Beware the Burmese bandwagon

Working together in unison’ was the recurrent theme of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s message, following her release from house arrest in Burma just a few weeks ago. Words which uplifted so many and yet, in tourism, an industry where the word ‘Burma’ has been divisive to say the least, the idea of unity seems a long way off. Indeed, until recently, only the brave, bold, base or belligerent dared to mention the B-word.

So there should have been a sigh of relief when, just days before she was released, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party declared that a partial ban on tourism be lifted. The proviso is that mass tourism is not the way to go, and that tourists should travel independently, avoiding all ‘juntafied’ businesses such as most of the cruises, coastal resorts and big hotels. Consequently, even Tourism Concern, the leading charity for human rights in tourism, has changed its policy. This is a big turnaround for an organisation which, over the past fifteen years, has worked passionately and energetically to push the Burma boycott, identifying UK and international travel companies contributing to the regime, and petitioned for Lonely Planet to withdraw its Burma guidebook.

Tour operators such as responsibletravel.com are still wary, however, with director, Justin Francis, saying “We are seeking further clarification to the change in policy, which we are concerned may be the opinion of one spokesperson given in a press interview rather than that of Aung San Suu Kyi or NLD official policy”.

However, Burma Action Ireland confirms that Aung San Suu Kyi is supporting this change of policy, following an interview with Der Spiegel newspaper, where she stated that the EU “has spoken out against group tours where Burmese government facilities are used. It endorses individual trips, however, which could benefit private companies” and that “it is essential that people see what is actually happening in this country”. A further interview with Amnesty International supported this when she said, There’s a lot of enthusiasm on the part of young people which I did not see seven years ago so that is very, very encouraging for us and I would very much like the young people of Burma to be able to communicate with young people abroad, so they can find new ways of helping to bring our struggle to a victorious end ”. As electronic communication is still extremely limited, this suggests that she is indeed welcoming people to physically start coming back to visit.

Unlike the responsibletravel.com’s of this world, however, some tour operators will now quite simply jump on a ‘Burma’s fine’ bandwagon, with dollar signs not human rights at the top of their agendas.  So beware of the press frenzy to discover ‘somewhere new for 2011’ and research a trip carefully.  Personally, when I feel ready to travel there, the companies which ignored the NLD’s earlier request to boycott tourism (a list of these is still available on Tourism Concern’s website) will certainly not be top of my list. In terms of guidebooks, Footprint Travel Guides has decided to have a Burma chapter in its next SE Asia guide, due out October 2011, and is one of a few guidebooks to currently get Tourism Concern’s blessing.

There are changes afoot, however. For example, there is no requirement to change money at the airport any more, which means tourists can avoid providing direct income to the junta at the point of entry. And on an optimistic New Year note, Keith Donald, Chairperson of Burma Action Ireland, when asked if he would now contemplate travelling to Burma, said, I would travel to Burma now because, if Aung San Suu Kyi says it’s ok to go, it is ok.” Similarly, Tricia Barnett, Director of Tourism Concern added, “I must admit that the idea of it still causes huge anxiety, but actually I realise now that the time to start thinking about it has probably come”. But although times are changing, both are quick to remind me of the unchanged facts: fear is rife in Burma, and there are still 2202 political prisoners awaiting release. And before planning our holidays, the priority should be to maintain support for initiatives which ensure that these people are released and that the fight for democracy continues. In unison.

This article was first published in The Irish Times 1 January 2011

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