part of its consumer boycott campaign. It’s generally accepted that the international boycott – both in terms of economic sanctions and exclusion from global events – was instrumental in ending apartheid.

“I don’t see a huge amount of evidence that travel boycotts work, except for in the case of South Africa,” says Willcox. “Boycotts can be effective on a single issue, for example ending apartheid or Russia’s current invasion of Ukraine.

“But when something’s vaguer, I think it’s ultimately going to be divisive.  My question is, what are you trying to achieve by cutting off cultural exchange to Saudi Arabia? It will work in the sense that it will make it feel more alien and further away. And that creates pariah states, like North Korea, where there’s no incentive or desire to make political or cultural changes.”

Perhaps the most high-profile boycott movement today is the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which calls for ‘a boycott of companies and institutions complicit in Israel’s violations of Palestinian rights and international law, including in tourism’. According to Alia Malak of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), boycotting tourism is a key part of the coalition’s campaign.

“Israel uses tourism as a tool to entrench what Palestinian scholars, Amnesty International and other human rights organisations have determined is a regime of apartheid,” says Malak.

“In the occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem, Israel uses tourist sites to […] create a falsified, Israeli-centric narrative. It thus erases Palestinian history or culturally appropriates it.”

However, the BDS Movement is not an entirely successful example of present-day cultural boycotting. Despite a number of high-profile supporters, the organisation has been labelled antisemitic and does not call for any specific outcome for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. According to the New York Times, BDS’s call for boycott has not shown tangible signs of working – despite some notable PR wins. Foreign investment in Israel is at an all-time high, and BDS acknowledges that few foreign governments have imposed any sanctions on Israel. Though many Muslim countries have imposed sanctions on Israel, with 22 countries – including Saudi Arabia – banning flights to and from the country, but many of these predate the BDS Movement.

For Francis at Responsible Travel, coherence across sectors is key.

“I probably get a request from an NGO to boycott a country every week,” he says.

“It might be Namibia, because of how the San people are being excluded from some of their ancestral lands. Other groups say we should boycott Japan, because of the slaughter of the dolphins. But if an NGO asks me to boycott a country, I look at the UK government’s approach to that country more broadly. If a boycott was advocated by the British government across sectors, of which tourism was one, I would take that very seriously. But generally, our government feels that negotiation and diplomacy, while continuing to trade, is the way to go.

“If tourism took a position to boycott when other industries are advised by the government not to, that doesn’t feel appropriate or very effective.

“However, boycotting specific attractions can be very effective – such as the travel industry’s recent boycott of SeaWorld. We have requested boycotts of places such as Thailand’s Tiger Temple or Sri Lanka’s Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, where a drop in tourism will send a strong message to the industry and may cause these facilities to close.”

A personal choice

All tourism representatives interviewed for this story agreed that it’s more effective to run trips to contentious countries in responsible ways than to ignore their existence (the current industry-wide ban of trips to Russia is a notable exception).

“Let’s give support to those who need it most,” says Francis. “The tourism industry is unusual because it gives people in developing countries the opportunity to make a career with very little education and very little privileges. It’s also a huge employer. We know that it’s in the top three industries in terms of employment around the world, particularly for women.

“Tourism employs so many people from marginalised backgrounds that the worst consequences of boycotts tend to fall on some of the least fortunate, while having very limited impacts on the regimes. However, we screen our trips very carefully so that we don’t run any that don’t make a strong contribution to community and conservation.” In Saudi Arabia, this means using local, privately run businesses, although the novelty of the tourism industry there does mean that surveillance of visitors is high.

From the perspective of Saudi women’s rights activist Hala Al-Dosari, who now lives in the USA having been a leading activist in the 2013 Driving Campaign, there’s nothing wrong with visiting Saudi Arabia – as long as you don’t contribute to its regime’s propaganda.

“Go around visiting the culture and the people, but don’t go online and say that all the massive changes there are thanks to the Crown Prince,” she says. “That’s exactly the kind of validation that gives the regime its immunity. I have a problem with influencers that are paid to come to Saudi Arabia and promote its regime. But everyday tourists wanting to discover another country and get a better idea of what’s happening? That’s fine, and people can discover how problematic the regime is for themselves.”

“The majority of our guests at Untamed Borders are interested in the geopolitics of the places they visit, and when they come back, their personal experiences will be nuanced,” says Willcox. “But to be honest, that’s not what the Saudi government wants. They want people to go on cruises, got to AlUla and never speak to anyone. They want organised tourism, which is not what we do.”

Should I go?

Saudi Arabia is wide open to tourism, and whether you decide to go there is a personal choice. However, there are safety and cultural considerations for visitors to the kingdom that perhaps haven’t applied in other countries you’ve visited.

Alcohol is illegal, travellers of all genders must cover up and be careful not to hold hands, hug or kiss in public, and there are added safety concerns for LGBTQ+ travellers. Trans travellers will likely be denied entry to the country if their passports don’t match their gender identity, and gay travellers should set their social media accounts to private before arriving in Saudi. You can be fined for wearing clothes deemed too revealing, wearing religious iconography that’s not Islamic (including crucifixes or the Star of David) or writing social media posts that are deemed to criticise the regime.

“All the safety issues for Saudi people are concerns for tourists too,” says Al-Dosari. “I’d feel insecure not even being able to speak about my safety concerns, in a country where the red line is really vague.” Bear in mind that asking local people direct or leading questions about the regime can put them in dangerous situations, and the Saudi authorities monitor the relatively small numbers of tourists that go there.

For Francis, all this means is that travellers interested in visiting the kingdom should do some extra pre-departure research.

“All good tourism companies should give pre-departure information specific to the destination,” he says. “I really encourage tourists to ask questions of their travel companies about environmental impact, community benefits and human rights – you’re already being a mini activist by doing that.”

And by ensuring that your trip invests in local businesses and contributes positively to the country you’re visiting, you manage to uphold travel’s most unique and powerful qualities.

“We bring together people from different races, religions, backgrounds, income levels and sexual orientations, to have experience and learn from each other, which comes from a place of welcoming and sharing,” says Francis. “In a world that’s becoming more national focused and inward-looking, I think that’s really valuable.”

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