Make the decision that’s right for you and for Burma.
Most of you are probably familiar with the reasons why not to travel to Burma – number one being that it is virtually impossible to visit the country without supporting the regime in some way – but let’s review them again.
Tourism can have several negative impacts on the country of Burma and its people.
Human Rights Violations
First of all, the creation and maintenance of tourist facilities often involve such human rights violations as forced labour or child labour, as well as appropriation of land and property. Hotels, highways, and tourist sights are sometimes built by forced labour, including children who ought to be going to school. In the areas around tourist attractions, local inhabitants are forcibly moved and often on short notice.
The authorities also take beach-front property away from families that traditionally offered accommodation and food to tourists on their property; they are then no longer allowed to offer any services to tourists and are in fact not supposed to even approach the newly-built facilities.
Impact on Traditional Society and Business
Tourism can thus cause a variety of social problems among the local population as they are forcibly displaced or must abandon their regular work to build tourist-related facilities – work for which they receive inadequate or no money. At the same time, small businesses suffer as the government sets up hotels, restaurants, and cafes to cater directly to foreign tourists.
In Burma like in other countries, tourism also carries an environmental cost. The luxury hotels built by the junta for foreign tourists use up a tremendous amount of resources in a country where the electrical power grid is on the brink of collapse. What’s more, natural areas are razed for the building of hotels and other tourist facilities, with a consequent negative impact on the local environment. Ancient and religious sites are ‘renovated’ for profit-making motives, permanently destroying a part of the local culture and history, as well as the natural surroundings.
Unavoidably Funding the Regime
As mentioned earlier, any visit to Burma will necessarily fund the regime. Visa fees, air and rail tickets, entry fees to tourist attractions all help fund the Burmese army and its cronies. And by supporting the regime financially (albeit unwillingly), one allows it to remain in power and thus prolongs the dictatorship and its devastating impact on the country and its people.
At the same time, the more tourists come, the more facilities and attractions the regime will build. This also leads to cultural exploitation – special tourist shows devalue the meaning of the original cultural event. And in some cases, locals are forced to participate in such shows and do not receive any benefit from it.
This is often the case for ethnic minorities and effects also Burmese refugees in neighbouring countries; Padaung women and girls, for example, must wear metal rings around their necks just for the money it brings in from foreign tourists who come to look at them – therefore often compared to a “human zoo” – with most profit going to the tourist business and not the Padaung themselves.
Symbolic Support of the Regime
Some would argue that any visit to Burma also represents symbolic support of the regime. The government uses statistics on the number of tourist visitors to prove that foreigners accept the situation in the country without question. Growing tourist numbers are used by the government to fight its critics.
But what about the benefits of tourism in Burma? These are no less important.
The Trickle-Down Effect
Advocates of tourism to Burma say that the money spent in the tourism industry will eventually trickle down to the people and thus increase the general living standard of the Burmese. This would then indirectly also affect fields like education, health and others.
The question remains, however, whether all parts of the population can be reached by this trickling-down money. Not only do ethnic minorities in the country’s remote areas hardly have a chance to benefit from the wealth generated by ethnic Burmans in Burma’s hotspots of tourism. The past has often proven that development is confined to a rather limited group of Burmese. Critical political engagement of individuals, for example, would most likely lead to their exclusion from achievements.
Also, experience has shown that much of the foreign investments to Burma ends up on bank accounts outside the country. A similar leakage would likely occur to revenue in the Burmese tourism industry.
Support Small Businesses
While a visit to Burma does entail some money going to the regime, it also provides the opportunity to directly support small businesses and help ensure the livelihood of local inhabitants. And ultimately, when people are able to comfortably meet their daily needs, they’ll be more able to work to change the oppressive regime they live under.
Going to Burma and meeting local people enables an information exchange in both directions. And when tourists go home and tell their family and friends about their trip and the Burmese they met, it raises awareness about the situation in the country and the need for change.
Beyond information exchange, a foreign traveller visiting Burma provides some moral support to the local population – knowing that people abroad are aware of what’s going on in the country, and what the real situation is. Knowing that they are not forgotten and that people are talking about Burma abroad can be a boost to Burmese living inside the country.
What’s just as important as the trip is what is done after, when the tourist gets home. Hopefully, a trip to Burma will spur a lasting interest in the country and support of its civil society, NGOs, and refugees. Holding an evening for friends and family where you share photos, stories from people you met, and information about other important issues that aren’t usually seen by tourists can open someone else’s eyes to the current situation in Burma and even encourage them to do something to help.
Whether or not to go to Burma is not simply a question of yes or no, but also of how. Obviously, package tours are discouraged but individual travel can have a positive impact. If you do decide to go, click here to read our responsible travel tips.