New initiative reignites Burma tourism debate

A new campaign promoting Burma and three other countries as a single tourism destination has reignited debate on the ethics of travel to the military-ruled Southeast Asian nation.

Tourism ministers from Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Burma announced the “Four Countries: One Destination” campaign at an international travel expo in Ho Chi Minh City earlier this month. The four countries will aim to improve transport links between their major attractions and encourage tour operators to design cross-border tours.

The initiative aims to help the countries compete with more popular destinations such as Thailand and China. A two-week tour could see tourists take in Halong Bay in Vietnam, the historic Laotian city of Luang Prabang, Angkor Wat in Cambodia and the ruined Burmese city of Bagan – arguably just as spectacular as the famous Khmer temple complex.

But travel to Burma remains controversial. Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese opposition leader under house arrest in Rangoon, has urged a boycott of travel to the country, arguing tourism merely lines the pockets of the military and its cronies. The junta has also been accused of using forced labour in the construction of hotels.

Last year rumours surfaced that Suu Kyi had dropped her opposition to travel to Burma, though her party, the National League for Democracy, made no official announcement indicating a change of policy. Anna Roberts of the Burma Campaign UK told DVB her organisation supported the policies of the democracy movement, “and they have called for tourists to stay away”.

“As this new initiative demonstrates, Burma’s generals have identified tourism as a potential major source of income,” she said. “Some people argue that it is all right to go on holiday to Burma as local people will benefit. It’s true a small number of people do benefit from tourism, but millions suffer from the regime it helps to fund.”

But many observers take a different view. The Free Burma Coalition, a political initiative which spent years advocating a tourism boycott, reversed its position after deciding pro-sanctions campaigns had failed to achieve change in Burma. Dr Maung Zarni, the organisation’s founder, is broadly in favour of tourism. “I know it is against the views of the pro-sanctions crowd, but I would like more people to go,” he told DVB. Tourists should nevertheless avoid government-run facilities where possible, he said, adding that most five-star hotels were joint ventures with the government.

Derek Tonkin, former UK ambassador to Vietnam, Thailand and Laos and chairman of the Network Myanmar advocacy group, is another tourism advocate. Tonkin argues that avoiding government-run hotels is now less of a concern than it was. “All the old state institutions, the restaurants and hotels have been sold off to the private sector, and were sold off at the beginning of the 1990s,” he said, claiming the majority were now 100% owned by foreign companies.

The amount of money the regime derives from tourism is small, Tonkin said. According to the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism, 227,400 visitors visited Burma last year. Those tourists brought in around $US200 million, Tonkin estimates. “It’s ceased to be –  if it ever was – a main source of income for the regime,” he said, adding that the regime’s real source of income – sales of natural gas – bring in about $US200 million every month.

Tourism advocates argue the industry supports a large number of people who suffer from the boycott. Tonkin says the industry employs around 600,000 people. “That includes everyone down to the postcard seller, the taxi drivers and the tour guides, whether they’re official or unofficial… I see tourism very much as a means of breaking through Burma’s isolation and getting to the people,” he said.

On November 7, Burma will hold its first elections in 20 years. Following the polls, few observers look likely to change their views on the tourism boycott. The Burma Campaign UK’s view of the polls is typical of most in the pro-democracy movement.

“Everyone knows that the sham elections in November won’t bring Burma closer to freedom and democracy, the elections are designed to maintain dictatorship. That’s why we need the international community to unite behind a UN-led effort to pressure the dictatorship to open dialogue with the democracy movement and ethnic representatives,” said Roberts.

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