Responsible travel in Myanmar (Burma)

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Tour operator Sam Clarke explains his company policy:

Last week I spoke at the Tourism Concern Annual Meeting on the subject of Myanmar (Burma) and in particular our responsible travel policy there – which included avoiding hotels owned by members of the regime or those close to it. After accepting the kind invitation, I reflected that this was no longer our policy. On a recent visit to Myanmar, after much discussion with our local partner in country, we decided to drop any attempt at calculating who was benefiting and make decisions based on our normal criteria of quality and sustainability.

Which left me a little short of anything to talk about. So I decided to outline why we had changed the policy and thought it might be good set out why we made this change, so others can better understand our thinking. We looked at the historical perspective, the reality of the situation on the ground, what a policy such as this meant in practice and what our goals were for our holidays within Myanmar.

To put the decision in its political and historical context, I think it’s important to note just how far Myanmar has come since 2009. Not even the wildest optimist in 2009 would have predicted that we’d be where we are now. Aung San Suu kyi, of ‘the Lady’ as she is known in Myanmar, was released from prison in 2010 and 100’s more political dissidents followed. The military regime was brought to an end and a new government introduced under President Thein Sein came in. Some degree of free elections have been introduced as well as a level of freedom of press. Opposition parties, such as the NLD, were permitted to operate relatively normally. Anecdotally, people seem far freer to express political opinions and there is much less of a general climate of fear. Myanmar has seen an explosion in tourist numbers – from 300,000 in 2010, to 2 million in 2013 and a possible 3 million expected in 2015.

It is important to qualify this. The government can best be described as ‘semi-civilian’, with Thein Sein himself and many of the leading figures ex or serving military. Freedoms have been introduced, but are in no way unqualified and many political prisoners remain in jail (see this link here). The constitution is still firmly tilted towards the military junta and Aung San Suu kyi herself cannot officially become president, due to a technical disqualification squarely aimed at her (baring anyone from office with children holding a foreign nationality. Her children are British). The problem of endemic poverty remains and, if anything, the various conflicts between the state and armed ethnic groups and communal violence between Buddhists and Muslims, has got worse (perhaps as a direct result of the increased freedoms).

The point remains though, that Myanmar is an a very different place to where it was in 2009 or even 2011 when tourism really started to open up. Indeed, put in the SE Asian context,(a military regime in Thailand, one party states in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam) the progress is startling.

Which brings us back to my visit in November last year and our decision to change our policy. Our partner in Myanmar is a man with a very strong mission. He was brought up in Bagan, the child of poor but educated parents. He left the country in 2002 at the height of the repression, seeing no future for his career in tourism, but returned in 2009, having built up a successful business in Cambodia. He has a passion for equitable development and building sustainable relationships which benefit the whole country, rather than just an elite few, foreign companies or large corporations. He believes that Myanmar can be so much better than it is and is completely intolerant of shoddy service and poor finished product. He also thrashed me at chess, but that’s another story.

His argument is one of political expediency. He argues that it’s hardly possible to make moral judgements on who owns which hotel and what form of transport now and how close they are to which part of the regime. The minefield that you are entering there is just too complex. It is also not the case that tourism dollars are ‘propping up the regime’ – as could have been argued (just about) in 2009. There are huge profits to be made from mining, logging and other natural resources and the economy has opened up massively over the past 3 years. There is however, a real and persistent problem with poverty which is shifting very slowly, if at all. Myanmar is by some distance the poorest country in the region and indeed, one of the poorest in the world.   He convinced me, that the economic benefits of tourists visiting Myanmar, spreading their spending as widely as possible and generally engaging with the local population was far more of a net gain than any marginal contribution to unsavoury political characters.

The best way to help the local economy, he argued,  was to get off the beaten track, eat at local restaurants, engage local guides, stay if possible in locally owned hotels, purchase local crafts and encourage sustainable use of cultural and natural capital. Most visitors to Myanmar visit the same 4 destinations, namely: Bagan, Lake Inle, Mandalay and Yangon. His passion is to get visitors to those areas, but to see them from unusual angles and also to get away to out-stations such at Kengtung in Shan State, Mawlamyine (setting of the Gorge Orwell short story, ‘Shooting an Elephant’), the Murgui Archipelago in southern Myanmar, Putao in northern Kachin state and many, many more less visited places. If you want to go to these places and the only option is a hotel associated with a figure close to the previous or current regime, should you not go? Of course not. The people of these regions should be able to benefit economically from tourism and tourism can have a benefit when it provides an economic incentive to preserve natural resources.

Putao itself is an interesting case in point. There is a high end lodge style hotel there called Malikha Lodge, which was originally set up by the foreign team behind ‘Balloons in Bagan’. It was acquired by a man called Tay Za a few years back. Tay Za is head of the Htoo group and would be exactly the person who might be referred to as a regime ‘crony’. He was a close associate of the former president, Than Shwe and has all kind of interests in logging, mining and tourism. His big breaks came before the country opened up. Whilst I know very little about him, when I asked about him to various people in tourism in Myanmar, thet said that he had a decent reputation among his 40,000 or so employees and in fact, in the travel industry, Htoo Group were seen as high payers – perhaps as over generous employers!

Whilst I don’t want to paint him as a paragon of virtue, I offer the example only to stress that the situation is not black and white and that any moral judgements we make from a distance are fraught with danger and hypocrisy.

To my mind we should approach Myanmar from the same approach we should come to any of our destinations. We’d like to provide our guests with life enriching holidays, built on sustainable, lasting relationships and meaningful human exchanges. We want our holidays to take nothing, exploit no one and give back. We want them to be a force for positive development in Myanmar and beyond and we strongly believe that the type of passionate travellers that come on our holidays want to be a part of that. Whilst we believe in ethical travel for its own sake, we also believe that holidays built with sustainability as part of their DNA, make for more insightful, more interactive, more illuminating and ultimately of course, for better holidays.

Here’s to a brighter tomorrow.

Sam Clark, Experience Travel Group

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