Luxury hotels in storm of controversy

03:36, Jun 09 2014
Hotel Bel-Air, Los Angeles
HOTEL CONTROVERSY: Hotel Bel-Air, Los Angeles.

Luxury hotels rarely find themselves in the middle of a storm of controversy, which is why the current furore around the sumptuous Dorchester Collection raises moral questions for travellers with concerns about human rights issues (which I hope is all of us).

The issue itself is simple on the face of it. The Dorchester Collection is a portfolio of many of the world's most famous hotels; it includes the Beverly Hills Hotel and the Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles, Le Meurice and Plaza Athenee in Paris, the Principe di Savoia in Milan and the iconic Dorchester in London.

The hotels are owned by the Sultan of Brunei, that oil-rich state on the north coast of Borneo. The Sultan has recently enacted a strict Sharia penal code in his small nation, which heinously condemns homosexuals and adulterers to death by stoning, with other offences punished by flogging or loss of limb.

This has enraged many loyal Dorchester guests and human rights activists, starting with Ellen de Generes, one of the celebrities who regularly patronises the Beverly Hills Hotel.

She tweeted on April 22 she would boycott the hotel. The numbers of people joining the boycott have snowballed since.

Stephen Fry cancelled a book signing at the Dorchester's Coworth Park. Virgin chief executive Richard Branson announced that no Virgin employees would be allowed to stay at a Dorchester hotel. US Vogue editor Anna Wintour said, "I cannot in all good conscience stay there, nor can Vogue's editors". Gucci owner Francois-Henri Pinault also banned employees on business from the hotel group. These boycotts particularly affect Le Meurice and the Principe di Savoia as they are the main editors' fashion week hangouts.


On the other side of the argument, enter Russell Crowe, who tweeted, "I don't agree with the boycott of Dorchester Collection hotels. It only hurts the hardworking staff who I consider friends". While the group's CEO Christopher Cowdrey has pledged he will protect the jobs, wages and benefits of his employees through the boycott, Our Russ has raised the issue that unsettles many when a discussion of a boycott arises: who does it hurt and what effect does it have?

The boycott might cause the Sultan a ripple of chagrin but it's unlikely to dent his massive wealth. I've read the Dorchester's £300 (NZ$593.19) million annual revenue is ploughed back into the hotels and it's the Brunei Shell Petroleum Company - to which many of us find ourselves connected - that creates the most wealth for the nation.

Those against the boycott point out that many other nations - Iran, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, for example - punish homosexuality by death. Interests from Qatar and Saudi Arabia, in particular, own hotels, hotel groups, airlines and luxury brands we may frequently patronise. Why limit the boycott to Dorchester?

As Crowe tweets, the alternative is to "Pressure your govt to cease trade contact, refuse to use Brunei oil".

I've always felt queasy about boycotts but I do understand the urge to protest in this way. Maybe the boycotters know they won't succeed in changing Brunei's harsh laws but they figure it's a platform to point out injustice. I don't think it's matter of arguing, "It's their culture and laws, so butt out". I think there are many injustices that reflect on humanity in general as well as in particular.

And sometimes there's a line in the sand.

My line concerns Egypt. Not only am I outraged by the Egyptian government's imprisonment of Australian Al Jazeera journalist Peter Greste and colleagues but I've long been concerned about the country's treatment of women - from prevalent female genital mutilation to what seems to be widespread sexual abuse. Greste was the tipping point.

The Egyptians won't care if I visit or not. I know my personal boycott isn't going to change anything politically. But, for me, it would feel wrong in all conscience to take this step until Greste is fairly tried, at least. My feeling is not that the Brunei protest is misguided, just that it's directed at the wrong entity. But we all have to examine our consciences and do what we feel best.

That's another kind of journey - the most important one.