Does Boycotting a Country Do More Harm than Good?

Boycotting Russia

After travelling to a country, have you received comments from people about why they would never go to that country on the basis of morality?

I’ve received this kind of response after visiting China, Russia, Burma and surprisingly even Norway and Iceland.

I appreciate these comments often come from a good place; boycotting a country is to send a message of nonacceptance and can also be the pressure needed to eliminate injustice. Or so that is the hope. But in reality does it do more harm than good? How does it affect the lives of the local people? And is boycotting hypocritical?


How can boycotting a country often be hypocritical?

The same people who said they wouldn’t go to China due to animal welfare, go to Spain where Running of the Bulls is still celebrated, or the Faroe Islands where hundreds of whales are slaughtered in an event called grindadráp. Even my own country has an abominable link with fox hunting, which although banned in 2005 is in talks of being lifted after the Conservatives woefully reached power again.

The same applies for human rights too. China has appalling human rights, but so does America and most people wouldn’t think twice about going. I was living in China during the 20th Anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre and as a result I experienced a complete crackdown on internet freedom – days at a time I couldn’t properly log into my email, YouTube was down, and so was Facebook. Access to the internet is a space where the collective conscious can share thoughts, it gives oxygen to people restricted by political policies, it gives power to the people and that’s exactly what China’s government did not, and still does not want.

But for all China’s flaws, America doesn’t fall short behind. This is a country where capital punishment still exists. Time and time again it’s proven that innocent people have been charged for crimes they didn’t commit so how can we have a system that puts people to death when the system is utterly flawed?  This is also a country where the likes of Chelsea Manning, and if they could, Edward Snowdon, are imprisoned. Heroic people who sacrificed their own freedom in order to give us more freedom and protect our right to privacy are treated like criminals of the worst kind.

America is a fundamentally good country. We have good people with good values who want to do the right thing. But the structures of power that exist are working to their own ends to extend their capability at the expense of the freedom of all publics ~ Edward Snowden

Here, Snowden highlights a very important message; the government and people holding autocratic power have their own agenda and it does not involve or represent the average Joe. Knowing this, is it fair to boycott a country because you disagree with traditions or beliefs operated within that country when they are often not the views shared by the mass? Are we punishing innocent people instead of working together to bridge cultural understanding and aid change where necessary?

Most of us will probably live in a democratic country, we are privileged to vote for a government which bests reflects our own policies but the likes of Russia, China and Burma do not. If we boycott these countries we are making the people greater victims than they already are. Not only will they suffer economically, but we strip them from the valuable chance to learn from different cultures through interaction.


Boycotting makes victims of innocent people

For years I planned to go to Russia with my twin brother, but after the anti-gay propaganda bill was signed in 2013, and countless cases of violence against homosexuals were brought to our attention he told me he didn’t want to go. He’s gay. I respected his decision. Safety is paramount and if the tables were turned I’m not sure I’d want to go either.

Last year, after thinking about it for a while I decided to go. I found the people to be much warmer than I had expected. I suspect most Russians are repulsed by the warped ideologies of their government but they cannot react through fear of punishment – look at the amount of political prisoners they have… So for that reason alone it’s important to visit these countries to support the locals and the LGBT community, instead of isolating them further by our refusal to enter.

With a government like Russia that denies freedom of speech and sexuality, we receive a really perverse and biased expression of Russia’s social views.  It might look like the majority are homophobic but it’s going to look that way when it’s illegal to show gay propaganda.

However, would I feel any difference towards Russia if the majority were homophobic? No, I wouldn’t. It means we just have to make a greater impact. We can collaborate with the LGBT community, think of more creative, emotive ways that chip away at the conscience of those who have been born into an environment where deep-rooted prejudice exists.

Would we blame a child for showing signs of aggression in the playground if violence within the home is normalcy?


If boycotting isn’t the answer then what is?

I don’t know about you, but many of the greatest lessons I’ve learnt in life usually come from the result of learning through interaction with others. If there were a graph that showed an increase in social progress, I would put money on it correlating with increased multiculturalism.

In opposition are boycotts, which I would argue do not generally make admirable contributions to social progress (I’m not talking about boycotts against companies, that’s a different thing and something I’m usually in favour for). On the contrary, people who are passionate about achieving some moral outcome – less discrimination toward sexual or ethnic minorities – should try and promote this into their everyday lives. For example, employers who want to eradicate racism should hire employees from different ethnic minorities, because that’s how change actually happens. When you’re abroad, question where your money goes. Are you just feeding the fat cats, or is it going into the local economy and filtering its way down? We might love a bargain but at what cost does it come at? Sometimes it’s better to spend more on something like clothes or food if it means it’s sustainable and locally produced.

The idea of trying to find sustainable and active ways to tackle unethical problems within a country is highlighted beautifully in this article by Dale and Franca from Angloitalian titled, 8 Responsible Alternatives to the Tiger Temple in Chiang Mai. Instead of boycotting Thailand for its unethical treatment of animals, they decided to put their travel experiences and proverbial pen to good use by writing a comprehensive guide of other activities within the area. Trust me, when you’re in Chiang Mai you’re bombarded with reps trying to lure you to elephant shows and tiger zoos, so it’s easy to get the impression that there are no alternatives. Without stepping foot in the country, neither Dale nor Franco would have been able to offer their first-hand advice towards improving tourism and promoting activities that work to put a stop to animal cruelty.

If we remove ourselves from societies, which effectively boycotting does, then how can we expect the undesirable behaviour of these countries which abhor us to compassionately change? We are shown time and time again that acceptance happens after coming into contact with our fears. If I can use my own family as an example, my mother’s parents were against her marriage to my father, she was born an Irish Catholic and my father being a Buddhist Chinese at the time was not a man her parents would allow her to date. I don’t want to call them racist but their actions all pointed towards that.

Mixed marriage
My parents on their wedding day in Asia after my mother eloped.

However, after time, my grandparent’s attitude began to change and they eventually embraced my father.

The point I’m making is that the acceptance of my father would not have happened had he not reached out his hand and kept it there until my grandparents were ready to take it. They may have been slow on the uptake but the relationship grew organically and respectfully.

Being personally touched by something can be a huge game changer, and that’s exactly what my hope is when travelling to countries deemed controversial.

We need to show peaceful acts of love and support not coercion. People don’t change overnight.


What are YOUR thoughts on this? Has your opinion changed?

For more insight and personal perspective on this subject, read Should We Avoid Travel to Controversial Countries? By Angloitalian.

A travel & culture blog specialising in Scandinavia and the Arctic, peppered with the rest of the world in between.

'Does Boycotting a Country Do More Harm than Good?' have 21 comments

  1. June 4, 2015 @ 10:30 pm Wesley Pechler

    AMEN! Preach it! Seriously Shing, this is one of your best articles yet and I completely agree. For every country you visit there are at least a dozen problematic laws and human rights issues or neglect of animal welfare that people are quick to use as a reason not to visit. But honestly, the only boycotting that works in my opinion is either product boycotting or public boycots by high-profile people at high-profile events, such as the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, where many world leaders refused to come due to the recent anti LGBTQIA legislation.

    If we’re talking LGBTQIA rights, all of Africa (except South-Africa of course) should be boycotted next to Russia, and the damage you’d be doing the local population (including the minorities) with the loss of income would be far more severe. Considering animal rights, just boycot every country and try to live on the moon, because where there’s not a problem with feeding glass to stray dogs or dancing bears or whale hunting, there is mass-scale factory farming as we do here in the Netherlands, the wonderful emptying of the oceans with giant crawlers that are destroying all sea life, or travelling circusses that still perform legally with wild animals.

    I always think it’s a bit hypocritical that people who are telling me they’d never travel somewhere for one of the reasons you mentioned only do not do so because they particularly care about that issue and probably never really had a wish to visit that country. They’re cherrypicking their idealism. Of course I’d love it if every country I visited was egalitarian with a balanced redistribution of wealth, equality between the sexes, no discrimination based on the social construct we call race, animal-cruelty free, full equality and respect for all gender identities and sexual orientations and completely CO2 neutral but alas.

    I’ll use your article next time someone tries to convince me it’s a bad idea to go somewhere!


    • June 6, 2015 @ 12:26 pm admin

      Wesley! We are exactly on the same wavelength. I was going to write how boycotts only work by high profile people too because they have the social influence to highlight an issue that otherwise might not get any ‘airtime’. However, I also think they have a moral obligation to see the long-term affects of boycotting and whilst it’s beneficial that they do it, it’s not a practise that everyone else should do. It’s a tricky one isn’t it?

      ‘Cherrypicking’ is the perfect term to highlight my bugbear. Some people who are quick to judge countries and declare a boycott are those who have no desire to go in the first place, but they turn a blind eye to countries with poor animal rights within Europe because it inconveniences their summer holiday. Or eat battery caged eggs, or wear make-up tested on animals. The list goes on. Boycotting companies is a far greater way of improving the lives of people and animals. Boycott the clothing companies that use child labour in India, but don’t boycott India have having child labourers. It makes no sense.


  2. June 5, 2015 @ 4:41 am CL (RealGunners)

    I still remember the time when basically the whole world (with China leading the charge) wanted to boycott Malaysia because of the MH370 incident. It wasn’t a pleasant time to be a Malaysian on cyberspace.
    I think people usually only go on the boycotting route when they experienced something that directly affects them/contradicts with their core values personally. If everyone would take a step back to calm down and think objectively every time shit blows up, the world will be a much tolerant place.


    • June 9, 2015 @ 5:56 pm admin

      MH370 was a terrible situation for Malaysia and for all the friends and families of the victims who were involved. I can’t really understand, on this occasion, how boycotting Malaysia could help the situation…


  3. June 5, 2015 @ 7:19 am Megan

    this is a weird one for me and very circumstantial. i actually had a discussion about this the other day w/ my boyfriend. he stated he would boycott the russian world cup due to their laws against homosexuality. i challenged it for very similar reasons- just stating that if youre in russia for the WC, you will interact with russians and have more influence over them than you may realize. i have a friend from st. petersburg who once told me that she would never visit the united states because there are black people there. i would never stop being her friend for that remark; she is simply ignorant and has not been around people of varying color to change her mind. minds dont get changed from whats on television. i find it the same with gays visiting russia. although i understand why many wouldnt go, the only way for russians to change their views is to meet people. russians dont travel and have very little opportunity to meet other people. nevertheless, i told him it was no different than boycotting his country for all the shame they have done over the years with their empires (slowing the development of many nations down massively), imposing religion on people, etc (he is a brit). anyways, i ‘won’ the discussion in the end as i have been to russia and could explain things from a first hand perspective while he was just going off of the same shit the media cries about over and over.

    on the contrary, i will boycott the qatar world cup if it ends up taking place there. im hoping it gets moved, however. i actually never wanted to visit dubai due to their human rights issues (i dont think the US can be directly compared to many countries as you stated, especially when coming to capital punishment which is more the exception than the rule or security as i worked in military intelligence and know a vast amount about the subject and disagree w/ what snowdon did full heartedly). i went there on an unavoidable layover recently and while i enjoyed myself, i still feel a little put off by having spent money there. if i can travel to a country and help change the minds of people or getting to know them and their ideologies behind stuff, i have no issue doing it. but in dubai itself, 95% of residents are not emirati. that is actually a factual number. the city is filled with filipino girls working long hours for no money and the obvious slave labor that built the city up. had it not been for the layover i had, i would never book a ticket there ‘for fun’. the same goes for qatar.

    animals rights is a whole ‘nother arena for me. lol. while i will visit places with horrendous animal cruelty records (canada, china, vietnam, etc), i will never ever partake in anything that would be of harm to animals. i wont eat whale, i wont buy ivory, i wont indulge in a bowl of shark fin soup, etc. i am also 100% people traveling to antarctica. im pretty extreme with animal rights and im sure im not in the majority with things, but that is just how i feel.

    anyways ive rambled too much haha! this is a great post and goes to show that travel is what enhances our minds and perspectives- and if i can do my part as a traveler, im going to do it. i just gain a bit more apprehension in places like dubai where the people arent as accessible and the government is treating people like their puppets to such an extreme.


    • June 9, 2015 @ 8:30 pm admin

      Hi Megan, it’s great that you challenge your boyfriend on his views, these kind of debates are vital for change (and on a side note: a healthy relationship hehe!)

      My intention of writing this wasn’t supposed to sound like I was pitting countries against each other in any way, but rather a way of highlighting how we have a tendency to jump on Asian countries for wrong-doings, and a strong tendency to turn a blind eye to what’s happening on our doorstep when we have a much better chance of making a difference.

      The point you made about Russian people not travelling much and therefore having the opportunity to meet people from different backgrounds is a really important point, and it applies for a lot of other countries. We have the luxury to travel and we should do it as thoughtfully as possible.

      I’m with you on so many points, boycotting practises, traditions and institutions within a country is much more effective than boycotting the country where its happening e.g. saying no to shark fin soup and whale. And whilst I won’t boycott countries, there are still place I have absolutely no desire visiting like Dubai.

      Thanks for your interesting response Megan!


  4. June 5, 2015 @ 2:57 pm The Guy Who Flies

    You raise a great debate Shing and it really is a diverse moral argument.

    Often people can boycott somewhere on political or cultural grounds and as a result many innocents suffer. I do however like Dale and Franca’s approach to trying to be considered travellers and how you can avoid being drawn into tourist areas which you disagree with.

    Many popular countries for travel are low income countries so the locals really need our tourist money. Is it fair that we deny them this because of something someone else did which they also don’t agree with?

    I must admit that there are 3 countries on my “don’t want to visit” list and they are primarily there for political reasons. (One of them you’ve discussed above.) Yet as you highlight, you can find fault with virtually any country you choose. We’d then end up not travelling anywhere and find fault in the country we are in.

    I guess the most pro-active thing to do is support the innocent and lobby the guilty.


    • June 20, 2015 @ 9:30 am admin

      Hi Guy! Dale and Franca set a great example,. I’m with you, there are countries that I don’t really want to visit, but I wouldn’t encourage other people to boycott them because it should be a personal decision, and I know boycotting a country affects innocent people.

      It’s supply and demand, if we don’t get involved in the activities that abhor us and put our money into more socially/environmentally responsible activities it will hopefully put pressure on all companies to change their practise to benefit society and the environment if they want to keep their customers.


  5. June 5, 2015 @ 10:52 pm Colleen Brynn

    I’m definitely not for boycotting countries. I traveled to Russia and Siberia 2 years ago, for example. I even met two boys there, a couple, travelling as “brothers”. I was impressed with their cojones to go for it! Last year, I went to Qatar, and the appalling working conditions many Nepalese and Indians find themselves in didn’t stop me. I think it’s also important to see these places and if possible, the very conditions we deem unacceptable. Deciding to not see these places doesn’t change anything. But you are right – it is important to be wary and aware of where our money goes.


    • July 24, 2015 @ 12:41 pm Shing Yoong

      Hi Colleen, I’m pleased you agree. It’s easy to turn a blind eye to things by not travelling to certain countries, instead at the very least we should be writing and talking about the problems we encounter.


  6. June 6, 2015 @ 10:43 am Charlie

    Power to you. This is an outstanding article, definitely your best yet! I one hundred percent feel the same as you do with regard to boycotting of countries – I can understand the feelings and thought processes of those who choose to do so, but I think that we are much more empowered by taking those experiences on board and, each in our own way, looking at how we can promote our own ethical values and beliefs.

    As you pointed out, I think that also many people just don’t realise that in “Western” countries like the USA and the UK, that many of us call home, we also have issues which are problematic and it’s important for people not to get caught up in a stale old East vs West binary where we somehow think that the situations in our own countries are superior, or as I’ve sadly heard said before “more civilised,” than those who live in Eastern European, Asian, third world or any other countries. We equally have policies and values and laws which many natives and foreigners will disagree with – and yes, we want people to write about them, talk about them and make positive changes.

    In my opinion the only real reason that people should have for choosing not to travel to a controversial country is a legitimate fear for their safety. As you say, safety is important and I don’t think that people should be expected to overlook that in order to visit a destination where they would feel uncomfortable, restricted or scared. However, it’s important to be thoughtful and to discuss these issues rather than claiming that you think somewhere will be unsafe without actually having researched the country and it’s people – I have unfortunately seen many people write off travelling to countries because of a misguided belief about the culture there.

    Thanks again for sharing your thoughts on this, very insightful and lots of food for thought. I hope that your words will also keep empowering people to travel further and spend their money locally and responsibly 🙂


    • July 24, 2015 @ 1:47 pm Shing Yoong

      Hi Charlie, thanks for your response, I know we feel the same way on a lot of topics relating to travelling because I appreciate and agree with so many of the things you write. What you do is fantastic and so many people benefit from reading your blog, what’s more you promote companies who are doing their part to make this world greener and more socially unified.

      I’m tired of the West vs East binary too. And the really sad thing is that we are not born with these prejudices…


  7. June 6, 2015 @ 1:45 pm Franca

    I completely agree with you Shing, boycotting a country is not the solution and certainly doesn’t help solving the issue that the country might have, in actual fact it might make it even worse. As you said if people don’t go to a country because they don’t agree with some of its policies or for other reasons, the people that live there will miss the chance to have a confrontation to who has a different opinion therefore they’ll miss the opportunity to make a change if they’d want to.

    As you said changes don’t happen overnight and the only way to help it’s to ‘educate’ and raise awareness, it’s up to who ever listen to then make up their minds and hopefully change for the best.

    Incredibly well written piece and thanks a lot for the mentions 🙂


    • July 24, 2015 @ 1:58 pm Shing Yoong

      Hey Franca, thanks for writing your piece first which encouraged me to write this. Your blog is a great resource for anyone wanting to know more about responsible tourism. I thought the article you wrote on Chiang Mai tackled the problem of irresponsible tourism to the region really well. Sometimes it’s difficult to know what’s right from wrong when it comes to animal cruelty because it can be a very hush, hush topic and that’s why your list of alternative activities to tiger temple is so important. But had you not been you would probably have never written it.


  8. June 6, 2015 @ 3:32 pm Antonina

    Wonderful article, but well, I’ve never phrased it like that, but I guess I do boycott countries. If a country makes you go through hell in order to obtain a visa, may them go to hell themselves. I understand the reasons of making it so difficult for an average Ukrainian to visit Austria or Switzerland – the immigration law was violated countless times and the governments are trying to prevent it, But when you feel so unwelcome, boycotting a country is merely a measure of self protection – instead of going mad while gathering all the ridiculous and irrelevant, but “very important” documents, why not just go to Thailand, or India, or Peru?


  9. June 7, 2015 @ 2:01 pm AJ Walton

    Hi Shing,
    As a Canadian currently living in Russia I can relate to this quite personally. Most people think I’m crazy for being here, if not immoral for my apparent implicit support of all the power structures here.

    Of course, that’s not the case, and being on the groud I can confirm the accuracy of what you were saying – we can’t confuse the population with the power structure.

    It’s taken me an entire year to just BEGIN deconstructing some of the stereotypes I have about Russia, and it will no doubt still take time. So in this sense, I think it’s even more imperative that we get first hand experience (like Dale and Franca) to understand what’s actually going on.

    That being said, the decisions we make while there are also important – traveling “blindly” through a country that has a social/political stance we don’t agree with can make us part of the problem, as you talked about with the tiger zoos in Chiang Mai.

    In short, I think the best way to change anything we don’t like is involvement, not boycotts. Provide/support a better alternative and lead the way.

    Cheers from lovely Russia,


    • July 24, 2015 @ 2:24 pm Shing Yoong

      Hey Andrew, living in Russia must be such a learning curve. It would be interesting to read some of your discoveries and how they compare to the stereotypes you held before going…


  10. June 8, 2015 @ 10:07 am Victoria@ The British Berliner

    This is a lovely post Shing and you’re right, a physical boycott isn’t always the answer. Most of the time the only way forward is to be on the ground and see things for yourself. In many cases, things can be far worse than we think, closer to home. I live in Germany and I first came to visit 20 years ago, you won’t believe how many people told me not to visit, not to talk of live here.
    I also used to live in the former Eastern Bloc and ditto. I’ve been to Vietnam and I’ve been to India. Somebody said earlier that looking for alternatives or even interacting and meeting the local people speaks volumes as most policies, rules and regulations have nothing to do with the man in the street and possibly, they’re even against it, but how would one know?

    I’m not perfect and even in my time I have boycotted a country due to politics. I still felt that it was the right thing to do but it was unfounded and when I eventually went a few years ago, I found the people to be warm, friendly and delightful. And what country was that you might ask?

    The United States!


  11. June 8, 2015 @ 5:28 pm Clay

    Such of an awesome post. You make great points. Thanks for this, it’s refreshing. 🙂


  12. June 12, 2015 @ 4:38 pm Victor

    Great article. You are right. But any boycott is not stupidity of people, but governments.


  13. June 27, 2015 @ 6:37 pm Ted

    Couldn’t agree more. Accepting people for who they are and their culture along with them is part of the traveling package (otherwise stay home). I find, in not a few cases, the non-acceptance is based more on what the media have fed them, than personal experience.

    For instance, we in the West tend to think in absolutes, whereas most of the “East” are relative thinkers. Once you accept that and just relate to the people where they are at, the whole thing changes and you realize that there is a lot more to them than meets the eye.

    I have begun relationships with those folk and that’s a precious thing.

    I’m actually in Pamplona at the moment and have found nearly everything I have been fed about it is outright misrepresentation or a pack of lies. Reality is a whole different ball game.


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