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Should Tourists Visit Burma?

The ethical question of tourism in Burma has been addressed by me before, however during 2011 and into the start of 2012 the fundamentals on which our previous advice had been based, changed.

Our advice has always been based on guidance issued by the only legitimately elected leader of the Burmese people, Aung San Suu Kyi. She had previously asked tourists to stay away from Burma, because it provided vital foreign exchange and legitimacy for the generals, who have ruled the country for over 50 years through fear, brutality and the vilest forms of suppression.

Following her release from house arrest, imposed for her courageous non-violent fight against the illegitimate violent military regime, there has been a slight shift in her attitude to the issue of tourism to Burma; one which has been in part informed by a change in the world as a whole, dramatic improvements in communications and the rise of the China, India and other world players as genuine super-powers.

There have also been tentative changes in Burma itself, but it is the nature of these changes which is far from clear-cut.

The premise that ‘any change should be welcomed as a positive’ does not always hold water; change which entrenches brutal and evil regimes to continue a reign of terror by presenting a better façade of legitimacy, can serve to extend the reign of evil dictators and their successors; delivering the additional wealth and power they require to survive.

So what of the changes in Burma and should we welcome them or be cynical as to their motivation; I think at this time it should be a healthy dose of both.

Aung San Suu Kyi is free, that is a wonderful sentence to be able to write; however we should caution that she is free from house arrest, but no one in Burma is yet really free; travel is still restricted, communication is still restricted & strictly monitored and open political activities are still curtailed by ‘legislation’.

So what of these new political freedoms which the regime has been so keen to publicise?

The Burmese generals made a grand fanfare of their ‘Roadmap to Disciplined Democracy’, one of these steps was an ‘elected parliament’ to represent the people. What they made less noise about were the restrictions placed on those who could stand, restrictions which were aimed at securing only favourable candidates. Amongst many such restriction was one which prevented ‘criminals’ from standing; which when any unauthorised political activity has been a criminal offence for over 50 years punishable by long term imprisonments, forced labour and isolation, restricted the field somewhat. This opened the way for people ‘connected’ to the military or ex-military personnel to take up almost every seat in the new parliament.

Just to be sure the generals maintained control, the new constitution also guarantees that 25% of the seats in parliament are reserved for serving military personnel and no law or constitutional change can be made  without a 75%+ majority… not really how most would see democracy.

There has subsequently been some relaxation in these laws, which has allowed certain banned parties including Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) to re-form despite initially having them disbanded for having convicted (political) criminals amongst their ranks.

More recently there have been steps taken to release significant numbers of political prisoners including some of the most high profile, but with the military still running one of the most secretive regimes, calculating how many more remain incarcerated is not possible; these certainly number amongst the hundreds, some of whom are old and frail and locked in prisons in remote areas of the country where the vital support all Burmese prisoners need from families on the outside (to subsidise inadequate food and medical requirements) is unavailable due to the distances involved and travel bans.

But maybe just maybe things are really changing… I am one of the sceptics on Burma, there have been so many false dawns, the most frightening aspect of which is the dark cloud which has inevitably followed and the large numbers of people who have paid the ultimate price for the hope they had.

This time there does seem to be a momentum, small changes and the odd larger victory. Cease fires signed by the regime with rebel groups, political prisoners being freed, some significant engagement by the international community, small concessions in freedom of the press, small concessions in political freedoms, Aung San Suu Kyi not being stopped from visiting some other parts of the country and her image no longer being something ordinary Burmese had to hide away through fear of the consequences of owning it.


So what of travel to Burma?

The military’s goal must be to attain the legitimacy which will deliver prosperity and acceptance around the world. They know that greed is the driving force behind so much big business and many governments, they also know that the natural resources they have in abundance will be fought over by companies and countries alike, only the thinnest sliver of legitimacy will be required by some to make it ok to trade; the travel industry is no different.

Aung San Suu Kyi did indeed say she felt there would be some advantage to limited tourism to Burma now. She said that tourism which focussed on local people would deliver more understanding of the outside world in what is a repressed country where developments occurring in the rest of the world are tightly controlled through state media and censorship of the internet. ‘The Lady’ (as she is affectionately known by many) also said that the wealth that tourism could bring to local people would help the impoverished people of Burma; who have been kept in abject poverty of decades, to cement the power and wealth of the military and elite.

So the doors to Burma have been opened by the only legitimate leader of that country; Aung San Suu Kyi.

However big business and politicians from a variety of countries have pounced upon the idea that the primary barrier to tourism and profit (in the form of Aung San Suu Kyi request for people to stay away) has now been lifted and that a ‘land grab’ for a part of that market has been given the green light.

But that is not what was said; Aung San Suu Kyi always chooses her words carefully. She did not encourage mass tourism where the only gains are for the regime and big foreign companies.

Her consistent message from the interviews she has been able to give is that ‘we are not in favour of group tourists, but we don’t mind if individuals come to Burma, foreign tourists could benefit Burma if they go about their travel in the right way, using facilities that help ordinary people and avoiding facilities that have close links to the government.’

Win Tin a senior NLD party member re-emphasised this by publically welcoming individual tourists rather than officially organised package tours which mainly benefit the country’s regime. To read the whole NLD statement on tourism to Burma Click Here.

Burma is now on every list of ‘top places to visit in 2012’, however none of these lists provide any caveat of what sort of travel people should seek to undertake during their visit.

I read a recent article in Wanderlust magazine telling of undiscovered wonders in this magical country; of which there undoubtedly many. However their reporter travelled with a big tour operator on an organised trip at a cost of over £2500 for 10 days, this was justified under the false assertion that this was the type of tourism Aung San Suu Kyi now encouraged.

In a country as closely controlled as Burma, a significant part of the foreign exchange generated by hotels, transportation, entry permits etc. goes directly to the generals as many of these services are owned by the military regime and their cronies, many others indirectly fund the regime through the permits required by businesses which provide services for foreign tourists

The profits generated by the tours themselves goes to the foreign tour operators and therefore the positive contribution to local Burmese people from this type of tourism will be almost zero. You only need to look at the problems mass tourism funded by foreign business has caused in other nations in the region (in Cambodia in particular) to see how rather than local people benefitting, they are actually further harmed as their local resources are depleted by the influx of tourists, their way of life disrupted and their ancestral lands forcibly repossessed by governments, multinationals and wealthy foreign investors.

Organised tours which justify themselves by including meetings with local people and using local guides will generally be pre-organised, controlled and undoubtedly authorised by local and national officials; currently the vast majority of which are pro-military stooges of the regime, the favoured minority.

This is not the type of tourism which Aung San Suu Kyi was referring to when she encouraged limited tourism to Burma. Look at any of the plethora of similar articles being written in travel magazines and they are surrounded by advertisements for organised trips to Burma; the tour operators choice for ‘frontier travel’, because they are smoothed over by a regime desperate for tourism.

Frustratingly many of the companies who were in collusion with the brutal military regime for decades and who actively promoted travel to Burma during the period when Aung San Suu Kyi urged people not to travel, are now falsely representing her new stance on tourism to justify their tours. Business and ethics should not be mutually exclusive, we the public must inform ourselves and make choices based on the genuine ethical and responsible credentials not slick marketing.


How to Travel to Burma and have a Positive Impact

So if Aung San Suu Kyi says it’s ok to travel, but that the country is not ready for mass tourism which doesn’t benefit the Burmese public, what sort of tourism should be undertaken?

The answer is that what Burma needs and what the Burmese infrastructure can cope with is responsible, informed and ethical independent travellers. This used to mean backpackers, but in 2012 independent travel is no longer restricted to people who can take a year off, it is now a preferred mode of travel for many on a short break, for people of all ages and from all backgrounds.

‘Independent’ also doesn’t have to mean hostels and camping, independent travel in South East Asia has always been easy to achieve using guest houses and hotels.

In Burma the best way to benefit the people and the best way to meet real Burmese is to organise your own travel. In Burma because of travel restrictions, this is still more time consuming than for other destinations, but it is far from difficult; just a little frustrating.

The rules for making your travel most beneficial to local people are the same as anywhere in the world:

  • Use local transport, preferably private local operators rather than government transport.
  • Buy food and provisions from local retailers and street vendors
  • Stay in local guest houses rather than government controlled hotels
  • Buy souvenirs / gifts from local artists and craftsmen / craftswomen; beware the curse of SE Asia and avoid buying imported Chinese trinkets.
  • Support local charities on the ground and interact with them where you are invited to do so; see for yourself where any donation you care to make might go.
  • Remember how massively wealthy you are in comparison to them, barter hard because it is expected, pay a fair price and be generous because you can be.

For now travel to Burma is quite safe, there are the usual medical concerns and the infrastructure is very poor, including the health facilities; another reason the country is not ready for mass tourism. But beware, the regime is very secretive still and they do not tolerate dissent, this includes straying off the path too far or going to restricted areas, you do not want to find yourself locked up in Burma!

Be careful taking photographs of any sensitive military facilities or personnel; ‘sensitive’ in Burma means anything or anyone linked to the military. They also do not allow photographs of ‘vital’ infrastructure such as bridges etc.

One final point, Burma may be experiencing the first ripple of change, but it is their change to make and foreigners getting involved in politics in-country is not accepted or tolerated. Avoid political rallies, large gatherings or taking part in overtly political discussions; remember while you may feel safe due to your nationality, the people you interact with may suffer the consequences of your actions.


I may be sceptical about some of the changes taking place in Burma, but there are positive signs and who would have bet on the sudden changes which took place in South Africa, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, the fall of communism and so many other seemingly indestructible regimes in history; maybe just maybe we will one day be able to use the words ‘Free Burma’ as a noun rather than an verb.


Related Reports

NLD welcomes responsible tourism, but warns against abusesThe Irrawaddy

NLD statement on tourism to Burma – NLD

Burma joy as freed prisoners head home – BBC

Report on tourism to Burma – Info Brimanie 


Source – Peter Mayhew is the Managing Director of Safe Gap Year. He delivers independent travel safety courses and provides expert advice on all issues of travel safety.

Date – 14th January 2012


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