How Effective Are Travel Boycotts, Really?

Some travelers have decided to forgo travel to places whose politics don’t match their own.

How are social issues affecting travelers’ choices about where to visit—and spend their hard-earned vacation dollars?

How social issues are affecting travelers’ choices about where to visit and spend their hard-earned vacation dollars.

Illustration by Melanie Lambrick

San Francisco couple Kemari Ombonga and Akosua Agyepong were weighing a classic decision: Should they stay, or should they go? Move home to Ombonga’s native North Carolina; to Texas, where Ombonga had family; or remain in California? Despite the pull of the past, the decision ultimately came down to each state’s politics, particularly around abortion control and gun regulations. Yes, California had a higher cost of living, but the more progressive state won their allegiance.

They also had similar conversations about where they wanted to travel following the fall of Roe v. Wade.

“It’s a bit tricky,” says Agyepong, who moved to the United States from Ghana last year. “It’s a layered decision, especially when it comes to [the question of] where do I want to travel to? Where do I want to live?” They found there were no simple answers to either question, with Ombonga noting that several states with the strictest abortion restrictions are in the South, where the largest African American population lives—a population that has historically been subjected to oppressive policies. While they said they didn’t want to move back, not traveling to see family—scattered across Louisiana, Texas, and Florida—wasn’t an option, either.

The two run Ashure Travel, a travel consulting and management company that helps businesses book flights. From a business standpoint, they decided to offer support to their employees who might need access to an abortion after the overturning of Roe v. Wade.

“What was a very easy decision was making sure that all the women in our organization felt like they had safe access to their medical care and felt supported,” Ombonga says. “And not just lip service, but financially as well.”

The more complex choice, he says, was communicating the business’s stance without alienating staff and potential clients with opposing views.

“That’s kind of been tough to reconcile. But at the same time, if we have to lose a few people or clients to stick to our values, I think that’s a small price to pay.”

The two say they’re no strangers to using travel as a force for change—Ombonga used to volunteer with Miles4Migrants, a nonprofit that books travel for people displaced due to war or conflict, and he has booked travel for clients in the path of hurricanes in his native North Carolina, to help get them out of harm’s way. That there could be a need to help book travel for people seeking abortions, he says, “doesn’t [feel] any different.”

How travel companies respond to a changing policy landscape

The travel industry largely stayed out of the political fray following the overturning of Roe v. Wade last June, with just a few airlines and travel companies like Airbnb publicly saying they supported reproductive rights. Seattle-based Alaska Airlines said it would continue to cover the costs for employees seeking reproductive care.

“Today’s Supreme Court decision does not change that,” the airline wrote to its employees in June 2022.

Others took a more nonpartisan approach. Chicago-based United Airlines sent out a memo to its thousands of employees worldwide, calling the topic of abortion “an emotional one” and encouraging employees to be empathetic and respectful of one another when discussing the issue but otherwise did not take an official position. (Roe v. Wade is codified into law in Illinois, with Governor J. B. Pritzker saying in a statement that “abortion will always be safe and legal here.”)

Individual travelers take a stand

The fall of Roe is just one of several examples of how a change in U.S. policies affects the daily lives of so many citizens and travelers, from abortion rights to gun control and LGBTQ+ issues. Travelers have ample places they can go to spend their vacation time and money. What happens when their personal politics conflict with the policies of a given destination? How are social issues affecting travelers’ choices about where to visit—and spend their hard-earned dollars—within the United States?

In the immediate aftermath of states enacting trigger bans, some travelers, like Twitter user Carolyn Higgins, who travels throughout the United States by RV, said they would boycott states with restrictive abortion laws on the books.

“No travel, no products from their key industries or largest employers. Who’s with me?” Higgins wrote in May.

The notion is that visiting a destination with policies one opposes demonstrates a degree of support for those policies. Others, like Twitter user Jonathan Field, say steering clear of small-scale cities and towns often punishes people and businesses that had no part in developing the laws in question. Field took issue with the term “boycott,” which he says was disrespectful to the “[people] that have to live in those places.”

How effective are “travel boycotts”?

Let’s look at a recent issue: The NAACP this month issued a travel advisory for the state of Florida, citing Governor Ron DeSantis’s “aggressive attempts to erase Black history and to restrict diversity, equity, and inclusion programs in Florida schools.”

“Florida is openly hostile toward African Americans, people of color and LGBTQ+ individuals,” the NAACP wrote in its travel advisory. “Before traveling to Florida, please understand that the state of Florida devalues and marginalizes the contributions of, and the challenges faced by African Americans and other communities of color.”

DeSantis hit back at the group, with his office calling the advisory “nothing more than a stunt” (he also took aim at the NAACP during his GOP presidential launch this week).

A travel advisory such as this is unlikely to dissuade most from visiting the Sunshine State, which had nearly 138 million visitors last year—a record—with the bulk coming from domestic travel.

While both Ombonga and Agyepong believe boycotts by individuals can be effective, grassroots work helping marginalized communities—such as going door-to-door and having conversations with people—can be just as successful, if not more so.

“Boycotting is definitely one of the tools in the toolbox,” Agyepong says, “but the question is, is it going to do what we need [it] to?”

There’s a long history of successful boycotts that have resulted in significant policy changes. The most well-known in the U.S. is, perhaps, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, during which people boycotted the transit system in Montgomery between 1955 and 1956 to protest racial segregation. While the social impact was clear, there was also a significant financial hit to the transit system: The strike, which lasted a little more than a year, cost the city an estimated $3,000 per day and resulted in up to 40,000 lost bus fares each day.

More recent forms of protest have included boycotting Trump hotels, forgoing travel to North Carolina over so-called bathroom bills that denied transgender people the right to use public restrooms that aligned with their gender identity, and to Georgia due to a voting law that required people voting by absentee ballot to show identification. An Associated Press analysis found that the bathroom bill would have caused North Carolina nearly $4 billion in lost business. (The bill was later repealed.)

For Kristin Luna, a travel writer and photographer based in Nashville, the issue isn’t as clear-cut as simply boycotting a destination. Luna points to Kansas, where voters overwhelmingly rejected the state’s proposed amendment to ban all abortions. According to Luna, Kansas showed that what happens inside a statehouse doesn’t necessarily represent the feelings and positions of the people outside it.

“Having grown up in a more rural region, I see the impact of tourism and hospitality,” says Luna, who lives in the town where the Jack Daniels distillery is located. “It’s definitely a town where a lot of businesses wouldn’t survive [without tourism],” she says, “and having traveled so much, predominantly in the Southern states, I’ve seen a lot of small businesses who’ve been able to build a sustainable model because they have so many tourists coming in a year.”

Tourism is a $17 billion industry in Tennessee, where Luna lives, employing 150,000 people. She argues that politicians and corporations won’t feel the strain of a travel boycott, but small businesses still recovering from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic certainly will.

Building bridges versus boycotts

The U.S. Travel Association, the nonprofit representing the interests of the U.S. travel industry, has a very clear position on travel boycotts.

“Sweeping out-of-state travel boycotts won’t change laws, but they can decimate communities that rely on visitors,” says Tori Emerson Barnes from the U.S. Travel Association. “Travel bans harm travel industry workers who do not make public policy decisions, ultimately hurting the very groups that ban advocates claim to support. The bottom line is travel is an activity that brings Americans together and should not be a tool that causes further division.”

Several states that enacted trigger bans rely on tourism to prop up their economies. Mississippi, for instance, generated more than $400 million in 2021 for the state’s general fund—money used for state operations and programs—from tourism. Travel jobs were the fourth largest in the state, according to the Mississippi Development Authority.

Rather than expressing displeasure with a destination’s policies by boycotting it, Luna suggests supporting the local people and businesses you feel your values are aligned with when you do visit.

“I feel like we’ve come to this point in society where people are being more mindful where their dollars go anyway,” she says. “Apply that same mindset to how you’re traveling.”

The choice to travel (or not to travel) to a U.S. destination where you may disagree with its policies and where you may not find support if you do need resources is, ultimately, a personal one. But some would argue that there’s also a case to be made for the role travel can play in bringing people together and in helping to build bridges of understanding—perhaps even more so amid divisive times.

“It is always important to continue to have conversations with people, for us to see both sides,” Agyepong says. “I think that is the only way that we can make progress.”

This article was originally published in October 2022. It has been updated with new information about the NAACP travel advisory for Florida.

Victoria M. Walker is a travel reporter and the founder of the travel lifestyle site and newsletter Travel With Vikkie. She is a special correspondent for AFAR.
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