Peace Works Travel Blog

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Tuesday Travel Tip: How to Travel Responsibly in Burma

Now that Burma has begun to take it’s first cautious steps towards democracy, is it okay to travel there? In this week’s Tuesday Travel Tip, I’ll be looking particularly at the question of traveling to Burma. Is it safe and ethical for foreigners to go there? And if so, how can we as responsible travelers, use tourism to support the local people? In the Lonely Planet’s 2010 Myanmar guide, it poses a serious question for all potential visitors:
Does your money, no matter how carefully spent, sustain a military dictatorship that has imprisoned political dissidents, used forced labour, cracked down on peaceful demonstrations (as was seen in September 2007) and seized foreign aid (most notably following the Cyclone Nargis in May 2008)? Or does isolating one of the world’s poorest countries not only deprive a burgeoning private sector of income, but also push the government into the arms of neighbours with bigger bankrolls and their own serious human rights issues?
As we looked at in last week’s blog on Myanmar’s recent political developments, 2012 has been a big year for the Burmese people. Whether or not his election was fraudulent, since U Thein Seintook office in 2011, he’s followed the UN guidelines for democratic reform, releasing many political prisoners, allowing Suu Kyi to run for office, and negotiating ceasefires with ethnic minorities. These changes have shifted the lens through which tourism is approached, and when the NLD rescinded their 15-year travel boycott in Fall 2010, the question evolved from “should I travel there?” to “how should I travel there?”
Young Buddhist Monks in Bagan
At the beginning of November, 2010 Win Tin, co-founder of Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), issued a momentous statement: “We want people to come to Burma, not to help the junta, but to help the people by understanding the situation: political, economic, moral—everything.” After supporting a 15-year travel boycott, times had changed to where isolation was doing more harm than good to the Burmese people. “For the outside world to see, to know our situation,” Win Tin continued, “that can help our cause a lot.” As a conscious traveler, how can we take up this call to action and endorse positive change by understanding and sharing the political, economic and moral situation of the Burmese people?
The Burma Campaign UK, an organization dedicated to promoting “human rights, democracy and development in Burma” lists the NLD’s official statement on tourism, released May 2011. The NLD explains that “while tourism could enhance the economic life of the people of the host country by creating new jobs, bringing in hard currency and raising the standard of living, it could have negative consequences if environmental issues are ignored and the meeting of different cultures and social values are not approached with sufficient sensitivity.” Although Burna’s political and human rights situation has improved vastly over the last year, many problems still exist within the tourism infrastructure. To understand and address the current issues facing Burma, I’ve broken them down into three main problems:
Intha man fishing on Inlay Lake
  • Environmental Concern. Tourism has lead to the destruction of native ecology, where the clearing of forests has been used to make room for large hotels, golf courses and resorts. Waste management is another major concern. A lack of proper regulations for garbage and sewage has threatened such ecosystems as Inlay Lake, the home of the leg-rowing Intha people. Pollution from fertilizer and human waste dumped into the lake has driven many fish species near extinction and threatened the livelihood of the local people.
  • Crony Alert. Big tourism related businesses are still owned by members of the government or their cronies. In fact, many large “private” companies are run by what the Lonely Planet describes as “government members on the sly.” Most of these cronies are involved in the gem and timber trade, but some have also infiltrated tourism. Tay Za, a notorious government crony and businessman, has founded two luxury hotel chains: Aureum Palace and Myanmar Treasure Resort. Government-owned hotels have historically imposed forced migration of locals to make room and forced labor for their construction.
  • Ethnic Conflict. While Sein Thein has extended the olive branch to most of the country’s ethnic minorities, recent bloodshed in the Myanmar’s Western state of Rakhine may impact the continuation of Myanmar’s democratic reforms. While these conflicts are not directly related to tourism infrastructure, the world is watching how Myanmar handles the conflict between Buddhists and the Islamic ethnic minority, the Rohingya, who have long been persecuted by the government. 
U Bein Bridge, Mandalay

No matter how hard you try, a percentage of the money you spend will inevitably go to the government, whose track record over the past 50 years has been more than questionable. However, it is possible to travel responsibly. As Burma’s era of isolation draws to a close, it’s our responsibility as travelers and global citizens to ensure that our actions, observations and interactions help and not harm the Burmese people. The best way to promote sustainable and ethical travel is to set an example with your own trip.

What to Avoid:
  • Avoid staying at large luxury resorts as they are likely owned by the government or their cronies and have contributed to sever environmental and human rights abuses.
  • Don’t give money to beggars. The NLD warns that indiscriminant handouts can create a population of beggar children and do not actually help the community at large.
  • Don’t travel in a large package tour. Most package tour providers are interested in making money, not promoting the well being of the local people. They tend to patronize government and crony hotels with questionable environmental and human rights records. And as Suu Kyi explained, “tourists who go around in ‘air conditioned taxis’ don’t see anything that’s going on in the country.”
  • For your own safety, unless you are an experienced journalist, stay away from areas of ethnic conflict. 
Bagan, Burma
What to Do:
  • Stay at small guesthouses and patronize local eateries. This will ensure that your money goes to benefiting the local people.
  • Spread your money around. Buy souvenirs from multiple vendors and eat at a different restaurant for each meal, not only will this enrich and broaden your own experience, but it will also help spread your money to benefit as many people as possible.
  • Talk to the local people. After years of isolation, the Burmese love meeting and talking to foreigners, whose presence shows that Burma and her plight have not been forgotten by the rest of the world. The best way to learn about Burmese culture, politics and everyday life is through interactions with locals. Indeed, cultural exchange was one of the main reasons the NLD has decided to advocate for tourism. However, approach political subject matter with caution. Even though the government has begun to democratize, criticizing the government may have negative repercussions on the local people.
  • Support programs that are environmentally and ecologically conscious; the NLD welcomes visitors who seek to ameliorate Burma’s troubles through their business.
  • Share your observations. Your trip doesn’t end when you return home. In fact one of the responsibilities of travelers to Burma is to share with the rest of the world what they have seen and learned in order to promote the continuation of democratic reform and pressure the government to protect its citizen’s civil liberties. 
Burma is one of the most, beautiful, diverse and culturally rich places in the world, but if you decide to visit, please take the NLD’s call to action to heart. If playing golf and relaxing at a resort is the vacation you desire, then please don’t go to Burma. Tourists have the ability to positively influence the country’s progression to democracy and this is a power that should not be taken lightly. Remember, your actions have consequences. By using your trip to set an example in sustainable and ethical travel, you can transcend ordinary tourism and forge a path towards positive political, economic and social change. 
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