TOURISM IN MYANMAR

TOURISM IN MYANMAR

Myanmar is a beautiful country with a lot to offer travelers seeking an exotic destination. It has long swaths of undeveloped beaches, interesting ethnic groups, warm, friendly people, deserted islands, golden temples, cultural sites still unblemished by development, and many bizarre and unusual things."Myanmar is the last of the truly magical destinations of the orient," Philip Shenon wrote in the New York Times, "a technicolor glimpse of Old Asia perfumed with sandlewood and spices with ginger. It is the most devoutly Buddhist nation on earth, a land of glistening pagodas and hand-carved sandstone temples tended by hushed, saffron robbed monks." Rudyard Kipling praised the "mist on the rice-fields", "the old pagoda looking lazy at the sea", and "a neater, sweeter maiden in a cleaner, greener land" on the Road to Mandalay.

Since 1992, the Myanmar government has encouraged tourism. However, fewer than 750,000 tourists enter the country annually. To boost tourism industry the new Myanmar government is in the process of making “immediate adjustments,” such as having looser visa rules, modeled on those of successful holiday destinations such as Thailand. [Source: Reuters, January 20, 2013]

In 2006, Joshua Kurlantzick wrote in the Washington Post, “In the late '90s, it seemed possible that Burma, one of Asia's most culturally rich nations, would enjoy a tourism mini-boom. The temples of Pagan, dotted across a plain, have survived for nearly a millennium. The region outside Mandalay contains ruins of ancient capitals of Burmese kingdoms and hill stations that resemble British resorts. Even chaotic Rangoon boasts a wealth of crumbling but still magisterial colonial architecture. But the country gets fewer than a million visitors per year. The gleaming Mandalay airport sits empty, a lone staffer wandering its cavernous halls.[Source: Joshua Kurlantzick, Washington Post , April 23, 2006 \^/]

Tourism remains a growing sector of the Myanmar economy. It is served internationally by numerous airlines via direct flights. Domestic and foreign airlines also operate flights within the country. Cruise ships dock at Yangon. Overland entry with a border pass is permitted at several border checkpoints. The government requires a valid passport with an entry visa for all tourists and business people. [Source: Wikipedia]

Tourism in Burma in the 1970s and 80

Describing tourism in Burma before it had really been discovered, and when perhaps it was at its most surreal, Joshua Hammer wrote in The New Yorker, “In 1980, when I passed through as a backpacker, it was possible to exchange a fifth of Johnnie Walker Red and two cartons of Marlboros on the black market for enough kyats, the local currency, to travel in Burma for a week. Vintage nineteen-forties automobiles rumbled down the potholed streets of Rangoon, a riverside slum of mildewed British-colonial buildings with filigreed balconies draped in laundry. Most nights, the electricity failed, and the streets were cast in near-total darkness, except for the glow of battery-powered lamps illuminating the secondhand booksellers and betel-nut venders. Like all foreigners, I kept to a carefully prescribed one-week itinerary, in part because of the Communist insurgency and the ethnic rebellions then raging in parts of the countryside. I travelled by crowded trains to Mandalay, the second city, and Pagan, an ancient imperial capital strewn with the ghostly remnants of pagodas. Any signs of dissent were—to a backpacker’s eyes—deeply buried. [Source: Joshua Hammer, The New Yorker, January 24, 2011]

Paul Theroux wrote in “The Great Railway Bazaar”: “Tourists are welcome, treated with enormous courtesy, invited to Burmese homes, photographed, and squired around and given special privileges. I was told that I needn't worry about getting a seat on the plane from Mandalay to Nyaungu because if the plane was full I would be given the seat of a Burmese who would be ordered out and requested to wait for the next plane. This sounds much worse than it works out in practice: on the Fokker Friendship from Mandalay to Nyaungu I was the only passenger. The pretty stewardess spent the trip eating her lunch (which she invited me to share) from a palm leaf. I asked her how she liked her work. "Sometimes," she said, "I get fed up."Package tours fly in daily from Bangkok, and the tourists are whisked by plane from town to town where waiting Japanese buses take them from sight to sight; then lunch from a hamper packed in Rangoon; then a hotel (average price about $13 a night, with breakfast). "See Burma in Four Days," is the boast of one travel agency in Bangkok. [Source: Paul Theroux, The Atlantic, November 1, 1971 \\\]

“There are shortages of everything else: spare parts, electrical equipment, anything made of metal or rubber, and worse, cotton cloth. In the YMCA in Rangoon one is given a room; the fan is broken, cockroaches frolic in the adjoining shower stall, and on the bed is a dirty mattress. The mattress cover is torn; there are no sheets, no pillowcases. The manager is helpful; he says, "Sleep downstairs in the dormitory. There are no sheets there either, but it only costs two kyats." I demand sheets. "Expensive." he says. But the room is expensive! He demurs: "All the sheets are at the laundry."And the sheets are at the laundry again in Mandalay, at Maymyo, at Nyaungu, and Pagan. But on the lines of wash in these towns there are no sheets. \\\

Foreign Travelers to Myanmar

During the fiscal 2010-2011 (April-March), 424,000 people visited Myanmar, according to official data, and its 570 hotels and 160 guesthouses had a total capacity of just 24,692 rooms. By contrast, neighbouring Thailand, which has a similar climate and landscape to Myanmar, has more than 4,000 hotels and resorts and attracted 19 million visitors the same fiscal year. Total tourism arrivals in Myanmar during the fiscal year 2009-2010 stood at 300,000, up from 255,288 a year earlier.

About 150,000 tourists visited Myanmar in 2007, half the number who came in 2006, a record year for tourism in Myanmar. The Myanmar government said 500,000 foreign visitors visited history in 2002, a figure that was probably exaggerated as government statistics are highly suspect. The World Tourism Organization said the true number was more likely 200,000, including diplomats and businessmen, with 12,000 from the United States. This was up from 160,000 foreign visitors in 2000 and only 20,000 in 1994.

About 600,000 foreign visitors came to Myanmar in 2003, up nearly 20 percent from 2002, according to government sources. These travelers brought in $116 million in revenues, compared to $99 million the year before. Visitors from neighboring countries such as Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore accounted for 44 percent of the increase and made up more than half of all visitors. In 2003 Thais made up 10.8 percent of all visitors to Thailand. They were the largest group, followed by citizens of Taiwan, Japan, and China. Germany was the source of the largest number of Western tourists followed by the United States, France, Britain and Italy. [Source: World Tourism Organization]

An estimated 1 million Chinese visit Myanmar every year. Many of them so do so without visas and hit the border towns patronized mainly bet them to gamble and have sex with prostitutes.

As of May 2010, foreign business visitors from any country can apply for a visa on arrival when passing through Yangon and Mandalay international airports without having to make any prior arrangements with travel agencies. Both the tourist visa and business visa are valid for 28 days, renewable for an additional 14 days for tourism and 3 months for business.

The number of European and North American travelers fell off at various times in the 1990s and 2000s. Some were affected by calls for boycott on tourism to Myanmar. Others had security concerns. Often at the same time this was happening the number of Asian travelers from Japan, South Korea and China was increasing. They have not been so inclined to follow—or had even heard about—the tourism boycotts of Myanmar. During periods of unrest in Myanmar, ven during the high season for tourism, many hotels in popular spots, such as those surrounding the ancient Buddhist temples of Pagan, were virtually empty. When that happened cooks and chambermaids at hotels and restaurants as well as curio hawkers, tour company workers and craftsmen lost their jobs or sources of income.

Tour guides and hotel employees in Myanmar have been given instructions not to discuss politics with foreigners. If they are caught doing so they can face severe punishments. Hotels are required to give list of their guests to the military intelligence office. Generally the military keeps a low profile in tourist areas and soldiers are friendly and helpful to travelers. However there have been cases of travelers being detained in locked rooms.

In September 2011, AFP reported, a Japanese tourist was been killed near Pagan and a motorcycle taxi driver arrested on suspicion of her murder, a government official said. Chiharu Shiramatsu, 31, was killed near Kyaukpadaung, close to the ancient temple city of Pagan, after hiring the motorcycle taxi to go sightseeing, according to the authorities. "She was killed by a motorcycle taxi driver who tried to rape her," a Myanmar government official who declined to be identified told AFP. Min Theik, the 39-year-old motorcycle taxi driver, was arrested at the scene. Violent crime involving foreign tourists is relatively rare in military-dominated Myanmar. [Source: AFP]

Tourism Campaigns, Development and Myanmar’s Greedy Generals

Through the 1990s and 2000s the Myanmar government encouraged tourism as a way to earn hard currency. In the mid 1990s, the government launched a campaign to attract tourist. “Foreigner Only” waiting rooms were added to train stations and ferries were outfit with clean bathrooms, comfortable seats and entrance gates. The year 1996 was designated “Visit Myanmar Year.” At that time 34 hotels were under construction, financed with money from foreign investors and opium lords, and new roads were built with forced labor. “Visit Myanmar” was largely a flop.

Burma’s underdevelopment is one of it greatest charms. Traveling in Burma is like going back in time to a kind of primitive paradise uncorrupted by too many automobiles, televisions, factories and busy people. There was still no McDonald’s or 7-Elevens in the 2000s.

One way Myanmar’s generals got their hands on foreign currency was by requiring foreign tourists to change $300 into Burmese foreign exchange coupons (FEC's) when they entered the country and required them to pay for train tickets, hotel rooms and other amenities with FECs or dollars. Foreign travelers arriving at the airport were also encouraged to sign up for $500, 10-days government-sponsored tours, with much of the money presumably going to the generals.

Mandalay has relatively new international airport that boasts golden pagodas on the roof. It opened in 2001 and has air bridges for 747s and luggage carousels that look like they have never been used.

Major hotels built by foreigners are required to have a Burmese partner.

Pagan Development

Pagan has been developed and restored in some strange ways, most of them not good. About a thousand pagodas have been rebuilt by the government, many in a slapdash manner with new pink bricks and concrete as mortar. Restored pagodas often look more like pagodas found in a miniature golf course than the real things. The local people find them just as ugly as foreign tourist and have nicknamed some of the pagodas after the generals who they say think will earn merit and gain magical powers from the project.

Beginning in the mid 1990s, the Myanmar government embarked on a major restoration of Pagan. In some cases small pagodas have been fixed up in three months at a cost of $1000 with pink tiles and bricks that look as if they were made at factory that makes patio tiles. To cut corners, interior walls have been whitwashed, in some cases covering up works of art. Art restoration work is often shoddy. One official bragged to the New York Times that the Myanmar government restored 840 priceless murals in less than two years and would have done it faster were they not slowed down by all the colors. In some temples the names of donors have been inscribed in red paint over 800-year-old murals. Some consider the damage that has been done on par with what the Taliban did in Afghanistan..

UNESCO worked at Pagan in the 1990s but left. The organization was not by the Myanmar government during their wave of restoration. In fact no independent or qualified conservationists have been consulted on the project. Foreign money is welcome—foreign tourist are encouraged to make donations—if they give enough they are given a tour of the pagoda they are helping to rebuild—but not foreign expertise. Buddhists give money to earn merit. Villagers whose families have lived with archeological zone for decades have been moved to make way for a golf course and other additions.

The Myanmar government has erected a 60-meter observation tower at Pagan. The government tourism office claims the tower is a conservation effort that helps reduce the wear and tear of people walking on the pagodas. Richard C. Paddock wrote in the Los Angeles Times, The regime has begun “a building program that is changing Pagan's skyline. On the eastern edge of the cultural heritage zone, the government recently built a 154-foot observation tower that resembles a grain silo and sits alongside a new resort complex and golf course. For $10 -- two weeks' salary for a teacher here -- visitors can take an elevator to the top, have a drink and watch the sun set over the temples. In Old Pagan, workers have built a massive archeological museum and have nearly finished a huge palace designed in 19th century Mandalay style -- not 12th century Pagan style. Both grandiose structures seem out of place on the plain of temples. [Source: Richard C. Paddock, Los Angeles Times, September 7, 2006]

Pagan’s Facelift

Darren Schuettler of Reuters wrote in 2006: “Unfurling a black-and-white drawing of a 700-year-old temple, Aung Chai scans the intricate sketch as diggers expose an ancient wall caked in red mud. "We'll need many new bricks for this one," the 52-year-old foreman said on a roadside in Pagan, Myanmar's mystical ancient capital where the rebuilding of temple 2610 is underway. But among the dark, weathered relics are spruced up stupas and new reddish-pink temples which have dramatically, and inaccurately, changed Pagan's character, critics say. More than 1,800 monuments have been fixed or rebuilt since the junta ordered the "beautification" of Pagan 10 years ago and shows no sign of stopping despite an outcry from foreign experts. [Source: Darren Schuettler, Reuters, November 13, 2006]

"It has become a kind of Disneyland," said Pierre Pichard, a French expert on the site built between the 11th and 13th centuries by King Anawrahta and his successors. "Tourists are not stupid. They can see it was built two months ago and there is no ancient part of the building," he said, referring to the modern bricks and cement used in many rebuilding projects.

“Restorations are not new to Pagan, a victim of many floods, fires and earthquakes over the centuries. A severe 1975 quake destroyed or damaged scores of clay brick and mud buildings and stunning wall murals some say are Pagan's greatest treasure. The junta allowed UNESCO experts in to help, but it later ignored the U.N. culture agency's recommendations for World Heritage status, which would have required a conservation plan and unwanted international scrutiny.

“After UNESCO withdrew in the mid-1990s, the generals launched their own restoration drive and solicited donations from wealthy Burmese and merit-seeking Buddhists from across Asia in pursuit of their own temple for the next life. "They just wanted it to look beautiful," said Gustaaf Houtman, editor of UK-based magazine Anthropology Today, who believes it is part of a wider campaign to rewrite history. "Generals sponsored the renovation of a pagoda as a merit-making exercise, as a way of demonstrating to the whole of Burma, and to the world, that they were in control," he said.

“A study by Australian archaeologist Bob Hudson says 650 complete buildings have had major repairs -- including new spires, roofs or corners -- since 1996. Another 1,200 -- anything from a section of wall to a mound of bricks -- were rebuilt based on historical documents and wall paintings of other buildings with similar floor plans. The regime says it is preserving Pagan as a living Buddhist site for thousands of worshippers from home and abroad who flock to pray at the temples on the banks of the Irrawaddy River.

"Our government values and cherishes cultural heritage," Information Minister Brigadier General Kyaw Hsan told Reuters. "To turn Pagan into a Disneyland is, of course, out of the question," he said, dismissing critics who see an all-out effort to lure tourist dollars. They point to the 18-hole golf course in the shadow of pagodas, a gaudy new museum and a 60-metre-high (197 feet) viewing tower derided by some outsiders as an eyesore.

“More worrying to archaeologists is the proliferation of cookie-cutter monuments emerging from mounds of rubble like 2610. Pichard said restorers failed to recognize that temples or stupas could share the same floor plan but their shape and size varied widely, giving Pagan its rich diversity. "Now this is lost to something that is very uniform and stereotype," said Pichard, who believes only the 400 wall murals could qualify for World Heritage status today. Aung Chai, who has rebuilt or restored 50 monuments, says too much fuss is being made about a pile of old bricks. The surviving chest-high wall of 2610 will be torn down and used for the foundation of a new mini-temple sponsored by a Burmese family, their names to adorn a headstone when it is finished. "They only want a temple for their future life," he said as his crew, who earn 1,200 kyat (about $1) a day and are trained on the job, readied bricks and cement nearby.

“Myanmar's Department of Archaeology has defended the restorations publicly. But some within the department opposed it privately and left to earn more money as tour guides, Pichard said. "They have no choice. When a minister tells you to restore a temple and to make it as beautiful as possible, either you do it or you resign," he said. Some see the controversy over Pagan as a clash of Western and Asian views on how best to preserve culture, laced with overtones of Myanmar's struggle with the West on its human rights record and detention of political prisoners.

"I think this whole question is in a political framework instead of a cultural framework. You have to ask who is setting the standards, the Asians or the West?," said Oliver E. Soe Thet, general manager of the Pagan Hotel. "The difference is that Pagan is a living culture," said Soe Thet, who added many of his guests are Buddhist pilgrims. Others say the argument should be about what is good archaeological practice. They point to neighboring Laos where its ancient royal capital, Luang Prabang, has balanced the needs of tourism and preservation with guidance from UNESCO.

“Some experts believe the U.N. agency, which has toned down its criticism of the Pagan restorations, is trying a softer approach to get the junta to accept its advice.But the regime has a long history of thumbing its nose at the international community and it may be too late. "The damage has been done," said Houtman. "Anyone who looks at it now will see something very different from what it was 20 years ago."”

From Ruins to Ruined at Pagan

Richard C. Paddock wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “The bricklayers are paid $1.35 a day to rebuild the ancient ruin: a small, 13th century temple reduced by time to little more than its foundation. But they have no training in repairing aged monuments, and their work has nothing to do with actually restoring one of the world's most important Buddhist sites. Instead, using modern red bricks and mortar, they are building a new temple on top of the old.They work from a single page of drawings supplied by the government. Three simple sketches provide the design for a generic brick structure and a fanciful archway. No one knows, or seems to care, what the original temple looked like. Nearby are two piles of 700-year-old bricks that were pulled from the ruin. The bricklayers use them to fill holes in the temple.[Source: Richard C. Paddock, Los Angeles Times, September 7, 2006]

“Known as Monument No. 751, the structure is one of hundreds of new temples that have popped up all over the ancient city of Pagan, which ranks with Cambodia's Angkor temple complex as one of Asia's most remarkable religious sites. Once the scene of an international rescue effort, Pagan is now in danger of becoming a temple theme park. The late Myanmar historian Than Tun called the restoration "blitzkrieg archeology." "They are carrying out reconstruction based on complete fantasy," said an American archeologist who asked not to be identified for fear of being banned from the country. "It completely obliterates any historical record of what was there."

Many of the temples were damaged by a major earthquake in 1975. The military government at the time accepted international assistance, and experts from around the world spent years restoring some of the most important temples. Major temples restored after the quake remain in good condition. But after a new clique of generals came to power in 1988, interest in upholding international standards for historic preservation vanished. The regime rejected offers of continued foreign assistance and eventually dropped its plan to seek Pagan's designation as a World Heritage site, leaving one of the world's premier archeological sites without U.N.-protected status.

The government decided instead that turning Pagan, also known as Bagan, into a tourist destination could bring much-needed foreign cash. The generals set about making the archeological zone more appealing to visitors, particularly tourists from neighboring countries such as China and Thailand that are not so critical of the military government. One of the regime's first steps was to uproot all 3,000 residents who lived within Old Pagan's historic walls and move them to New Pagan a few miles south. "We were very angry," said one man who was 15 when his family had to pick up and move its small wooden house. "The older people were very sad. We had been there many generations." Where the homes used to be, the government began building hotels and restaurants. Much of the work was done with forced labor, a form of exploitation for which the regime is notorious. As in every aspect of society here, decisions on historic preservation are made by generals with no special expertise or training. Government archeologists say privately they have no choice but to go along. "If we disagree," one said, "they will send us to prison."

Untrained workers began covering old walls with plaster, obliterating the original contour of the brick. Statues were removed and replaced with no attempt to make accurate copies. The damage has been greatest to the medium-sized temples, many of which were neglected after the earthquake and then damaged by subsequent restoration work, said French architect Pierre Pichard, one of the foremost experts on Pagan. "The monuments have lost a great part of their authenticity and individuality," said Pichard, who worked extensively at Pagan after the 1975 quake and wrote an eight-volume catalog of the monuments published by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. "Their missing parts, especially their upper superstructures, have been rebuilt without evidence of their former shape."

Pichard said the regime's building spree in Pagan was reminiscent of the monuments built by Mussolini during his fascist rule in Italy. "The more oppressive a regime the more prone to build this kind of huge, useless and ridiculous structure," he said. "They are terribly offensive to the landscape and were certainly not needed. To use so much money for these useless buildings in a country where most people do not have schools for their children, electric power, roads and other facilities is, I think, a crime."

For Myanmar's elite, Pagan has become a valuable source of good karma. Many Buddhists believe that those who contribute to the construction of a temple are rewarded with "merit" that improves their fate when they are reincarnated. Generals and top government officials have been among the largest donors. At the Archeology Department office in Pagan, officials keep a list of hundreds of temple ruins ready for rebuilding, and a price list showing how much donors would have to give for each one. The amounts range from $700 for a small pagoda to $275,000 for a large temple. Most are between $2,000 and $30,000.

The department is eager to accept donations and welcomed a recent visitor who inquired about the program. Staff members provided a tour of two temple ruins. One was available for $800, the other for $2,400. All that remained of the original structures were walls 1 to 2 feet high. Plans were already drawn up for replacements. The original walls would be demolished, the old bricks discarded and new materials used. The larger ruin would be turned into a 30-foot-high temple, the smaller a simple pagoda. The new temples would cover the footprints of the old.

Government archeologists acknowledge that no one knows what the original structures looked like and say their designs are a calculated guess based on other buildings that survived. Even so, the design for a new temple can be changed at a donor's request...Officials have said it would be too costly to copy the old materials.

To make the new temples look more like ruins, the bricks are coated with brown paint made from ground-up ancient bricks. The idea is to have them look like old structures that have lost their stucco. It doesn't take long, however, for the paint to wash off. "The new brickwork, therefore, clashes with the aged appearance of the surviving temples, the new monuments appearing like plucked, pink chickens amidst the ancient shrines," American archeologist Donald Stadtner writes in his new book, "Ancient Pagan, Buddhist Plain of Merit." In addition to their reward in the next life, donors get a plaque outside their newly built temples. Existing signs bear the names of generals and ministers as well as donors from such places as Japan, South Korea, China, Thailand and Switzerland.

Pichard and other Western experts say the rebuilding program has caused irreparable harm to Pagan. Stadtner says the damage caused by the 1975 quake was "benign" compared with the reconstruction of the last 15 years. "Up to 1990, Pagan was one of the best preserved sites and cultural landscapes in Asia, with a perfect blend of the rural life where peasants, villages and well-cultivated fields surrounded the monuments without any harm," Pichard said. "Now all actions result in disfiguring the site and endangering the ancient buildings. Sorry for the cliche, but Pagan is becoming a Disneyland, and a very bad one."

Tourism and Politics in Myanmar

Tourism, according to the United Nations, is an important source of jobs and foreign currency for Myanmar. Over the years its fortune have been strongly affected by politics in Myanmar. Aung San Suu Kyi asked tourists to avoid her country until democracy prevailed. Human rights also urged tourists to avoid the country. Lonely Planet disagreed, arguing that tourism’s benefits to ordinary Burmese outweighed the impact of the money that ended up in the hands of the military regime. Tourism was hit hard by images seen around the world in 2007 of soldiers beating up monks and shooting protesters.

Myanmar’s military junta's forced labour programmes were focused around tourist destinations which have been heavily criticised for their human rights records. Even disregarding the obviously governmental fees, Burma’s Minister of Hotels and Tourism Major-General Saw Lwin recently admitted that the government receives a significant percentage of the income of private sector tourism services. Not to mention the fact that only a very small minority of impoverished ordinary people in Burma ever see any money with any relation to tourism. Much of the country is completely off-limits to tourists, and the military very tightly controls interactions between foreigners and the people of Burma. They are not to discuss politics with foreigners, under penalty of imprisonment, and in 2001, the Myanmar Tourism Promotion Board issued an order for local officials to protect tourists and limit "unnecessary contact" between foreigners and ordinary Burmese people. [Source: Wikipedia]

In the early 2000s, traveling to Myanmar became a politically-correct issue as it was claimed that much of the tourism money spent in Myanmar ended up in the hands of the military regime and thus supporting the regime’s repression and forced labor. Among those who opposed a boycott on tourism to Myanmar was Lonely Planet Guides. They argued that: 1) such a boycott deprived thousands of ordinary people of desperately needed money; 2) exchanges between foreign tourists, and Burmese helped open the eyes of the Burmese to the outside world: 3) and the same exchanges educated foreigners about Myanmar’s problems and needs. In its guide for Myanmar , Lonely Plant offers suggestions on ways to minimize support of the junta but concludes that travel “is the type of communication that in the long term can change lives and unseat undemocratic governments.”

Travel agents that dealt with Myanmar sometimes advise travelers which hotels to stay in and which airline to fly to avoid supporting the regime. Boycott opponents argued by travelling independently foreign visitors could regime-linked businesses and can maximise the good they brought to ordinary Burmese. Supporters of the boycott were most against large scale mass tourism. "To have a very big cruise ship with hundreds of tourists coming in - that's a lot of money for the regime, and so we don't like such big business," Win Tin, a friend of Aung San Suu Kyi, told The Times.

Aung San Suu Kyi said, "Burma will be here for many years, so tell your friends to visit us later. Visiting now is tantamount to condoning the regime." Her support of a tourism boycott was very controversial. Even people within her own party disagree with her stand on this issue. One member of the NLP told the New York Times, “If the tourist don’t come, women in textiles factories will lose their jobs. They are the ones who suffer, not the generals.” On souvenir shop owner told the Washington Post: “If no tourist come I can not feed my family.”

Kira Salak wrote in National Geographic, “Since 1996 the Myanmar government has sponsored a campaign to encourage tourism, but there's been much debate in the West about traveling to this country. Suu Kyi advises against it, arguing that tourism funds the government's oppression; other Burmese exiles believe tourism creates much needed jobs for local people and provides foreign witnesses to internal conditions. Shortly after I'd arrived in the country, I shared a taxi with a stranger in Yangon who suddenly started telling me about his support for Suu Kyi and his expectations of the collapse of the country's military leadership. There seems to be a need among people to talk to someone—anyone—from outside the country. To tell the world about a hidden, deep suffering. Unwittingly, I find that I am viewed less as a tourist than as a witness. [Source: Kira Salak, National Geographic, May 2006]

Burmese Opposition Drops Tourism Boycott and Myanmar Visas Before the Election

In November 2010, Kenneth Denby wrote in The Times, “The 15-year-old, opposition-inspired tourism boycott of Burma has been declared over after the party of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi said it would now welcome foreign travellers. Win Tin, a senior leader of the National League for Democracy, told The Times that foreigners should visit Burma and see for themselves the suffering of the people under one of the world's most stubborn and repressive military dictatorships. "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," said Mr Win Tin, a co-founder of the NLD and close friend of Ms Suu Kyi, who has spent 20 years as a political prisoner. "For the outside world to see, to know our situation, that can help our cause a lot, we think. It's rather difficult for us, but very recently Mr Tin Oo [the NLD's deputy leader] and myself decided that really we can't ask people not to come to Burma." [Source: Kenneth Denby, The Times, November 4, 2010 :::]

“Mr Win Tin said that the new policy had not received the explicit approval of Ms Suu Kyi but he said that her silence on the matter, in messages brought out by the few visitors permitted to visit her, suggested that she supported the new policy. "The matter is not so very easy for us, so we haven't decided yet whether we reverse Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's request. But our thinking nowadays is that we should allow people to come, to see how people are suffering under the regime ... There's no response from [Ms Suu Kyi], so I think she may agree." ::

In August 2010, Reuters: “Army-ruled Myanmar has suspended visas on arrival for tourists from September ahead of its first elections in two decades, officials said. potentially restricting access to the country for foreign observers. The reclusive country began offering visas to arriving tourists in May to lift tourism. But the scheme will be suspended. "We think the real motive for this measure could be to prevent outside reporters and monitors from entering the country ahead of the Nov. 7 elections," a private tour operator said. Many foreign journalists traveled to the country on tourist visas during a monk-led political protest in 2007 and when Cyclone Nargis hit in 2008. The regime offers few opportunities for foreign observers to visit the country. Journalists and observers granted official visas are accompanied by minders. [Source: Aung Hla Tun, Reuters, August 23, 2010]

Hotel Chains Eye Myanmar as It Opens Up

In January 2012, Reuters reported: “Travellers hoping to catch a glimpse of the glittering Shwedagon Pagoda or hear the "tinkly temple-bells" of Kipling's Road to Mandalay might one day be able to book into a Westin or a Marriott, thanks to Myanmar's emergence from political isolation. Starwood Hotels & Resorts— which runs chains such as Westin, Sheraton and Le Meridien —and Marriott International both said they wanted to start running hotels in Myanmar as one of the most isolated countries in Asia, is being welcomed back into the international fold after two decades of sanctions, thanks to democratic reforms. "Marriott would love to be there if conditions are right," said Arne Sorenson, president of Marriott International. "Burma has captured people's imagination for decades."[Source: Paritosh Bansal and Ploy Ten Kate, Reuters, January 26, 2012]

The hotel chains in Myanmar now are Asian-based companies such as Shangri-la Hotels & Resorts, which runs Traders Hotel, Singapore's Sedona Hotels International, and GHM Luxury Hotels, a Burmese company that owns the Strand in the commercial capital. The few five-star hotels outside of Yangon are mostly in beach resorts or tourist centers such as Mandalay and Pagan. But as the number of tourists visiting Myanmar surges the government admits it has a dire shortage of accommodation.

Western chains sense an opportunity. "I think it's time for people like us to look at Burma," said Vasant Prabhu, vice chairman and chief financial officer of Starwood Hotels & Resorts. "I think Burma is the interesting new opportunity -- a little bit like Vietnam might have been 20 years ago. We have a decent presence in Vietnam right now." Jalil Mekouar, managing director for the Middle East and Africa for Jones Lang LaSalle Hotels, a hotel investment services firm, said Myanmar's potential for tourism and hotels was "gigantic" given its landscape, islands and rich history.

Nancy Johnson, executive vice president of development for Carlson Hotels in the Americas, suggested her company, whose brands include Radisson and Country Inns & Suites, would also be interested in going into Myanmar. "It's a beautiful country," Johnson said. "If there's an opportunity to go there, we will be there."

Hotel chains operating in Thailand see big potential in Myanmar, but are not in any rush to set up there, aware of the risks attached to investing in a country with a long history of corruption and unclear legislation. "We are looking for ways to expand in Myanmar. What we want to do is get in there by managing local hotels," said Ronnachit Mahattanapreut, a senior vice-president at Central Plaza Hotel, Thailand's fourth-largest listed hotel firm. "I don't think we need to hurry because rules and restrictions are not really settled." Prakit Chinamourphong, head of the Thai Hotels Association, which represents about 800 hotels, including the Mandarin Oriental, the Four Seasons, owned by Minor International Pcl, and Dusit Thani, said it would be at least two years before Thai chains made a move."No one has really talked about going there yet. Yes, Myanmar is opening up but it's a bit too early for us to get in now," he told Reuters. "There are still high risks to make a move there. Politics, for one thing, is very uncertain. Having said that, we see a very good opportunity."

Tourism Rush to Myanmar Since the Reforms and Release of Aung San Suu Kyi

Tourist arrivals in Myanmar doubled in 2013, to 2 million. Tourism is still a small slice of the economy, but it’s a fast-growing component of Myanmar’s nascent service sector.

Amanda Jones wrote in the Los Angeles Times: Times are changing in Myanmar, and it's happening with 21st century speed. The military junta, bowing to crippling international sanctions and pressure, was dissolved in 2011 and Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in 2010, and ever since tourists have rushed into the country. This onslaught of visitors (820,000 in 2011; 1 million in 2012 and 1.5 million estimated in 2013) means there are insufficient hotel rooms and that travelers must book months, sometimes even a year, in advance. It also means feverish hotel construction, and not always with the best planning. [Source: Amanda Jones, Los Angeles Times, December 13, 2013]

Thailand's Protests Hit Tourism to Neighboring Myanmar

In January 2014, Christina Larson of Bloomberg wrote: “Thousands of antigovernment protestors have filled the streets of Bangkok, clogging intersections and calling for Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to step down. The country’s tourism industry is expected to take a major hit, with visitors from China projected to decline 70 percent in January and during the crucial Chinese New Year holiday. [Source: Christina Larson, Bloomberg, January 15, 2014]

But it’s not only Thailand’s tourism sector that’s suffering. Neighboring Myanmar is also feeling the chill. “Usually this time of year is a popular tourist season,” Aye Mra Tha, an official at state-run Myanmar Airways International, told the Democratic Voice of Burma media group. She said that passengers were down 40 percent on flights between Bangkok and Yangon (many international flights to Myanmar’s capital are routed through Bangkok). Even as fewer tourists arrive in Myanmar, travel agencies based in Yangon also reported anemic business booking visitors to Thailand.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Myanmar Travel Information Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, burmalibrary.org, burmanet.org, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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