Brunei anti-gay laws: Why travellers should not boycott Brunei or any other country

Here's the brutal truth about Brunei, the small nation on the island of Borneo: if you or one of your friends travels to the country and is caught engaging in an act of consensual, homosexual sex there, you can be legally murdered by the state in the most brutal of ways.

Death by stoning. It's horrific; a barbaric punishment for an act of love that is legal and normal in much of the rest of the world.

So you can understand the backlash. You can understand why celebrities in the US are now getting behind boycotts of luxury hotels owned by the Sultan of Brunei; you appreciate the reasons Western universities are severing ties with Brunei's tertiary establishments; you can understand why there have been calls and a widely circulated petition in Australia to ban the nation's airline, Royal Brunei, from doing business in this country.

What's harder to understand, however, is why other countries with similar laws aren't given the same treatment – and what travellers should consider doing about it.

Homosexuality is punishable by imprisonment or death in 40 countries worldwide. That includes some of our favourite stopover destinations: the UAE, home of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, where engaging in homosexual acts is officially punishable by death, though the crime has so far only resulted in jail terms. In Qatar you can go to jail for homosexual acts. In Malaysia you can go be imprisoned for up to 20 years. In Myanmar you can go to jail. In Singapore the same applies.

And what about other nations? In Saudi Arabia, men caught engaging in homosexual acts can be sentenced to death. In Iran, men can and have been executed for doing the same thing. In Morocco you'll be sent to jail. The same in Kenya. The same in Tanzania.

So, where's the outcry? Where's the call to ban those nations' airlines? Where's the boycotting of their hotels and other businesses? Where's the stand being taken by universities and schools?

This is the problem I have with boycotts. They're not universally applied. The outrage seems like a fashion. And I'm convinced, too, that boycotts by travellers are ineffective, that the wrong people are punished when you refuse to go somewhere, that you lose the chance to engage with people on the ground and exchange cultures and ideas.

The boycotts of hotels and other businesses owned by the Sultan of Brunei is a great idea, and one I'm sure will have an effect. But why not look into the Saudis' assets as well? Why not put diplomatic pressure on some of our neighbours such as Malaysia or Myanmar?


Part of the reason, I assume, is that in many countries these anti-gay laws are rarely enforced, particularly to their maximum degree. If you're reading this and thinking, huh, I definitely saw gay people in Malaysia – then you're probably right. The same as gay couples travel regularly to the UAE and Qatar, and go on safari in Kenya or Tanzania. There are even LGBT events held in Singapore.

That doesn't mean travellers shouldn't take a stand, however, if they feel strongly about something. Everyone draws their line in a different place – but you still have every right to draw one.

I'm not calling for a worldwide travel boycott of Brunei. Personally, however, I'm not going to go there. I'm appalled that friends of mine could be legally stoned to death if they're caught there engaging in an act of love. The world is a big place, full of amazing destinations: I'll choose to go to those that aren't Brunei.

And though I was unlikely to ever darken the doors at hotels such as the Dorchester in London or the Beverly Hills Hotel in LA – both owned by the Sultan of Brunei – I'm all for a boycott of those establishments.

But my general opposition to travel boycotts remains. If no one goes to visit Brunei, how will people there ever get to hear about a different way of being, a different attitude? How will normal people there who rely on tourism for their income earn a living?

It's important, I think, to separate governments from citizens; to see the difference between laws and attitudes. I've been to plenty of countries perceived as being highly conservative enemies of the West and have been bowled over in those places by the kindness and openness of their people.

It's worth remembering, too, that it wasn't so long ago that skywriters were scrawling the word "NO" above Sydney for everyone to see during the same-sex marriage debate. We're not exactly perfect.

So draw your line, by all means. But think carefully about where it is, and who it should apply to.

See also: Why Australia is the land of the idiot

See also: The 10 countries every true traveller should have already visited

Do you plan to boycott Brunei? Are there any countries you refuse to visit? Or will you go anywhere?