OPINION | Saudi pardner: Are tourism boycotts of repressive regimes the right ticket to force change?

Then Saudi Arabia deputy crown prince Mohammed bin Salman at the G20 opening ceremony in Hangzhouin September 2016 (Photo by Nicolas Asfouri - Pool/Getty Images)
Then Saudi Arabia deputy crown prince Mohammed bin Salman at the G20 opening ceremony in Hangzhouin September 2016 (Photo by Nicolas Asfouri - Pool/Getty Images)

Saudi Arabia has just announced that, for the first time, tourists from 49 designated countries – including South Africa – can now apply for a visa through Saudi embassies and consulates across the world. Glenn Bownes argues that now is a perfect time for a renewed debate on the ethics of tourism in countries run by repressive regimes.

It's a year since Jamal Khashoggi entered the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, to collect documents for his upcoming marriage to his Turkish fiancée. He never came out again.

Now, a year later, Saudi Arabia has promised to leave no stone unthrown in its attempt to encourage foreigners to visit the theocracy.

From off-the-chain(saw) tours of its embassies, to cutting edge executions of gays and women that can be enjoyed a mere stone's throw away from those of democrats and non-believers.

They are no doubt looking into particularly crowd-pleasing ways to kill gay women who are fond of democracy, but not that keen on the Saudi aristocracy's misogynistic and ultra-violent imaginary friend in the sky.

Khashoggi was a Saudi Arabian dissident, author, columnist for The Washington Post, and a general manager and editor-in-chief of Al-Arab News Channel.

He was tortured, killed and then chopped into bits by a team sent especially for the job by the Saudi royal family who rule the country. At first the Saudis denied it all, saying Khashoggi had left the embassy, but then, when an audio recording of the torture was released, they acknowledged that "rogue" forces had been responsible.

Eventually the new crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, and so-called reformer, "took responsibility" for the murder, while denying that he had anything to do with sending his killers to the embassy to wait for their intended victim. In other words, he took responsibility without taking responsibility.

The chances of him not knowing or not having ordered the murder are practically nil.

The murder and cover-up were planned meticulously. The death squad was set up ahead of time and a Khashoggi "double" was even used to show he "left" the embassy "alive".

Bolstering tourism

At the end of September, a week before the anniversary of Khashoggi's embassy torture and murder, the kingdom announced that, for the first time, tourists from 49 designated countries – including South Africa – can now apply for a visa through Saudi embassies and consulates across the world.

On the back of some Bin Salman reforms – easing restrictions on woman being allowed to drive and move around without a male "babysitter" (welcome to the late 19th century!) – the royal family has decided to ease travel restrictions of foreigners to bolster and develop a tourist industry which isn't solely based on the hajj to Mecca.

The kingdom wants to increase international and domestic visits to 100 million a year by 2030, increasing tourism's contribution to the fiscus by up to 10% of gross domestic product, compared to 3% now.

The one-year, multiple-entry visa scheme will allow stays of up to 90 days at a time. It is the first time the country will allow foreigners to visit solely for the purpose of tourism. Until now visitor visas were only issued for specific reasons like Muslim pilgrimages, or for certain family and business visits.

This has once again raised the issue of "ethical tourism" and the pros and cons of boycotting countries ruled by particularly repressive regimes.

Mobilising people around the issue

Probably the most successful current boycott movement against a country is that of BDS aimed at Israel. Not since the cultural and sporting boycotts of apartheid South Africa, has a campaign been organised in such a well-orchestrated and international way.

In 1996, when the generals ran Myanmar/Burma, and Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest, her call to "Make 1996 a year for not visiting Burma" had some success. Although there was disagreement about a boycott, with one side arguing that money from tourism was going directly into the pockets of the generals, and the other saying that ordinary citizens were being punished and further isolated by the campaign.

Today, Myanmar is promoting itself as a safe and desirable destination, with Suu Kyi (now in government) encouraging tourists to visit. This is despite a government crackdown that has resulted in about 700 000 Rohingya being turned into refugees in neighbouring Bangladesh.

Successful boycotts are usually those that can mobilise many people around one or two simple issues, or an event. They also work best when they have a limited time span, with quantifiable and achievable goals.

The consumer boycotts organised by the United Democratic Front, and other members of the mass democratic movement, during the brutal 1980s, worked mainly because they were focused and had cut-off dates.

Which brings me back to Saudi Arabia and its new attempt to encourage foreign tourists to visit the country.

If ever there was a time – both morally and strategically – to launch a "Hell no, don't go" campaign it is now. This is true for a combination of reasons: the theocracy's obvious desire to change its image, through some reforms and an attempt to open up to foreigners; the fact that it is a year since the torture and murder of Khashoggi; and the focus on the regime's devastating war on the people of Yemen.

Reformist regimes and leaders are often much more vulnerable to international moral pressure, precisely because they are trying to sanitise their image and be accepted into the global community.

But I am aware that others will argue that it is exactly at a moment like this that we should be encouraging moves towards reform with our tourist "dollars".

Whatever your position, this is a debate well worth having.

- Bownes is chief sub-editor of News24.

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