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1 Dec, 2003

WTM 2003 Dispatch 8: To Boycott, Or Not To Boycott

Some countries are still ruled by people considered by Western countries to be dictators and despots. Zimbabwe is one such country. Although it is a superb tourism destination, some say sending tourists there is tantamount to supporting an ‘odious’ regime. Others disagree.

– From the World Travel Market 2003 in London

Eighth in a series of dispatches taking an in-depth look at the issues, policies, strategies and trends that emerged at one of the world’s largest travel trade shows.

1. TO BOYCOTT, OR NOT TO BOYCOTT: Some countries are still ruled by people considered by Western countries to be dictators and despots. Zimbabwe is one such country. Although it is a superb tourism destination, some say sending tourists there is tantamount to supporting an ‘odious’ regime. Others disagree.

2. TRAVEL IMPACT NEWSWIRE’S VIEW: Where does this newsletter stand on the issue? Read on.


EDITOR’S NOTE: In a world declared by US President George W Bush to be divided into for-us or against-us groups, holidays and even convention venues increasingly are being decided on the basis of political preferences. The former British colony of Zimbabwe is one country facing the heat.

In its winter 2003/2004 issue, the magazine TRAVEL AFRICA asked two contributors to present arguments for and against travel to Zimbabwe. Both chose to remain anonymous. The magazine said it had no position on the controversial subject but was presenting the views in order to help readers decide for themselves.

As other destinations are facing a similar dilemma — like Myanmar in the Asia-Pacific region — the arguments made here may apply equally in what is clearly becoming a contentious and thorny issue. These arguments are presented by the contributors to Travel Africa magazine. My own views follow.


There is no doubt that the Mugabe regime is about as odious as any we can remember in Africa. There is also no doubt that the people of Zimbabwe, and to a lesser extent of other Southern African countries, would be better off without him. The questions for us are whether tourism to Zimbabwe props up the regime, and whether its demise might be hastened by a boycott. To answer these, we need to examine how it gains from tourism, and the effects that a ban would have.

The regime benefits from tourism in several ways. Most importantly, there is currently an effective tax on the trade, in that 50% of all its hard-currency proceeds must be converted into Zimbabwe dollars at the official exchange rate of Z$824 to the US$. Since the real exchange rate is Z$6000 to the US$, this constitutes a huge hidden levy (slightly offset should you manage to claim approved expenses ù not an easy task).

Secondly, Mugabe and his cronies profit directly from their private stakes in tourism properties and from safari hunting on state Land concessions. (Currently the properties are in difficulty, but the hunting remains mostly in profit.)

Third, there are the usual direct taxes levied on the industry, a benefit somewhat reduced at present by low visitor numbers.

Overall, the regime and some of its members are undoubtedly continuing to profit (though less now than most people expect) from the present limited tourism to Zimbabwe.

But what would be the consequences of a further reduction in visitor numbers? Naturally, the revenues and perks outlined above would be reduced, though not completely eliminated. It is unrealistic to expect that all foreign tourism would cease.

The problem is that there would be other, unintended, consequences.

The first is the economic and social impact. Prior to the current crisis, tourism was a major contributor to GDP and foreign exchange earnings, and was also creating more new jobs than any other sector of the economy. The collapse of tourism has decimated this contribution causing real hardship. Many jobs have been lost and those affected have not been able to find new employment. There is no social security in Zimbabwe and people have suffered.

Then we must consider the negative impact a boycott would have on wildlife and environment conservation. This has two aspects. First, the only means of surviva1 for unemployed people is subsistence agriculture. This is one of the factors that has made the land grab so appealing to many Zimbabweans; it solves their immediate survival needs. Thus each further deterioration in the economy, with its associated job losses, results in greater pressure on the land. Conservation (of wildlife and the environment) is the most immediate casualty. Throughout Africa this is paid for by tourism (even if indirectly in some instances). If tourism declines, so does the amount of money going into conservation. This is already pitifully apparent in Zimbabwe, and any further reduction in funding would have serious consequences.

There is a further complication: Wildlife competes with traditional farming practices for use of the land. The competitiveness of wildlife use (through tourism) is the major reason why there is still so much wild land and wildlife in Zimbabwe outside the national parks. Reducing tourism relentless undermines the profitability of wildlife as a land use and will result in more land being lost to agriculture. Wildlife suffers yet again.

In conclusion, Mugabes regime does benefit from even the currently limited amount of tourism to Zimbabwe and would indeed suffer if visitor numbers were further reduced. But the problem is that the people — and the wildlife — would suffer more. Both of these are already in so much trouble that further hardship would be intolerable. It is also unlikely that this measure would contribute to regime change.

So, what should caring and conscientious travellers do? I recommend that they continue to travel to Zimbabwe. Now is a good time to go, since you would almost have the place to yourself! But be careful who you deal with. Make sure that you don’t use businesses owned or controlled by the regime (this will take some research) and try to focus instead on those that can demonstrate a real commitment to wildlife conservation and social upliftment. Safari hunters visiting the country should take particular care in this regard.

It is worth making one final point regarding the need for regime change in Zimbabwe. The reality is that there is little anyone in the West, let alone the former colonial power of Britain, can do to bring about a change in government in Zimbabwe. That is in the hands of the Zimbabwean people. When they decide they have had enough, he will go. Not before then. Any efforts by the West that ignore these realities play into the hands of the regime, by allowing it to pull the colonial and race cards, thus increasing the support of other African states, and even some of Zimbabwe’s people. We in the West should take care not to adopt measures that have the opposite effect to what is intended, but serve instead to strengthen the Mugabe regime and extend its stay in power.


Idi Amin has died, Charles Taylor has left Liberia: now we must make it clear that our patience has run out and that Mugabe must go. This is the unequivocal view British Labour MP and former minister Kate Hoey formed during her recent incognito tour of Zimbabwe.

And she also has a message for tourists and cricketers contemplating a trip to Zimbabwe: Don’t go. I think its unhelpful for tourists to go to Zimbabwe, she says. Britons shouldn’t go. The problem is — and it’s a bit like calling for sanctions against food from illegally-held farms — the money doesn’t go to Zimbabweans. The way tourism is controlled its likely to go to Zanu-PF. That money supports the regime and doesn’t help local people.

My real worry is what’s happening long-term to the infrastructure and the wildlife. Rangers are losing control. If Zimbabwe isn’t careful it will have a lot less to offer tourists post-Mugabe when democracy is restored. There are signs of illegal hunting, and, in some areas that have been taken over by relatives of ministers, quotas are being disregarded. Animals are also being killed for food by a desperately hungry population.

Posing as a sports teacher, Hoey saw first-hand the trials of life under Mugabe. She met opposition leaders and those who whispered dissent. She saw how the inflated cost of staples like mealie meal and bread have put such basic foods beyond the reach of most people. Seen filming an empty grain silo she was chased by a truckload of Robert Mugabe’s heavies until, after ten minutes, the chase suddenly stopped, probably because of lack of fuel — a rare commodity.

It was while handing out black armbands at Lords cricket ground in London that Hoey resolved to visit Zimbabwe. Since before this year’s World Cup, cricket has found itself an unwilling player in the Zimbabwe issue. Hoey has no doubt about the stance England’s cricketers should take.

We should be saying now that this new England cricket tour next year — if Mugabe is still ruling — absolutely should not happen. It would be scandalous. We should be saying this now, not leaving it till a month before the tour. (The writer) met lots of people in Zimbabwe who would like to see England’s cricketers in Zimbabwe but say they must not go.

Hoey repeatedly refers to post-Mugabe Zimbabwe, as if such a place is an imminent reality. Is it? Mugabe might not be ruling next year. If it’s shown that there are cases of the politicisation of food aid, donors would suspend their operations. That would really up the stakes. We should be upping the stakes. Clearly the regional powers particularly South Africa and Nigeria — are best placed to negotiate Mugabe’s exit. There is a lot going on behind the scenes to put pressure on him.

I got the sense that even people within Zanu-PF, the clever ones, know the situation can’t go on. In Zanu-PF people with apolitical future are trying to position themselves so they can survive after Mugabe. The situation in Zimbabwe is ridiculous and clearly unsustainable. The country is quite literally falling apart. Among ordinary Zimbabweans there’s no visible sign of support for Mugabe even though many, of course, are scared to voice their opposition.

Mugabes detractors have good reason to be scared, it seems. Its impossible to describe the fear, says Hoey. One man told me how he was blindfolded for three days with electrodes attached to his body, badly beaten, then left for dead by the roadside.

Although Hoey recognises that African leaders and Thabo Mbeki in particular must be part of the drive to restore democracy in Zimbabwe, she’s unimpressed by the South African premier’s approach: Mugabe’s apologists, led by his South African ally, President Thabo Mbeki, claim the solution is their own quiet diplomacy. But it is free and fair elections, overseen by international programmes.

So should Britain be more active in its pursuit of democracy for Zimbabwe? Or would ordinary Zimbabweans resent meddling by their former colonial masters? There is a view that Britain can’t get too involved because Mugabe has been so successful at playing the colonial card and fostering ill-feeling towards Britain. But I don’t buy that. There’s still a lot of warmth towards Britain among ordinary Zimbabweans. Many people of course have relatives in Britain. We’re well within our rights as the former colonial power to take a big interest in this. We wouldn’t ignore a catastrophe like this in another African country and (the writer) rejects the idea completely that we should keep our heads down.

Talking to Hoey one gets a definite sense that the crisis in Zimbabwe is reaching some sort of climax, a showdown between the oppressed and their oppressor which will, she’s sure, lead to the latter’s ejection from power. Half the population of 12 million is fed through food aid, Mugabe’s land reform has seen his cronies installed in agricultural properties. The unemployed farm-workers with agricultural skills who have always worked these fields are prevented, by force, from growing a few crops for their families. The food distribution network is controlled by Zanu-PF. Entire districts that oppose Mugabe are denied food.

And what of the man himself, Robert Mugabe? Will he survive in this land without the protection his office affords him? Its a difficult one that, says Hoey, in a rare moment of indecision. To many in Africa he is still the great liberator. Inside Zanu-PF there’s a debate about who will take over power and how he might be able to go with some dignity and without leaving great anger. But that sort of exit is getting more and more difficult the longer he leaves it.


Bluntly put, tourists should be free to travel to any country that opens its doors to them, and where they would feel safe and welcome by the common people. What individuals do as travellers or travel company owners/operators is up to them, but collectively, the travel & tourism industry has no business boycotting any country for any reason, especially not a political one. If a protest has to be mounted against any regime, let it be taken it up directly with the regime via travel industry associations or their respective governments, but to forcibly discourage tourists from going to any destination is stupid and idiotic.

There are many people in the travel & tourism industry worldwide who were deeply offended by the lies told by the British, American and Australian governments to launch what is turning out to be a highly destructive and dangerous war in Iraq. Many in the Asia-Pacific are deeply resentful of the damage being done to the economies in this part of the world by controversial and hypocritical travel advisories, mainly issued by the developed countries.

Did Asia-Pacific tourism organisations boycott the World Travel Market in retaliation? They could have, but they didn’t. They shouldn’t, and they won’t.

What is the definition an ‘odious’ regime anyway? And who sets that definition? Many think the government in Israel is as odious as the one in Zimbabwe. Yet, they have no intention of boycotting Israel. They would love to travel to Israel. If they stay away, it is not due to the government’s policies but more due to visa restrictions and security fears. The Palestinian economy is in a shambles because tourism, a primary mainstay, has virtually dried up. One cannot go to Palestine without applying for a visa to Israel, an occupying power. And what about China? Would anyone dare to refer to the regime there as ‘odious’ and mount a boycott?

During the Iraq war, Americans chose to ‘boycott’ France and Germany in order to ‘punish’ them over the perceived lack of support for the war. In turn, the US government is making clear that visitors from many Islamic countries are to face extra security checks for visa applications, which has basically sent visitors and students from the Middle East and Muslim countries in a sharp downward spiral. American visitors are avoiding Arab and Islamic countries, partly because of security concerns, partly for personal and political reasons that are tantamount to a ‘boycott.’

Political reasons are not the only ones claimed to justify ‘boycotts.’ Some of these protest groups go a bit overboard in search of reasons. Some years ago, German environmental groups sought a boycott of Indonesia because of its alleged deforestation policy. Others have called for a boycott of Thailand because of its alleged failure to curb child-sex prostitution. Myanmar is being targetted because its regime is also considered as ‘odious’ as Zimbabwe’s in terms of alleged human rights violations.

If governments don’t want citizens of a particular country to visit, they will make it clear themselves by imposing visas, as many are doing. If regular visitors find themselves being harassed, intimidated or otherwise made to feel unwelcome or unsafe, by all means stay away. Otherwise, there is no reason to justify a boycott.

Instead of wasting time on boycotts which hurt the common man on the street, the travel & tourism industry needs to start exercising its democratic right to demand accountability from government decision-makers about policies that create problems for travel & tourism as a whole. This includes waging war, creating conflict and not doing enough to address the root causes of terrorism.

In other words, accountability and transparency should be demanded from all governments across the board. We in the developing countries may have our share of ‘odious’ regimes, but so do the industrialised and developed countries. If tit-for-tat ‘boycotts’ become the order of the day, an eye for an eye will leave the whole world blind, and certainly destroy travel & tourism.

Governments can, should and must be held accountable, but directly and collectively through a peaceful democratic process of lobbying, campaigning, public debate and diplomatic initiatives, in which travel & tourism has a perfectly valid right to participate. The fact that it chooses not to is part of the problem. Boycotts only hurt the common man and business entrepreneur.


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