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So you’re planning to visit Burma? Then read this first…

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So you’re planning to visit Burma? Then read this first…

The Moral Minefield

By Aung Zaw

February 2007

So you’re planning to visit Burma? Then read this first…

One question often posed by foreign friends and visitors who come to my office is whether they should visit Burma. I find it difficult to offer a straightforward answer.

In order to sound out the opinions of others, I put the same question to other foreign friends and Burmese people involved in Burmese affairs and the tourism business. Understandably, their reaction is mixed and cautious.

Many shared the view that Burma has the potential to become a top tourist destination in Southeast Asia, if developed properly, but that it still has a long way to go.

Since last October, prior to the high season, local papers and pro-regime journals were upbeat. In early October, the 7 Day News journal reported on an American millionaire’s visit to Pagan and Mandalay—“An American named Mr Sam Zell who is on the Forbes magazine list of the 400 richest Americans and his six-member party arrived in Bagan (Pagan) by helicopter on 5 October.”

Hotels at Chaung Tha Beach, on the Bay of Bengal, were also ready to welcome tourists, and had received many reservations, the paper claimed, extolling the peaceful and relaxing holidays to be enjoyed there.

In December, a European traveler who often visits Burma noted that a Thai Airways flight to Rangoon was full. Although EU governments discourage their citizens from visiting Burma, holidaymakers included Swiss, German and French tourists.

“Your country has the potential to become a top tourist destination,” said the traveler. “Many want to visit Burma, but the regime has little idea how to promote tourism.”

He cautioned, however, that the tourism industry was still very much controlled by the military and its cronies. He saw taxi drivers, tourist guides and hoteliers enthusiastically awaiting the arrival of more tourists. If tourism ever became one of Burma’s main sources of income, the military and its cronies would monopolize it, he said.

I know that tourism brings both joy and tears to Burma. Since the regime launched the “Visit Myanmar Year” campaign in 1996, roads have been widened, hotels built and expanded, and some historical palaces have been renovated.

At Ngwe Saung beach, a popular tourist destination, villagers living along the beach were relocated when the regime wanted to promote the resort. Villagers still bitterly talk about the forced evictions, which occurred without compensation.

Hotels, roads and highways were built by regime-friendly companies. One of the top hotels in Rangoon, Traders, was built by the Asia World Company, which is run by former drug lord Lo Hsing-han and his son, Steven Law. There is no doubt that drug money has been poured into the tourism industry. Likewise, several ethnic businessmen and former warlords who were involved in shady business and illicit trade have invested in bus lines, transportation and the construction of hotels and resorts.

Be that as it may, the tourism industry is still at a standstill in Burma. Tour companies reacted only with optimism when Burma’s neighbors faced troubles and natural disasters. For instance, they saw only the benefits of a spillover of tourists when Bali was attacked by terrorists or when neighbors were hit by the 2004 tsunami.

In 1994, two years before the “Visit Myanmar” campaign, about 47,230 tourists visited Burma. In 1996, the regime set the target at 500,000. Only 10 years later, according to official figures, was this target somehow attained.

The trouble is that Burma’s military leaders have little idea of what tourists want to see in their country. The sleepy Hotels and Tourism Ministry moved to the new capital Naypyidaw, central Burma, in 2005. The irony is there is not much the ministry can do from there to lure tourists.

Consequently, local people and some tour guides in Rangoon told me that it is not the boycott campaign alone that is hurting tourism, but the regime must also share the blame.

I still think the famous tombs in Rangoon, including those of former UN Secretary General U Thant, independence hero Aung San, and Burma’s last queen Suphayalat, should be perfect tourist sites, but they lie neglected and overgrown.

Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who asked tourists to avoid Burma until democracy is restored, thought of tourism and its impact. She once confided to a visiting diplomat that if her party had been in power, the construction of Traders Hotel so close to the Sule pagoda in downtown Rangoon would not have been approved. But such thoughts and any helpful advice on tourism fall on deaf ears.

Just before the regime launched the tourism campaign in 1996, a local business magazine, Dana, prepared an article outlining prospects for tourism in Burma. The article contained some interesting points, including offering advice on how the country should promote eco-tourism, business and cultural tourism. The article urged Burma to focus more on economic development, agriculture and exports. The regime’s notorious censorship board axed the article.

Tourism is certainly a mixed bag.

But at the end of the day, tourism could become one of the main sources of income in Burma. Thus, private sector and tourism officials in Burma should be on their guard to prevent overdevelopment and should learn the downside of tourism from the experience of neighboring countries.

Some Burma-based tour companies I spoke to talked about responsible tourism, eco-tourism, and quality tourism, but also community-based travelers programs such as home stays, ethno-museums, and educational programs that bring tourist dollars directly into communities.

Whether tourists can also encourage democracy in Burma is doubtful. When Suu Kyi was asked by a journalist whether democracy could be promoted and human rights abuses prevented more effectively by tourists than by international isolation, she shot back: “Burmese people know their own problems better than anyone else. They know what they want—they want democracy—and many have died for it. To suggest that there’s anything new that tourists can teach the people of Burma about their own situation is not simply patronizing—it’s also racist.”

True. Although more tourists have been visiting Burma in recent years, we have also seen the regime continue to imprison activists, put pressure on international NGOs, turn a deaf ear to the UN and increase its repression of ethnic minorities.

Thus, if tourists open up the world to the people of Burma so can the people of Burma open the eyes of tourists to the situation in their own country, if they are interested in looking.

In fact, tourists do not normally care whether a country is ruled by a dictator or a democrat. As long as they feel safe and sufficient facilities are provided, they will visit any exotic place. Hence, we see increasing numbers of tourists flock into Laos, Vietnam, China and Singapore.

As I am not a campaign activist, it is not my business to tell tourists to go or not to go. If you go, that is your decision.

But Burma is a moral minefield. If you want to be politically correct, you won’t go. But if you have doubts about the boycott campaign and want to see Burma with your own eyes, then I think you’d better buy a ticket now.

But if you do go, I ask you to be a guest of those ordinary Burmese people who also want to be able to travel, free from military dictatorship.

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11. Re: So you’re planning to visit Burma? Then read this first…


First of all , thank you for your topic. Every one can believe and make a own decision. Have you been to Myanmar ? If you haven't been yet, please ,I have only one simple request .Please visit your self , see with you own eye and then make your conclusion. Please judge with your own eyes and ears.

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12. Re: So you’re planning to visit Burma? Then read this first…

I've been working in the tourism industry in asia for 15 years and I know Myanmar a lot as I worked in this lovely country for years. I have many friends in Myanmar and have been watching the developments closely.

You do not help the government at all by visiting Myanmar these days; if you go, you will surely help Myanmar people though. The government really do not want any tourist to come into Myanmar right now; it has been suggested that there are things that they do not want you to see. Visas are not that easy now as you may know. There is no moral minefield involved in going but there is surely some moral implications in not going based on those politically motivated pieces of advice.

I can tell you from my experience that the political activists who are advising people not to go are either people who have no first-hand knowledge of Myanmar or those who are out of touch with the realities on the ground like those exiles from the so-called Myanmar opposition.

Things are different today from what they were in 1996. Government income from tourism doesn't at all matter to the government any more. Trade volume last year exceeded $9 billion. The government income from tourism is less than 0.1% of the total. Actually, the government is spending more on tourism than they earn from it and they even plan to scrap the Ministry of Hotel and Tourism.

Please feel free to use any hotel or any travel agency because all of those businesses are losing and profit taxes from the industry are largely a far-flung dream. Feel free to use any taxi or bus because the government is subsidizing fuel in the country and they lose up to $2.5 per each gallon sold internally.

Actually tourism industry is the only industry in Myanmar where the general public is benefited most through the income. It is a labor-intensive industry. Hotels spend most of their income on payroll and local purchases. Travel agencies and tour-operators spend their income mainly on traveling arrangements, almost all of which goes to the public.

Right now whole communities are suffering around the country because tourists stopped coming.

Myanmar people needs to have contacts with the outside world maintained, even increased. Myanmar needs to be engaged, not isolated. Do not forget that when you talk about Myanmar, you are talking about the people, not just the government or the opposition. Remember that when you visit Myanmar you are paying Myanmar people a visit, not the government. It's Myanmar people who will welcome you whole-heartedly because they want you to come. The government and the opposition do not want you to be there. The former cannot openly say that they do not want you whereas the latter is finding it more and more difficult to blatantly say "Don't go" and starting to have to resort to such expressions as moral minefields and things like that to discourage you from going.

Nowadays a lot of evil is being done around the world in the name of good. Ask the Myanmar people IN Myanmar whether you should go. The answer will be a unanimous yes. They know that your company does them good.

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for Myanmar, Yangon (Rangoon), Ngapali, Tossa de Mar
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13. Re: So you’re planning to visit Burma? Then read this first…

If anyone has any doubts about Myanmar please follow the photo link posted by "bcgraph" under the recent heading of "Balloons over Bagan"

You will be bowled over by the beauty of the pics.

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14. Re: So you’re planning to visit Burma? Then read this first…

This is a remarkably intelligent thread. The participant from Japan wrote something which is the dirty secret of the boycott people: the Myanmar government may in fact lose money each time a foreigner visits the country.

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15. Re: So you’re planning to visit Burma? Then read this first…

I visited Myanmar last month. It is true that people are struggling there because very few people visited Myanmar after the Cyclone.

Actually the areas affected by the disaster are just around Yangon and the delta region. Myanmar is a big country and I found out that the rest of the country is intact; even Yangon is absolutely fine; everything is repaired and back to normal, apartfrom the trees.

All major tourist destinations including the beaches are totally unaffected by the disaster. And the people are marvelous, so friendly and heart-warming.

I thought about the moral questions before I went and tried to find out more when I was there. It is true that the government does not want many tourists there. It is also very true that the government unwillingly has to subsidize fuel and electric power. The government price was around $2.5 a gallon. The last time they increased the price (from around $1.5), people and monks came out into the streets and there was no end of trouble for the government (and unfortunately also for the people because of the sanctions and travel bans).

I was told that the big international hotels in Yangon, especially the ones at the centre of Yangon, are doing well because they have UN and NGOs using them. These international hotels are paying taxes to the government and they have to buy fuel from the government at a much higher rate. The smaller locally owned hotels around the country sometimes do not have to pay any tax and even if they have to pay, it is only a small norminal amount. For their generators, they have to buy fuel form outside at about $6 a gallon. Local car owners and taxis can buy a rationed amount of natural gas or petrol at quite a low price from the government. They told me that another price hike by the government is coming soon. Domestic airlines have to buy fuel at a much higher rate (more than $5).

The souvenir shops and the guides do not pay any taxes. The big travel agencies have to pay some taxes for sure. I learnt that most people in Myanmar are not subject to the kind of taxes we have to contend with year in year out. The government is making their fortunes through trade or somewhere else.

I feel that I was right in choosing Myanmar as my holiday destination this year. It is a rewarding experience and I intend to go again.

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16. Re: So you’re planning to visit Burma? Then read this first…

I'm really thank you for who start this topic and those who response it . It is really helpful for our people and real situtation that world need to know.

Once again, thank you all and wel-come from Myanmar (Burma).

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17. Re: So you’re planning to visit Burma? Then read this first…

I like this topic very much..

Each of us has our own comfortable way to behave in the world as we see it.

Victor Aung

18. Re: So you’re planning to visit Burma? Then read this first…

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