Arnie WeissmannThe sadness moves in every direction. Sympathy, first, for the gay men and women of Uganda, whose worst fears were realized last week when their president, Yoweri Museveni, signed a bill providing penalties for even speaking positively about homosexuality.


Sympathy, next, for the thousands of tourism workers in Uganda whose economic well-being is threatened as travelers choose other destinations.

Sympathy for tour operators and hotel owners facing yet another setback after investing in a country that has no shortage of natural beauty and wildlife, but whose national identity has been linked to the brutal dictatorship of Idi Amin, the heartless insurgency of Joseph Kony and now extreme bigotry.

Sympathy for the global community of travelers, gay and straight, who will eliminate Uganda from their consideration set and thus might never see the beauty of Murchison Falls, visit the chimps of the Kyambura Gorge, take a walking safari in the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary or, most importantly, interact with and engage in discussions with ordinary Ugandans.

Similarly, sympathy for those Ugandans whose opportunity to meet a broad spectrum of international visitors has just been narrowed.

And overlying my sympathy for these people is anger, disappointment and more than a touch of embarrassment. When I interviewed Museveni two years ago, I broached the subject of the then-proposed anti-gay laws. Until that point, he had not publicly stated his position on the legislation.

When I raised the subject, he expressed annoyance with the West for trying to impose its values on Africans, but he followed that by saying, "For legislation to pass into law, I must sign it." He then stated that he believed there should be "no persecution, no discrimination, no killing" of gay people.

He noted that some prominent chiefs in the country's history had been homosexuals.

"They were known, but they were not persecuted," he said. "They were not killed. They were not discriminated against."

Museveni said he did feel it should be illegal to induce children into sexual activity, whether homosexual or heterosexual. "That's the only possibility [for harsh punishment] we could be talking about," he said.

My interview, published in Travel Weekly, was noted by a couple of human rights groups monitoring developments in Uganda, but most subsequent reports on the topic in the general press appeared unaware of these statements. As a result, when the topic came up, I would find myself pointing out that despite support for the bill in the legislature, if it ever passed, the president had said he would not sign legislation that carried stiff penalties.

Museveni is not the first politician to flip-flop on an issue, but I had some reason to hope that his words reflected his convictions.

He came into power as a reformer and revived Uganda's economy to the point that it became a net exporter of food. Perhaps most relevant, he supported the use of condoms, and the spread of AIDS slowed significantly. That was a bold and rare move in Africa, and Western observers at one time talked about him as "the next Nelson Mandela."

Fast forward 20 years. The week following the funeral of Mandela in South Africa last December, Virgin Atlantic Chairman Richard Branson said the anti-gay legislation had led him to conclude he should not do business in Uganda, and he publicly urged other businesses to boycott the country, as well.

I have long opposed tourism boycotts on several grounds.

First, they primarily impact people whose economic situation and ability to influence policy are marginal: housekeepers, food service personnel, bellmen.

And I believe boycotts isolate resident dissidents who would have fewer opportunities to discuss issues with sympathetic visitors. In my travels, I have been approached by repressed citizens in North Korea, Libya, Cuba, Ceausescu's Romania and other dictatorships who wanted to tell their story, and they wanted it to be shared.

Uganda's economy is floated by oil sales to China and Russia, which may have emboldened Museveni, but the situation almost begs a business boycott by the West. Most global companies have anti-discriminatory corporate policies and simply can't operate there without violating their own company guidelines.

Similarly, gay travelers would be taking an enormous risk to visit the country, and sympathetic straight travelers can show solidarity by choosing any of a dozen other African game-viewing destinations.

I will take my cues from the gay community in Uganda. While there have been reports of some gay residents fleeing the country, others have been outspoken and are challenging the law in court. They are on the front lines, and if they called for a tourism boycott, I would support it.

While I suspect that the vast majority of Travel Weekly readers have never assisted a traveler going to Uganda, the issue should be thought through by everyone in the industry. Travel, even leisure travel, reflects life in all its dimensions. It's not unusual for a traveler to visit a museum to learn about the host country's history. Sometimes, however, tourists are called upon to participate in making history.

Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter. 
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