Burma: To Go or Not?

By Angela Dollar

“Should I travel to Burma?”Burmese woman with flower

This question seems to be on many travelers’ minds these days. It has posed a conundrum for decades of travelers seeking authentic cultural experiences while being mindful of the impacts their visit may have. They’ve watched and waited for the ‘right’ time to visit this isolated Southeast Asian nation, and with recent events they’re wondering – is it time now?

Here’s the thing about Burma. (Or, Myanmar as the military junta dubbed it in 1989.) It is extremely attractive as a unique, and relatively untouched, destination, beckoning travelers with its traditional heritage, warm people and natural beauty. It’s also ruled and run by a military junta whose human rights abuses are widely known – Transparency International rates it as the 2nd most corrupt country in the world.

Tourism in this fragile country presents two primary challenges:  1) the challenge of keeping tourist dollars in local hands rather than the controlling, corrupt government, and 2) the concern for the oncoming flood of visitors at fragile historic and religious sites, as well as indigenous areas, that are not ready to handle them. What to do?

It would seem that the tide is turning as some of the biggest changes we have seen in decades are taking place in Burma. Following the elections of October 2010, National League for Democracy (NLD) leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest, which she had been under for 15 of the previous 21 years. Hillary Clinton made a highly-publicized visit to Burma in December 2011 , the first U.S. Secretary of State in over 50 years to do so. Just last month, President Obama lifted some sanctions on Burma, inviting investors to develop responsible businesses in the country again. Aung San Suu Kyi herself, who has vocally backed a ban on tourism in Burma for many years, appears to have changed her stance in light of these developments. In a recent statement, the National League for Democracy said that they now welcome all visitors to Burma, as long as they “promote the welfare of the common people and the conservation of the environment.”

Tammy Leland, our International Travel Director here at Crooked Trails, has this to say when asked if she would travel to Burma. Sunlight at Pa-Oh Temple BurmaI would travel to Burma right now but with lots of planning and care. It is important to keep supporting the local people by spending tourist dollars locally (this will take research) and to keep an international presence in the country.

Audrey and Daniel at Uncornered Market visited in 2008, after careful consideration. They believe that their visit contributed more to local citizens than the government, and found the experience to be highly valuable. They also noted, “our understanding of the country – including the difficulties of everyday life for people and the actions of the junta – is now more sophisticated, for it is rooted in actual experience.” They now share responsible travel tips with other travelers ready to experience the country.

The decision is a personal one, and the truth is, whether you decide to go or not – it’s happening. As a recent NY Times article reported, “Companies that once struggled to persuade clients to visit Myanmar have been deluged: Abercrombie & Kent saw a 90 percent increase in the number of Myanmar-bound tourists between the first quarter of 2011 and the first quarter of 2012; Indochina Travel, headquartered in San Francisco, reported that its Myanmar business has grown from 15 percent of bookings to 35 percent over the past 18 months.

Indeed, the crux for many travelers now seems not to be so much if, but how. As Responsible Vacation translates the NLD’s recent invitation to tourism, “The message from Aung San Suu Kyi is clear – she only wants respectful tourism and is interested to see responsible tourism develop in Burma.

Temples of Bagan Burma

So, if you do decide to travel in Burma, how do you leverage your tourist dollars for maximum local benefit while minimizing your impacts on the country’s fragilest regions?

There are many voices of support for traveling to Burma, with practical but necessary tips for creating a responsible and well thought-out journey. And, good news! The type of travel that our community tends to enjoy is the best way to support the locals and be responsible and sensitive to the changing needs of the nation.

Travel writer Rolf Potts puts it simply on his site, Vagablogging  – “Maximize how much of your cash reaches the people by staying in local guesthouses and eating at mom-and-pop restaurants.  Stay away from big businesses run as joint ventures with the Myanmar government.” The government and its’ cronies own the majority of the high-end luxury hotels, as well as the airlines and train system, so a slower-paced and locally-based travel style is the way to go.

Crooked Trails’ Tammy Leland explains, “It is SUPER important to be very of conscience of your impact while traveling in Burma. Dollars must be spent on local services (owned by locals and not the government), cultural impacts are the same as Crooked Trails advises anywhere (follow cultural guidelines) and environmental guidelines will be harder to follow since the country doesn’t have the eco-friendly services to support environmentally sound tourism. Natural areas will be heavily impacted by the increase in tourism in the coming years. Travelers need to be prepared to follow their own strict guidelines of environmentally conscious travel (bring your own water bottles and ways to treat water, cut down on resource use–use only what is absolutely needed, research travel companies who are trying to lower impacts). Also, while traveling in Burma, if travelers see concrete tourism abuses (cultural or environmental) it can be reported at www.my.ecoburma.com where they are trying to compile a database of the impacts of tourism that can then focus on local people and concerned travelers to help reduce impacts.

As with all travel, the onus is on us to be educated. Lonely Planet provides excellent, thoughtful coverage and resources for traveling responsibly in Burma, including a free download of the “Should I go?” Burma article on their site. A more recently Burmese nunupdated and expanded article on this ever-changing topic plays prominently in their newest guidebook to the country. Amnesty International provides on-going analysis of the human rights issues in Burma and around the world, and the Democratic Voice of Burma site is a self-described “independent Burmese media organisation committed to responsible journalism”.

Our organization is built on the belief that together we can improve cultural, ecological, and economic conditions around the world by changing the way people travel. Travelers connecting with the people of Burma are empowered to amplify their voices into the world; to help spread awareness of the duality of resilient, wonderful people struggling to overcome harsh restrictions on their livelihoods. When spent wisely, their tourist dollars can directly support the local economy and help bring about long-term positive change. We can help bring the world’s attention to issues such as forced labor, environmental protection and low-standard healthcare to help set the priorities for Burma’s citizens moving forward.

Perhaps our tagline of “travel with a purpose” has never been more apt than in Burma. While we don’t currently offer any travel programs there, our mission to help educate travelers and sustain local economies rings especially true for travel in this fragile, changing land.

To be honest, the politics and socioeconomic structures of nearly all the countries we travel and work in have a dark side. But you can’t blame a country for the erroneous decisions of its leaders. Instead, we look to positive cross-cultural exchange to create better, more-educated world citizens and bring light to some of the shared challenges we face as a human race.


Photo credits (all via creativecommons license):
Temples of Bagan Burma by pwbaker
Sunlight at Pa-Oh Temple Burma by shnnn
Burmese nun by exfordy
Burmese woman with flower by travelmeasia

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