Friday, August 30, 2013

On ethical tourism

My latest OpEd in the Kingston Whig-Standard
Clearly the time has already come for some of the snowbirds among us to organize our trips down south during the coming winter months. Holiday resorts across the Caribbean are busily advertising their latest, best deals to us. And aren’t they nice, these ads? Lush rain forests, carefree, friendly locals, drinks on the beach, romance, the lot. You can’t help but think you’re heading to paradise. The reality, in at least some of these countries, is quite different.
Take Jamaica as just one example. I don’t know whether you have missed the easy-to-overlook news about the nearly weekly occurrences of anti-gay violence in Jamaica. A transgender teenager was hacked to pieces by a local lynch mob very recently. During the next few weeks there were several other reported incidents of mobs attacking other gay individuals, prompting the local police to mount rescue missions.
The Jamaican government does precious little to improve the situation of gay people in the country. Male homosexuality is illegal courtesy of an unholy coalition of colonial laws kept alive by the influence of fundamentalist preachers and the sub-standard level of education of the general population. It’s a dreadful situation, no matter how you look at it.
Gay and lesbian Jamaican ex-pats have quietly begun to organize a tourism boycott campaign. Their analysis suggests that, given Jamaica’s dependence on tourism, the government would begin to listen to their concerns if more and more tourists stayed away in disgust at the human rights situation in the country. Of course, one would want to ensure that the Jamaican High Commission in Ottawa hears about our decision. After learning about these issues I wrote to Her Excellency this week that Jamaica, with regret, was off my list of holiday destinations until things change.
But ethical tourism? Really? Should we make choices about our holiday destinations on issues other than location, time, price and quality of the resort? Believe it or not, despite being an ethics teacher, I’m not a fanatic on these or any other matters of ethics. There is little point in asking others to make sacrifices they consider unreasonable, even if I might be prepared to make those sacrifices.
But is it unreasonable to switch from, say, Jamaica to Costa Rica or to a Mexican state that supports marriage equality? How should we decide where to go? Surely Costa Rica or Mexico are also going to have some ethical issue or another! And how long would this whole thing take, anyway, given that all I want is to book a carefree vacation? Fair enough questions to ask.
How should we decide? My suggestion would be to use fairly uncontroversial criteria such as a country’s human rights record, its environmental protection efforts and possibly issues such as educational attainment, health care and other human welfare indicators.
So, with all that, you say, we might not go on vacation at all, because realistically we would spend the next few years figuring out how particular holiday destinations are doing instead of actually going there.
Not quite. It turns out that the Internet, as so often is the case, offers a whole host of websites that actually have done the work on our behalf already. To give you just one example, the site evaluates every country based on the criteria I have proposed. It makes no bones about the fact that there is no perfect holiday destination, but some clearly are way better than others. For this year it has the following top 10 ranking: Barbados, Cape Verde, Costa Rica, Ghana, Latvia, Lithuania, Mauritius, Palau, Samoa and Uruguay.
You could, if you really cared enough, do the legwork yourself. Amnesty International provides excellent country-based reviews of the human rights situations in particular countries that you might consider visiting as a tourist. This would matter to you if you thought human rights should take priority over environmental issues. Environmental organizations provide similar rankings, and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) produces annually a freely accessible Human Development Report. The latter gives you a good indication on whether a particular country government does well by its people.
Are there good reasons against tourism boycotts? Of course there are. For starters, for a tourism boycott on ethical grounds to be useful it should target countries that rely heavily on tourism. It would be foolish to target China with a tourism boycott, because whether or not tourists come or stay at home makes little to no difference to China’s continuing rise.
All you would do is harm businesses and their employees without effecting any policy change at all. That would be a pointless boycott to begin with. So there you have a good argument against a particular tourism boycott.
Another argument goes that if you go as a tourist to places that violate human rights you have a chance to influence what’s happening locally by supporting those oppressed by the country’s majority culture or government. That is somewhat doubtful, isn’t it? In the case of Jamaica you would likely be holed up in a holiday resort and your interactions with “the locals” would be pretty limited.
Also, in all honesty, when we are on vacation we are not usually on a crusade to fix a country’s social ills by organizing demonstrations in the wake of another senseless mob attack, even if we were not prevented by the country’s laws from doing so in the first place. When I’m on vacation I want a break!
But why should we care at all? My view is that we should assist others in attaining better lives, or even just lives worth living, as long as we don’t pay an unreasonably high price for doing so. Even if it does sound a tad bit bombastic, the world really would be a better place if more of us followed this rule. In the particular case of choosing a holiday destination it seems that we would pay a fairly small price by deliberately choosing one Caribbean holiday destination over another based on the country’s treatment of all of its people, its environmental record or any other issues that matter to us.
Udo Schuklenk teaches bioethics at Queen’s and tweets @schuklenk

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