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Citizen diplomacy through tourism?

Burma remains at the centre of a 15-year-old boycott debate. Since Aung San Suu Kyi called for a tourism boycott in a response to the junta’s ‘Visit Myanmar Year 1996’, human rights groups, politicians, the tourism industry and the media have not ceased to argue whether travelling to Burma can be in any way ethical, or whether it is unethical by definition. But, in an unprecedented move, the Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) last month signalled a policy change on tourism.

The NLD modified their stand in a potentially significant clarification of previous statements. Along the lines of ‘Yes we want tourists, but please only the politically aware, ethical type’, the party shows hope and commitment to make political use of the pervasive nature of tourism. After all, tourism, like a virus, can spread widely throughout a host. If travellers are politically informed, know the real situation and try to compensate for their ‘footprint’ in a way that the NLD deems appropriate, pervasive can be a good thing. But if one’s visit does not benefit the local community, such a journey should have some sort of democratic compensation.

Economically, tourism in Burma is relatively insignificant, partly due to uncertainty amongst investors. As of now, tourism is a small source of income compared with gas and gems, but the advantages of developing tourism are vast for both the military and the democracy movement. International investors are sitting on the fence, and so are the democracy activists.

According to government statistics, arrivals to Burma reached 792,000 in 2010, up from 657,000 in 2004. Such a growth rate is partly due to the often overlooked but significant cross-border tourist income. Overall, tourism in Burma increased 21 percent in the past six years. Foreign arrivals at international airports in Burma have been rising to 311,000, a plus of 29 percent. Over the same period, neighbouring Thailand welcomed 16 million visitors, which accounts for 95 percent more tourist arrivals than in Burma. There is absolutely no doubt that the economic potential of developing tourism in Burma is immense.

Suu Kyi has long stated that tourists can be useful, depending on what they do and how they go about it. But she has also warned against deception: “Tourists have to be careful not to deceive themselves; if they want to see the country, they can find all sorts of excuses for doing so. But what they have to understand is how far their visits really go to help the people. You go a long way towards deceiving yourself.”

Today’s signal is clear: the NLD aims to develop a politically sustainable tourism policy – sustainable in the sense of the democratic movement. “We are going to work out a policy on tourism as to what kind of tourists and in what way we would welcome tourists to come; how they should come and how they should go about the country; what kind of hotels they should use and what kind of facilities they should use and what they should look out for,” the Nobel laureate recently said.

A review of tourism policy can mark the start of a new era. It could represent an attempt to engage ethically with the military after years of arguably failed isolation, by using the force of politically-informed tourists.

Many democracy movements in the world overlook the immense potential of tourism, yet the NLD recognised its political value early on.

Nowhere else do we examine the tourist so critically than when he travels to Burma. On the surface, the issues seem obvious: in Burma visitors support a regime that has committed human rights abuses in the name of tourism and refused to hand over power to the winning party in the 1990 election, but then held an orchestrated ‘democratic’ election 20 years later.

The problem of developing a sound tourism policy is deeply rooted in the flaws of the current political situation. As the NLD calls for a continuation of sanctions’ policy with modifications, the regional ASEAN bloc will continue investment to boost further ties in the now ‘democratic’ state of Burma.

The problem continues with a general lack of awareness among mainstream tourists and the fact that contemporary alternative tourism is largely incorporated into mainstream tourism. Also, the tourism boycott is only known to few people, and only some of them agree with it. Many critics mention the hypocrisy of selective moralization; if one applied such thinking to all destinations in the world, then there would not be many countries left to visit.

Where is the line to politically unethical destinations, and who would have authority to draw such a line? Would a tourism boycott make any difference to countries such as China, anyway? And why do boycott activists keep on ignoring the largest group of travelers to Burma, namely Asians? Considering that successful boycotts in the past have been relatively short, pro-boycott arguments may have run their course. The boycott is very effective in raising awareness about Burma, but it does not solve the problem. Quite the contrary, much disagreement remains about its consequences, and many activists are in a stalemate. They can see that the many years of boycotting have not affected change.

The debate should not be about whether or not people should go, but instead what kind of tourism is best for Burma. Tourism is going to happen anyway. Mystique outweighs morality and democracy activists might as well use this situation. There is much scope for ethical tourism, but such policy needs careful consideration and ongoing dialogue. Most travelers romanticise Burma; many escape politics when they travel. Others are scared to even mention politics, and many do not know what they could do to help. Many tourists imagine Burma like it is portrayed in glossy tourist brochures.

The time is ripe to develop a tourism policy that benefits the people, rather than the powers that be. Nothing is permanent – even tourism and the way we travel can change.

Dr Andrea Valentin taught at the Department of Tourism, University of Otago in New Zealand for five years. She focused her PhD on the political awareness of travellers, using Burma as a case study. She is in the process of founding a civil society organisation in Chiang Mai, Thailand, called Tourism Transparency, which advocates responsible tourism to Burma.


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