Why anti-Trump travel boycotts won't work - Macleans.ca

Why anti-Trump travel boycotts won’t work

They’re not worth doing, they’re not worth opposing, and they won’t change much. Boycotts invite a tragic conclusion for the Trump era.


Banning travel from several predominantly Muslim countries, as President Donald Trump has decreed by executive order, is a blunt instrument that makes life hell for innocent people. Personal travel boycotts, a trendy reaction in Canada and around the world to the ban, are just as blunt—and easier to impose. They’re also a terrible antidote to whatever ails our American friends.

Canadian academics are boycotting conferences south of the border. Canadian authors like Linwood Barclay are calling off public appearances. Canadian tourists are taking a break from visiting, say, the Grand Canyon until the next president’s inauguration. These boycotts are well-meaning nods to the less privileged among us, typically people whose recent lineage traces to red-flagged countries—the six nations targeted in Trump’s executive order, but of course many others around the world—and who are given much grief at the border because of how they look or sound.

MORE: What to expect when you cross the Canada-U.S. border

We’ve recently learned about Fadwa Alaoui and Manpreet Kooner, two Canadian citizens denied entry into the United States and incomprehensibly told they required immigrant visas. Alaoui wanted to give her son, stricken with cancer, a change of scenery for the day. Kooner wanted to visit a spa. Both were left understandably shaken, and neither found any justice at the end of their nightmares.

We all know someone who’s now more nervous crossing the border than even just a few weeks ago. Boycotts in solidarity are a natural response, both on principle and because of our perceived spending power. Maybe a united world could repeat the perceived effect that boycotts and sanctions arguably had on, say, Apartheid in South Africa. Withholding a couple thousand dollars in delegate fees, sightseeing adventures or duty-free liquor could add up, if only tens of thousands of us would join forces and punish America for its president’s destructive immigration policy.

But that’s a big “if only.” In 2014, Canadians tourists spent 23 million nights and $21 billion in the U.S. It would take hundreds of thousands of individual boycotts to make a dent in that flow of travellers. On top of that, the broader Canada-U.S. economic relationship—our exports to the U.S. totalled $392 billion in 2016—would dwarf the impact of even the most ambitious border boycott imaginable.

Last year, the Freakonomics podcast mused about the effectiveness of consumer boycotts. The episode’s basic conclusion was that they can maybe sorta work, but mostly don’t work. That said, Brayden King, a professor at Northwestern University, argued that focused boycotts, even if they fail to financially drain their targets, can at least hit a company’s reputation where it hurts.

But whose reputation do travel boycotts threaten? All Americans? Or are they meant to force change at the polls in four years? That’s a long time to pack up and abandon the sort of exchanges that, in the meantime, help us better understand America’s struggle to come to terms with itself—and even lend an ear.

FILE - In this Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2011 file photo, a car approaches the United States and Canada border crossing in Lacolle, Quebec, south of Montreal. In April 2013, in its 2014 fiscal year budget proposal, the Department of Homeland Security requested permission to study a fee at the nation's land border crossings. The request has sparked wide opposition among members of Congress from northern states, who vowed to stop it. A fee, they say, would hurt communities on the border that rely on people, goods and money moving between the U.S. and Canada. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Ryan Remiorz, File)

(AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Ryan Remiorz, File)

Spend any time south of the border, and it’s impossible not to trace a quiet struggle there—less a resistance than an attempt to live adjacent to, if not precisely within, Trump’s vision of the country. A counterculture gone mainstream that might come to define many American lives.

Visit San Diego and hear from an airport-shuttle driver who lives in Mexico but works five days a week in the city. He’ll tell you that his traditional run-around at the border has worsened since January, but somehow sounds cheerful—and appears to be plugging away at a mock citizenship test sitting in a pile on the passenger’s seat.

Head to Grand Canyon, which will remain intact in four or eight years—even a bellicose president is nowhere near as mighty as a river that’s spent five million years carving a mile-deep gorge—and keep in mind that the non-profit Grand Canyon Association, which supplements threatened federal funding for educational tours and trail maintenance, counts on all those tourist dollars spent on magnets and postcards.

Strike up a conversation with a Navajo artist at the Four Corners monument where Utah and Colorado meet Arizona and New Mexico at a tidy crosshairs landmark. She’ll tell you how Navajo tend to vote Democrat, but some voted for Trump because of an apparent aversion to women leaders (a so-called “buckskin ceiling”). She’ll also tell you that her kids, who are headed to college, can’t understand their grandmother’s language. And then she’ll tell you she’s a Washington Redskins fan, and she’s wearing that toque not to reclaim the logo, but because she kind of likes it.

MORE: Trump’s new order: A Muslim ban in sheep’s clothing

If more direct resistance is your thing, drop in to Sweetwater Harvest Kitchen in Santa Fe, which tracks donations to the Standing Rock protest (“$360 sent to Water Protectors Legal Collective, 2/1/17”). They can use the cash visitors spend on organic scrambled eggs and avocado salads. Just more Americans who live behind enemy lines in their own country.

No boycott can replace a genuine exchange of ideas between a Canadian trying to make sense of the world and a hard-working Mexican who aspires to be American or a non-profit conservationist who can explain the genesis of Grand Canyon or a Navajo artist who defies assumptions or a cafe that wears its activism on its cash register.

And no boycott can dismantle the crooked fairy tales of bigots, born out of bitterness in a country they no longer know. “Feels like the calm before the storm, doesn’t it?” says a man filling his gas tank at a station outside Albuquerque. “All these shabby businesses, run by Arabs.” Had he paid inside the store, he’d have encountered a white cashier, and if he’d bothered to ask, he’d have learned the station’s owner was a (white) Mormon who lived out of state. Witnessing that remarkable detachment from the truth, packed in such baldly erroneous assumptions, reveals one pocket of a nation so divided people are unwilling even to talk to each other.

MORE: The new underground railroad to Canada

Admittedly, it takes a certain kind of obvious privilege to be in a position to call for constructive engagement with Americans, let alone answer it. The sort of person who goes to the airport and, instead of answering a barrage of probing questions, typically endures harmless small talk about the reason for their trip—a baseball game or a road trip or some other slice of American life.

That experience reeks of unfairness. Set against that preferential treatment, who could be blamed for refusing to cross the border in solidarity with Muslim people? But any collective cold shoulder would invite a tragic conclusion: we’d no longer hear those countless voices that tell the modern American story in all its beauty and ugliness.

As that country tears itself apart, we could all stay away and congratulate ourselves for the strength of our conviction. And we could stick to chatting up American tourists when they pay us a visit. But an honourable boycott won’t change much. And we’d all be more ignorant for it.


Why anti-Trump travel boycotts won’t work

  1. Trying to please the madman never works.

    Witness the last days of Rome.

    • Yes, let’s just shake our heads and conclude, as you have, that individually our actions mean nothing in the grand scheme of things. Let’s resign ourselves to getting along as best we can with a political situation that is corrupt, undemocratic, dangerous, possibly treasonous, and which runs contrary to what we understand to be in the spirit of freedom and human rights. Let’s try to make the best of a really, really inconvenient travel situation not by boycotting the offending country, but by going there instead and rationalizing our actions afterward. And when we’re away and “drop in at the Sweetwater Harvest Kitchen” in Santa Fe, let’s do our best to assuage our guilt (produced by the dozens of texts coming through from horrified ex-friends) by talking to a “hard-working Mexican who strives to be an American” (sub-text: not one of those lazy Mexicans who aren’t “plugging away at a mock citizenship test”).
      Nick, you don’t fool me. I’m an old broad and I’ve met your type before. You don’t actually care about what happens in the US, or to Mexicans, or Navajos, or to immigrants in general, as long as their problems don’t get in the way of your plans. So just stop, okay? You can’t entice the rest of us to sell out with you.

      • Sorry, not Nick. Never been to Santa Fe.

        But no I don’t care what happens in the US.

        Now Fark off.

      • Fark,
        You’re completely safe now-Obama is gone and Clinton lost.

  2. I don’t have a lot of money to spend on travel, and as most of my family lives elsewhere in Canada, most of those travel dollars are spent visiting them. So I don’t travel to the US very often, and I know my boycott won’t matter much to them. And it won’t really cost me much, either.

    But boycott I will.

    I have always felt less safe in the US. It’s not a feeling I like. And the way things have gone down there these last few years, things are just getting uglier.

    The increase in xenophobia may not impact me directly, as a white male, but it bothers me greatly. As does the removal of privacy protections for foreigners, and the demand for passwords to social media accounts at the border. It’s not that I have anything to hide; I simply refuse to cede that kind of power, without a warrant and reasonable cause, to another nation. Besides, who is to say these border guards are to be trusted with access to my accounts? Corruption and criminality exist throughout society.

    There are places I’d like to someday visit in the US. But I’ve been vocal in my disapproval of Trump. There is nothing I want to see in the US badly enough to risk being detained for hours and open myself to the potential of identity theft. I don’t see my decision to avoid the States as a boycott as much as deciding that they really don’t want me, and acceding to their wishes.

    America is no longer a welcoming nation. They want to be insular and navel-gazing. They seem determined to self-destruct. I’m happy to stay away until they get over that.

    As to discussing things with them? My experience is that the last thing they want to do is listen to some outsider’s opinion.

    • Well said.

    • Right on! You saved me a lot of time by saying what I wanted to say… and I’m sure you said it better than I would have.

      I am staying out of the US, as well as refusing to book any flight that stops in the US before going on.

      As for communicating with Americans? I have many Facebook friends who keep me informed (I unfriend the ones who don’t fact-check, and I tell them why), and sometimes engage with those who support Trump, who haven’t yet seen the light. Do I get through to them? I don’t expect to get through to them–the reason I do it is to do my part in obliterating the myth that the Left/Centre doesn’t want to communicate.

  3. Disagree. An honorable boycott already is hitting them in the pocketbook. (http://www.frommers.com/tips/miscellaneous/the-travel-press-is-reporting-the-trump-slump-a-devastating-drop-in-tourism-to-the-united-states). Also, differing opinions can be heard and Americans engaged with other ways, i.e. online. “Admittedly, it takes a certain kind of obvious privilege to be in a position to call for constructive engagement with Americans, let alone answer it.” Yes — your privilege is showing. Take a high school bus trip from Canada to the U.S., for example. Leave the Muslim students at home? Have the Muslim students on the trip and hope that they aren’t held up at the border for hours or days? Why not just take a class trip to a country that respects the rights of everybody and have the students learn firsthand what it means to stand in solidarity with people who being persecuted? The obvious choice is to travel elsewhere. Seems clear cut, doesn’t it? Now, just imagine yourself as a “classmate” to every Canadian. Case closed.

  4. Social Conservatives boycott and it seems to work for them. Disney’s Beauty and the Beast movie is the latest one the Evangelicals are skipping because one of the characters is gay.

    Boycotts work.

  5. If one is interested in what “ordinary Americans” think, there are plenty of opportunities to find out in the online world. I don’t delude myself that the few thousand dollars I might spend visiting the U.S. would have any major impact but it’s my money and my choice as to where I spend it. And there are many Canadians who feel the same as I do.

  6. I really don’t like this author’s attitude about boycotts. As well as the dollar effects, there are the moral ones, and these often outshine, and at the same time greatly expand the effect of any monetary results that come from a boycott. It’s very important that everyone know they can have a proportional affect on the issues of the day by voting with their feet, or their pen, or any other handy tool. Unlike the defeatist arguments of this author, many changes to massively entrenched immoral social edifices have been made through boycotts by moderate to large numbers of everyday people voting with their feet.
    Personally, I’ve decided to stay out of the US for moral reasons and will use the time to explore my own country more thoroughly. I’ve also decided not to take on any new business contracts involving work on-site in the US. The boarder is just too invasive now. I’m made to feel like a thief in the night, definitely not welcome, and I’ve never gone where I’m not welcome. So stuff it!
    What hasn’t changed are my American friends acquaintances, and business associates , some of whom are appalled by what is happening, and some who are quite happy about what they view as a return to better times after a long drought, as well as one who, with dual citizenship, has decided to get the hell out and live in Canada -permanently. In that person’s case, I think Trump was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
    Each day I wake up and thank heaven I live in Canada. It may not be perfect, but it’s better than what many Americans must put up with. Let’s just make sure this Xenophobia doesn’t infect our country any more than it has already, by supporting political moderation and careful attention to facts rather than the hysterical stereotyping of the political right of left fringes.

  7. I don’t care whether “boycotting won’t work”. In good conscience, I cannot simply set aside my beliefs and my outrage at 45 and GOP politicians at their treatment of their own citizens, their treatment of foreigners, and the ingrained racism and xenophobia. Don’t like it? Tough toenails. My money, my principles.

  8. + 300,000 visitors less and countless convention venues changed say your WRONG

    • Do you mean ‘you are wrong’? And who is wrong?

  9. To the extent that boycotts may not always work because not enough people participate (don’t participate, depending on the way you look at it), this article is misguided and has a possible unintended consequence, i.e., it may put a damper into a boycott that might well grow to sufficient proportions. The last time I looked, tourism to the US was down 11%. I believe that statistic will grow over time.

    Admittedly, many of the people and businesses affected by the boycott will suffer, but I suspect that many Americans are prepared to make sacrifices to regain their democracy. As well, the boycott may start to affect major corporations and cause them to re-think their support of Trump’s policies–and that’s when it will get interesting.