Why we still encourage people to come to Myanmar

By BERTIE LAWSON | FRONTIER

YANGON – Since last August, much of the world’s attention has focused on Myanmar’s Rakhine State.

On August 25, attacks coordinated by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army on police outposts, and an army camp, incited a fierce retaliation by the Tatmadaw.

This clearance operation led almost 700,000 Muslims – overwhelmingly Rohingya – to flee across the Bangladesh border to an area south of Cox’s Bazar, and provoked Ms Yanghee Lee, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, to report that it had “the hallmarks of genocide”.

Conflict between the Tatmadaw and ethnic armed groups, as well as inter-communal violence and the persecution of communities at the hands of the armed forces, has plagued Myanmar since the country gained independence in 1948. The causes of these conflicts go back further still.

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In no way does this painful past lessen the tragedy of what we are witnessing in Rakhine State today, but in recognising that history casts a long shadow one can appreciate the complexity of the situation. There is no quick-fix for the problems in Rakhine State, and any roadmap to a solution will be long, fraught, and paved with hurdles.

The horrific stories coming out of Rakhine State have deterred many people from travelling to Myanmar on holiday. Although we recognise the reservations that some have, we still encourage people to visit Myanmar.

One concern people have is security.

Despite conflict in the country, the vast majority of Myanmar continues to be safe for foreigners to travel to. Before August 2017, international tourists were not permitted to enter townships where conflict is occurring, and this naturally remains the case today.

As the safety of guests is a priority, we receive advice on travelling in Myanmar from the UK Foreign Office, as well as other countries and the Myanmar government.

Aside from safety, some wish to avoid Myanmar for ethical reasons, not wanting to condone the actions of the country’s military and government.

This is a personal decision that travellers must eventually come to by themselves.

However, we believe that a boycott is not the best way to help the country overcome its present challenges.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi rescinded her call for a travel boycott in 2010, a time when the country’s economy was one of the most moribund in Asia and lagged behind its neighbours on almost all indexes of development. Since then, Myanmar’s nascent tourism industry has flourished. We have witnessed first-hand how the people of Myanmar have welcomed international tourists to their country, and with industrious spirit founded grassroot enterprises to serve these early visitors.

Previously, when travelling in Myanmar tourists had little choice but to stay in government or “crony” owned hotels, and the restrictions placed on these tourists meant that the dollars they spent often went directly into the coffers of the repressive regime.

This is no longer the case. Whether it is through family-run guesthouses, restaurants, guiding and transportation services, handicraft stores or a myriad other direct and indirect services, the increase in tourism in Myanmar has led to the improved livelihoods of families throughout the country. A sharp fall in tourism most drastically affects these people, who rely on international visitors to purchase their products and services.

Furthermore, over the last few years local tour operators and international development agencies have invested heavily in post-conflict areas such as Kayah State, working with ethnic minorities to increase their capacity to welcome tourists and forge a more inclusive tourism industry in general. It would be a shame for these projects to stall just when momentum is picking up.

There is a second, less tangible boon that tourism has brought to Myanmar.

In conversation with a guide in Dawei recently, we were told that the arrival of foreign travellers not only engendered a newfound appreciation of the country in local residents, but also in part realised his own childhood dream of travel – by doing so vicariously through those visiting from abroad.

Speaking to Myanmar people, one is reminded that international travel is a luxury; one that the majority of the people living here do not ever expect to enjoy. After being cut off from the world in an enveloping dictatorship for over half a century, the lifting of the tourism boycott in 2010 offered Myanmar’s citizens the chance once more to interact with people from other parts of the world. The worth of such interaction cannot be overstated, creating a space for dialogue, empathy and combatting prejudice and narrow-mindedness.

With the above in mind, we believe in the potential of tourism to do much good.

We are dedicated to working with a handful of community based tourism projects, where decision-making is put in the hands of the communities themselves. We are similarly committed to employing the services of local guides and supporting locally owned enterprises, as well as cooperating with organisations working towards the betterment of Myanmar

Furthermore, with the assistance of the responsible tourism certification system Travelife, we have drafted policies that lay out procedures for child protection, animal welfare, environmental sustainability, and the preservation of tangible and intangible cultural heritage, so to enforce our desire to see Myanmar not only become a better place to visit, but also a better place to live.

We believe that sensitive and informed travellers, alongside engaged and responsible tour operators, have the power to affect small change through travel.

We encourage people to visit Myanmar to see for themselves what small change they can make.

TOP PHOTO: Residents of Thandaunggyi in Kayin State are striving to develop the town’s tourism potential. (Oliver Slow | Frontier)

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