May 28 2014

Thailand: Is it time for a tourism boycott?

Published by at 7:25 am under Coup 2014

Cast your mind back a few years. There was a country controlled by a junta where the democratically elected leader was effectively under house arrest; where politicians were detained with little (if any) access to friends and family; where journalists were detained and/or told “to cheer on” the junta; where there was a nationwide curfew; where public gatherings of more than five people were banned; where the internet was censored; where there were ongoing “issues” with minority groups.

Sounds a lot like Burma to me.

Is the sun setting on the Thailand we knew?

Is the sun setting on the Thailand we knew?

Sadly, today, the above pretty accurately describes Thailand, though at least in Thailand’s case the ousted prime minister has not (yet) called for a tourism boycott.

Is it time for a Thailand tourism boycott?

Tourism boycotts are controversial: Do they really hurt the people and the organisations — that need to be hurt? Or do they primarily hurt the small players — family-run businesses who have naught to do with the political situation?

Uncertain waters.

Uncertain waters.

We subscribed to the Burmese boycott, putting off visiting there for 20 years. And while we believe there remain significant issues regarding travelling to Burma, we have to say we’d never imagined that we might one day be considering levying the same approach to Thailand.

Sure, we’re yet to see slave labour being used to build infrastructure in Thailand but it is ongoing in the fisheries industry. Over the years, there have been massacres against the Muslim minority in the far south and the infamous “war on drugs” — but both took place under affiliated predecessors for the now ousted elected government.

Steady boats are easier to build than steady governments.

Steady boats are easier to build than steady governments.

Here at Travelfish, we’ve been writing about — and encouraging travellers to visit — Thailand for almost a decade (we turn 10 in July). While the country has had its ups and downs, the last few days really feel like it’s reaching a new nadir. We’ve suggested repeatedly that those with plans for a trip to Thailand should keep them in place and only those who are particularly cautious should consider alternatives while now putting plans in place.

But how about those who are not so much concerned about safety, but rather the ethics of visiting a country which has leaders who feel it is reasonable to behave the way they are: to cow the press, to detain anybody for up to seven days without warrant? How much further should the country move towards authoritarian rule before a boycott becomes a reasonable response?

Watch your step.

Watch your step.

With neighbours like Burma (Myanmar), Laos, Vietnam, Malaysia and Cambodia, you could certainly suggest Thailand’s just keeping up with the Joneses — none of its neighbours are bastions of human rights, political freedom or freedom of speech. But really that just makes these recent developments all the more distressing.

It’s true that the vast majority of the country, save the curfew, remains largely unaffected by recent developments. The protests have (largely) disappeared from the streets and people (excepting all-night bar owners!) are able to go about their business. But back in HQ the junta has been busying themselves rounding up and often detaining without charge politicians, journalists and business owners. Who will they be coming for next?

Shall we try and keep it that way?

Shall we try and keep it that way?

Are we calling for a boycott? No. It is early days — the coup is less than a week old — but we strongly feel that Thailand is veering very badly in the wrong direction. Travellers concerned with the ethical issues of where they visit, should be watching closely.

17 responses so far

More still
» Previous post:
» Next post:

Disclaimer always pays its way. No exceptions.

Agoda logo
best price guarantee

17 Responses to “Thailand: Is it time for a tourism boycott?” ...

  1. Thomason 28 May 2014 at 7:34 am

    Two points: If ethics plays a such huge role for the decision to travel to one of the countries featured on travel-fish, you better stay home. Cambodia is authoritarian, Laos and Vietnam communists, Myanmar still under huge military influence, Singapore has no freedom of speech and Malaysia harsh punishments and is elite ruled. And Brunei is implementing sharia law.

    Second: Tourism accounts for 6 percent of the GDP in Thailand. While westerners often think tourism is so important, it isn’t. A boycott from some armchair activists who usually travel on a low budget won’t have any impact, actually doesn’t even get noticed. Compared to the increasing numbers of ASEAN and chinese tourists, westerners are a minority.

    Wanna help Thailand: Get connected with Thai people and start debates, discussions and open their minds instead of destroying some small family business with a boycott.

  2. gabrieleon 28 May 2014 at 8:43 am

    i share the opinion of thomas. i travel around asia since 1998, 2004 i visited myanmar as well, but tried to give no money to the governement travel agency. talking to the local people seems to me the best way to deal with the situation. if the foreigners stay at home, there won’t be any communication with the so called normal people. and by the way, those people who support the coup don’t care for the small money of backpackers, they are wealthy enough to ignore that ….

  3. David Luekenson 28 May 2014 at 9:58 am

    I strongly disagree with Thomas’ statement that tourism – or at least tourism from Westerners – is not that important. The reason is that I have many Thai friends and acquaintances in Bangkok (including my partner) who have suffered financially as a result of these many months of unrest and are now suffering even more. I’m talking about tour guides, tour company operators, boat drivers, hotel owners, receptionists, even taxi drivers. I read that Lebua Hotel alone had 650 cancellations over the last week. If it continues like that, there will be a ripple effect that hurts a wide spectrum of different people, from the big hotel owners all the way down to the cleaning staffs. Tourism makes up a huge chunk of Bangkok’s economy, and Western tourists make up a huge chunk of that (still the majority I would guess). But many Asian tourists are also now cancelling trips, and anyway this article was not directed explicitly at Westerners. Boycott or not, what’s happening here is already hurting millions of people.

  4. Jonon 02 Jun 2014 at 5:21 am

    Sigh! Just what we need, another outsider pontificating on Thailand democracy with a lack of sensitivity to the complex local politics that lead to this. How about boycotting the Shinawatra grip on power, staying away from Thailand until it gets a govt that serves the people not a family. Under Thaksin democracy was heading the way of Indonesia under Suharto, or a civil war which might result in a bomb in Phuket, and I’m sure the author knows all about that, living in Bali. No, this coup isn’t great but it might just be a big step forward towards a real democracy after reform. On the ground here in Thailand I can tell you it’s not much different, there are some draconian early restrictions for the sake of security and avoiding a catastrophic backlash. The junta are hardly the dictators we saw in Burma and they have already pledged to hand power back to the people within 18 months, just as the did in 2006. Without an end to this political stand off, Thailand’s tourism will decline and that will affect Travelfish, the author needs to hold his tongue until he truly is qualified to comment.

  5. adminon 02 Jun 2014 at 5:35 am

    Hi Jon,

    Thanks for the comment. Yes, I live in Bali now, though was in Bangkok for seven years — through the midst of the Thaksin period. Though I’d be keen to hear what life experiences do allow one to be qualified to comment on the developments in Thailand.



  6. syed golam nabion 03 Jun 2014 at 5:26 am

    There is a country controlled by a junta where the democratically elected leader now effectively under house arrest; where politicians were detained with little (if any) access to friends and family; where journalists were detained and/or told “to cheer on” the junta; where there was a nationwide curfew; where public gatherings of more than five people were banned; where the internet was censored; where there were ongoing “issues” with minority groups.

    Free Press free all politician and declare national election as early as possible

  7. Danon 03 Jun 2014 at 7:27 am

    I would love to comment, but I live in Thailand. My family and many friends are Thai.

    Whichever way this goes, Western Tourists can play a part by bearing witness. Regardless of which side of the political spectrum they sit.

  8. Danon 03 Jun 2014 at 7:29 am

    I would like to comment, but I am in Thailand. My mouth is gagged, for now

  9. I cannot say moreon 09 Jun 2014 at 4:06 pm

    We are Thai people who suffer from fake democracy for more than 30 years
    30 years, before the Shinawatra show us what real democracy should be
    Unfortunately, they cannot get us there
    We hope for big change. Much much bigger than this stupid junta, which only lead us to another 30 years of fake democracy.

    The last thing…..
    Read “my name” again.

  10. realityon 17 Jun 2014 at 11:51 am

    if we boycott every country with a government that has questionable ethics, we not only would not be able to travel anywhere, but we also would not even be able to enjoy the place where we live in the first place. there is no country on earth untouched by corruption. even if you stay in europe or america or australia, there is no way to extricate yourself from direct involvement with every single other part of the world, as we live together in a densely interrelated global economy. for example: take a look down at the shoes you are wearing? how many ethical compromises and unjust social practices, approved of by the government agencies where you live, were made in order for you to be able to buy and wear those shoes right now? so do you now decide to boycott wearing shoes? or how about your cell phone. do you know where the minerals that make that phone work come from, and what kind of conflict and suffering revolve around this thing you use every day? do a google search. are you going to stop using your mobile now?

    why do we travel and explore the world? to pass judgment and puff ourselves up with righteousness, or to explore an immensely complex and ever-shifting landscape of culture and politics while contributing as much love as possible to each person and location that we meet?

    i tend to believe that our one-on-one conversations with actual friends we make while traveling are what fuel change for the better, not boycotts and public condemnations that do nothing other than only add to the already toxic levels of judgment, violence, and intolerance in the world. if only i had a dollar for every time i heard about the US condemning this or condemning that on the news…id be a millionaire. condemning practices lack empathy and the subtle understanding of the whole situation that can only arise from empathy. a boycott does not help anything. it only only hurts local businesspeople who, like most average citizens everywhere (despite what we are often persuaded to believe), have no great immediate influence over governmental policy, especially when they are suffering from financial strain and trying to feed their families.

    when you boycott, just remember who exactly you are boycotting. and remember, when you point a finger at someone else, there are three fingers pointing back at yourself.

    i also would like to say that i appreciate the broad range of viewpoints that this article presents. i appreciate the fairmindedness of the presentation and how it leaves room for open interpretation and choice in the reader. it seems like the writer put a lot of consideration and thought into it. thanks.

  11. Jeremy Holtonon 21 Jun 2014 at 7:23 am

    I have lived in Thailand on and off for over a decade and was here during the last coup. To compare the situation in Thailand with Burma is a joke, there is no comparison. In Thailand one man Thaksin Shinawatra and his family have dominated politics for 13 years. Part of the population believe that he is corrupt on a large scale, that he is determined to depose the king and has been voted in by populist handouts. The other part believe he is the democratically elected leader who has done more for the poor than any other Thai leader.

    There is probably truth on both sides and it has resulted in endless demonstrations (largely peaceful) by both sides. As it became increasingly apparent that the opposing sides could not be reconciled the army stepped in reluctantly to seek a resolution. They appear to be effectively addressing some of the corruption in the country and have a broad schedule to bring back democracy. Their intention is to stabilise and bring the sides together into some sort of agreement.

    Initially they took leaders from both sides into custody for a few days to cool things down but have released nearly everybody. Thailand was perfectly safe during the demonstrations and even safer now with the military in control. Unlike the police they do not have a record of corruption.

    I am sure that full democracy will be returned with a democratically elected government some time next year hopefully combined with strengthened anti corruption institutions.

    I have a vested interest but in honesty Thailand has always been a safe place to visit an its probably more safe now than it was. To boycott it would achieve nothing and damage the lives of ordinary Thai people who rely on tourism for their income.

  12. atcharaon 21 Jun 2014 at 2:39 pm

    I doubt who can judge the coup is bad or good for thai. Compare to other countries that have civil war? We almost got into that situation. I am thai. I want democracy. But not the fake one. Not for some people to claim ‘ in the name of democracy’ we come from election so I have the right to do everything. Now thailand become more stable. What next? Still need to follow. Thailand is a beautiful country. Sea ,sand, mountain, food,culture I sure some are miss hear.

  13. Scotton 23 Jun 2014 at 8:19 am

    I definitely will not boycott the country, it has some problems and some bad-going-ons such as slave trade but methinks it’s hands-down the most benign SE Asian gov’t, overall quite prosperous and a good place I think. I’m happy to watch them work out their country in their own way (just like Africa needs to work out its issues in its own way) and suggest we worry about our own home countries, which were IMO 100% hypocritical and counterproductive in handing down judgment on recent happenings there. That said I would rather spend what money I have on smaller family-run businesses, always my goal.

  14. Steveon 26 Jun 2014 at 6:00 am

    Now that Suthep has let the cat out of the bag and revealed they had been planning to topple Thailands elected leaders for years its time to boycott thailand until it returns to democracy. People arrested for eating a sandwich. Locked up without trial, how long before some tourist’s drunken or offhand remark lands them in secret prisons with any civil trial?

  15. Johnon 19 Jul 2014 at 2:55 am

    I have had a professional involvement in Thailand (as a university professor with a research focus on SE Asia) and personal involvement (my wife is Thai, and I met her as a student at Berkeley not on Patpong) for more than 35 years. The politics of Thailand are not complicated at all, at least to someone with reasonable knowledge of the place.

    Thailand is among the most hierarchical societies in the region, which is saying a lot. Whatever his drawbacks (and there are many), Thaksin Shinawatra has succeeded in empowering the marginalized classes in Thailand, especially the people of Isarn (NE Thailand). The past 15 years or so have seen dramatic steps forward for these groups. Patricians need a class of plebeians to remain elite. “The Lao” of Isarn have long played that role. The military is aligned with the most reactionary elements of Thai society. These groups cannot cope with the ascendancy of the people of Isarn and aim to reverse these gains. Thailand is regressing from the major steps it has made toward democracy and social equaitly in the past 20+ years. Boycott Thailand? Hell yes! I am, at least until the military has fully relinquished power I takes meaningful steps to refain from this sort of thing in the future.

  16. Nicole Louison 28 Jul 2014 at 8:55 am

    Thanks John for your insight, having lived and spent some time in Northern Thailand I certainly have witnessed the stand of living for the marginalized classes in Thailand, improve under Thaksin, I am happy to say. So I am conflicted because I also have friends in Bangkok who are considered the educated and whom are happy the military have stepped in. I don’t claim to know everything about the politics here, but the latest visa purge towards Westerners feels very uncomfortable for a Western foreigner. I can see both sides of why the military and their anti-corruption policies might want to get rid of Westerners, however they seem to want to put us all in the same catergory, and don’t appear to care about the small local business person who makes their daily bread with the help of our contribution. As the Thai person above mentioned are the jaunta another ‘fake democracy’? Should everybody be worried what is occuring in this country or should we give the jaunta a chance? I ask myself these questions everyday, however sometimes I confess we Westerners feel like unwelcome guests, no matter our contribution. And the way this clean-up is being performed seems to lack compassion for many Thai locals who struggle to make a decent living. I feel concerned about this, however maybe ASEAN wiill be the force of the future in this region and will be the contributors instead. Thailand will certainly be different if this happens and who knows if their Asian neighbors will care about the less privileged.

  17. Jeff McNeillon 05 Jan 2015 at 3:17 pm

    Time to revisit this issue of boycott. Martial law is still imposed, human and civil rights are non-existent.