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.”
The travel industry’s response to a changing policy landscape
After the Supreme Court overturned the landmark Roe v. Wade decision in June, the right to have an abortion was left entirely up to the states. As of now, abortion is outlawed in more than a dozen states, several of which enacted so-called trigger laws to go into place when Roe fell. According to the Center for Reproductive Rights, 14 other states, plus American Samoa, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands, are considered “hostile”—meaning these states have indicated they want to ban abortion.
The travel industry has largely stayed out of the political fray following the overturning of Roe v. Wade, 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.
Others have taken 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 in early May 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. So, 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?
While both Ombonga and Agyepong believe boycotts 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.)
Travel boycotts aren’t unique to the U.S.: After the gruesome murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Saudi Arabia found itself shunned by Washington and Silicon Valley (though it’s worth noting that President Biden recently visited Jeddah and met with Mohammed bin Salman, whom the CIA has concluded ordered Khashoggi’s murder).
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,” states 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.”
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