May 2011


Doctrine divides, Action unites

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A New Tourism Model for Burma

National League for Democracy


1 and 2: While many foreign tourists visit Burma to enjoy its
natural and cultural beauty, the NLD is welcoming those from
abroad “who are keen to promote the welfare of the
common people.”

Burma is one of the largest countries in Southeast Asia and offers a sweeping variety of tourist attractions. Monuments of historical interest are to be found in the ancient cities of Sri Kestra, Pagan, Mrauk-U, Mandalay and Pegu. Much of the landscape of the country is dotted with pagodas great and small. The Shwedagon dominates the skyline of Rangoon with its golden splendor while the Kyaikhtiyo stupa is perched on a gigantic, precariously balanced rock and attracts many pilgrims and sightseers to Mon State in the southeast. In Kachin State in the northernmost region of the 2,000 kilometer-long country rises the loftiest peak in Southeast Asia, 19,400-foot-high Mount Khakaborazi, capped throughout all seasons by a glacier that feeds into the Irrawaddy River. This most celebrated of rivers in Burma wends its way through the heart of the country until it disperses in the delta as myriad waterways that finally empty into the sea. There also exist lesser known rivers that can compete with the Irrawaddy for biodiversity and sheer scenic beauty. In rivalry to the rivers are ecological dreamlands, such as Phongamrazi and Alaungdaw Kathapa, and wildlife reserves which have been recognized as ASEAN National Heritage Parks. Other sites that would be of particular interest to eco-tourists are the wildlife reserves at Indawgyi, Inle and Moe Yun Gyi Lakes. These reserves harbor an impressive range of species of native fauna and flora, including rare orchids, and are also favorite resting stations of migratory birds. Burma also boasts an extensive coastline along the Indian Ocean adorned with white sand beaches unspoiled by overdevelopment. The northwest, north and east of the country are rimmed by the Chin Hills, the easternmost tail of the Himalayas and the Shan plateau. There is an uncommon beauty to these regions that are home to many ethnic people and which still largely remain off the usual tourist beat.

In spite of such an abundance of attractions, Burma received only 200,000 visitors during 2009–2010. The numbers are expected to rise to 300,000 for 2011; but compared to the average annual figures for Thailand (14 million), Vietnam (four million), Cambodia and Laos (two million each), it is obvious that the Burmese tourist industry is lagging far behind those of its neighbors. Considering that Japan continues to attract 300,000 tourists a month in spite of the triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear radiation leaks, tourism in Burma might be said to be still at a rudimentary stage.

The successful development of the tourist industry in Burma depends not only on service providers, such as travel agents, tour operators, tour guides, hotels and guesthouses and transport companies, but also on the cooperation of the tourists themselves. It is essential to strike the right balance between commercial and societal considerations, although such a balance is often difficult to achieve in a developing country like Burma. While tourism could enhance the economic life of the people of the host country by creating new jobs, bringing in hard currency and raising the standard of living, it also could have negative consequences if environmental issues are ignored and the meeting of different cultures and social values are not approached with sufficient sensitivity.

Whole communities in Burma have been harmed in the interests of the tourist industry. Local populations have been displaced, often without due compensation or satisfactory relocation, to make way for the construction of hotels and other tourist facilities. To be uprooted from ancestral villages often means the loss of livelihoods as well as homes. To make matters worse, forced labor is used for some construction projects. The net result is economic hardship exacerbated by the abrupt breakdown of a traditional way of life and a gross violation of basic human rights.

Meanwhile, large numbers of imperceptive and uncaring tourists could undermine the social, cultural and moral structure of local communities. The danger lies not only in conscious misconduct on the part of visitors but also in well meaning, but injudicious, behavior. While the callous expectations of sex tourists present an obvious evil, thoughtless practices, such as the indiscriminate distribution of money or gifts that have made habitual beggars of children in some communities, do not receive enough attention. The genuine development of a country requires the promotion not only of the standard of living but also of self-respect and the self-reliance of the people.

An issue of paramount concern is the destruction of the environment and the disruption to the biosphere caused in the process of the development of infrastructure aimed at attracting tourists. The clearing of forests to build hotels, holiday resorts, restaurants, access roads and golf courses should be prohibited by law. The disposal of garbage, sewage and other waste materials should also be strictly regulated.

Currently, the very survival of Inlay Lake, famed as much for its beauty as for the unique way of life of its water dwellers, is seriously challenged. Deforestation has produced soil erosion, landslides, sedimentation and climate change, causing the surface area of the lake to shrink by half over the last 30 years. The uncontrolled use of fertilizers and pesticides for the floating gardens, the undisciplined discharge of waste chemicals from weavers and smiths and the disposal of untreated sewage and waste water from hotels and restaurants have polluted the lake so badly some of the rare species of fish are near extinction. As the water is no longer potable, the local people, who have lived off the lake for centuries, are now obliged to get their drinking water from distant sources. The climate has changed so precipitously the whole ecological system has been upset to the extent that the development potential of the tourist industry itself is threatened as it is no longer permitted to open new hotels, inns or restaurants.

The National League for Democracy (NLD) boycotted Visit Myanmar Year 1996 to draw attention to human rights violations, to the monopoly by the military regime and its cronies of the most lucrative components of the tourist industry and to cultural, social and environmental damage consequential to preparations for the expected hordes of visitors. Now, 15 years later, the human rights record has not improved in Burma, and, in spite of the efforts of the International Labor Organization (ILO), forced labor can be found in many parts of the country. Such abuses can be stopped only through appropriate political measures and not, as some hope, by an influx of foreign visitors. Many of the larger tourism-related businesses are still owned by members of the families of those in government or their cronies, for the claim that a large percentage of the industry is in private rather than in government hands overlooks the crony factor. Although a worldwide awareness of ecological concerns has led to greater caution with regard to the despoiling of the environment, the damage done to historical monuments by fast, superficial renovations that have ignored the need to preserve authenticity and uphold aesthetic values remains as a sad reminder of an irresponsible drive to attract tourists. Moreover, there is little evidence at present of responsible, informed moves to preserve historical monuments in consultation with experts in the field.

The economic straits in which the people of Burma find themselves today call for a review of the policy of the NLD with regard to tourism. The challenge is to reap the benefits of a vibrant tourist industry that would give a much needed boost to the economy while keeping negative consequences to a minimum. Information about which travel agencies, hotels and other facilities are free from government affiliation, from social exploitation and from human rights violations could be provided to prospective visitors by travel agencies and human rights organizations. Positive discrimination in favor of businesses engaged in effective outreach programs and environmental conservation should be encouraged.

Among tourism-related enterprises is the production of traditional arts and crafts. The promotion of quality goods that encourage the preservation of time-honored techniques and designs while stimulating innovation and experimentation would be beneficial economically as well as culturally and artistically. Shoddy souvenirs are inevitable, but discriminating buyers will not be slow to give their patronage to superior products.

The NLD would welcome visitors who are keen to promote the welfare of the common people and the conservation of the environment and to acquire an insight into the cultural, political and social life of the country while enjoying a happy and fulfilling holiday in Burma.