Never mind the Maoist insurgency, every politically correct tourist now has a new reason to avoid Nepal. On 9 June, a California-based group called Ethical Traveler (www.ethicaltraveler.com) announced a tourism boycott of Nepal.
Why? To protest Nepal's forcible deportation of 18 Tibetan refugees into China on 31 May. Several major international Tibetan rights groups have endorsed the boycott, including The Tibet Justice Center, Students for a Free Tibet, US Tibet Committee, and The Milarepa Fund.
Ethical Traveler and its director, occasional ex-pat Jeff Greenwald, are right to criticise the actions of the Nepali government and to demand a forceful protest. But they are wrong to think that a tourism boycott of Nepal is the best way to achieve the desired effect.
A prominent Tibetan rights activist called the boycott "a simplistic, kneejerk reaction to a very complicated and serious situation," pointing out that Nepal makes an easy target for the international activist community too intimidated to challenge China directly. If the objective is to ensure Tibetan rights, why not take on the real bully by calling for a broad-based US-led international boycott of Chinese trade?
Would-be tourist-activists must be told that further strangling Nepal's near-dead tourist economy will not encourage positive change on the part of the kingdom's policy makers. In fact, the weaker the economy gets, the greater the incentive for political players of all stripes to curry favour with China in the hopes of reaping future economic and political rewards.
The people most likely to be negatively affected by a boycott are common Nepalis and refugee Tibetans already resident in Nepal who survive off tiny pieces of the tourist pie. Ethical Traveler has claimed that the boycott will have little true economic impact on individual Nepalis.This is a spurious suggestion when an individual shortfall of as little as Rs 100 a day can have serious effects on whole families who exist at the bottom of the tourism totem pole.
In the improbable event that this is right, then why bother calling a boycott instead of using the more effective and to-the-point protest strategy of letter/fax writing? A boycott with no economic teeth seems unlikely to achieve its stated goal of changing Nepali government policy through "direct action". What a lot of good intention wasted.
Ethical Traveler suggests that regardless of its economic effects, the larger purpose of the boycott is to keep the issue alive in the international media. Activists truly concerned about the shared future of Nepalis and Tibetans would do better to consider the Tibetan issue within the larger context of human rights abuses plaguing His Majesty's Government of Nepal. As one long-time Western resident in Kathmandu put it, "The recent deportation of Tibetans is only one symptom of the much broader problem of human rights abuses in Nepal."
Singling out the Tibetan issue as the human rights issue in Nepal that is most worthy of international concern makes a painful mockery of the suffering experienced during the seven years of Maoist-state conflict by thousands of rural Nepalis, people who have rarely made an international headline or been the lucky beneficiaries of tourist-activism. It also sends the unfortunate message to HMG that while Tibetans are worthy of more careful treatment, their own Nepali citizens are not.
For this reason, the proposed boycott will spark new tensions between the Nepali and Tibetan communities. Most Nepalis, particularly those who suffer at the hands of their own corrupt and ineffective government, are intuitively sympathetic to the Tibetan plight, though some have asked why there is not a similar boycott of Bhutan for its treatment of ethnic Nepali refugees. Unfortunately, a boycott of Nepali tourism called in the name of Tibetan refugees has the potential to draw stark lines between the two communities, hindering rather than helping mutual understanding.
Instead of alienating the Nepali public by boycotting travel to the country, the international community (tourist and otherwise) should engage with individual Nepalis and the Nepali media to raise the profile of the issue right here in Nepal. Nepalis will hopefully come to see the Tibetan situation as a feature of their own serious human rights problem, and begin to pressure their own government, police, and armed forces to adopt responsible human rights practices across the board.
Concerned foreigners should use their collective influence to join Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch in a fax writing campaign to Nepali embassies, government offices and the media. The high profile of the Tibetan deportation should be used as a platform from which to protest the dismal human rights record characterised by illegal detentions, disappearances, torture and extrajudicial killings which are being documented across Nepal.
Ethical judgements are never easily made, particularly regarding a situation as complex as contemporary Himalayan geopolitics. Truly ethical travellers should take a closer look at the facts for themselves and consider boycotting the boycott. Better still, the morality experts at Ethical Traveler might call it off before the damage is done, and save everyone a lot of trouble.
(Sara Shneiderman is conducting anthropological research in Nepal and Tibet for a PhD at Cornell University in the United States. Mark Turin is Director of the Digital Himalaya Project based at the Department of Social Anthropology at Cambridge University, UK.)