Now is the time to visit Burma

A special guest post by Nick Pulley, founder of Selective Asia.

For the last four decades, the people of Burma (Myanmar) have withstood one of the harshest regimes in modern history. The country’s military rulers, a cabal known as “the Generals”, have been unquestionably corrupt, imprisoning members of the opposition and refusing to acknowledge overwhelming public votes for change.

why do we suddenly believe that Burma is “okay” again?

Very little of Burma’s income has been invested in healthcare or social development, and public protest has been violently repressed. The country was almost entirely boycotted by international travellers, until 2011, when many of us begun to return. So why do we suddenly believe that Burma is “okay” again?

When I started taking clients to South East Asia, I refused to take them to Burma. Along with many other travel operators, I was honouring the boycott of Burmese tourism called for by Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winning democrat and long-imprisoned leader of Burma’s National League for Democracy (NLD).

It felt like a terrible shame – I love Burma, and have been eager to share it ever since I backpacked through in 2003 – but it also felt, without question, like the right thing to do.

Change triggers cautious delight

In November 2010, Suu Kyi was released from her 20 years of house-arrest, after a civilian government was inaugurated by the Generals, who still receive much of Burma’s wealth. Although indiscriminate package tourism plays into government hands, the NLD is now encouraging tailor-made holidays (rather than group travel) to visit Burma and explore the situation.

The change triggered my cautious delight – I could finally share a genuinely amazing country without feeling rubbish about doing so. But before I could get going with any sense of conscience, I had to return and take a look for myself. Burma’s press coverage is polarised – reassurance from a government keen to amass package tourism revenue vies with grave messages from brave, brilliant and committed individuals who act to support Burma’s oppressed people. The result is a confused list of misconceptions about the country and the situation its people face.

Incredible hospitality

As a reasonably privileged Englishman with several world travel opportunities behind me, I’m unqualified to correct that list on behalf of the Burmese people. I can only give an honest account of my own experiences in their country. Back in 2003, I was constantly struck by the warmth and openness of the people I met. It’s hardly unusual to hear this from a traveller returning from Asia, be it Cambodia or Sri Lanka, but I’ve been to those places too, and Burma was different. The people were incredible. Many undoubtedly lived in a very harsh environment, facing real threats, residing under immense scrutiny. But their willingness to share with me the positives of their astonishing country, despite all the hardships, gave me memories that will remain forever.

My companion and I made new friends on gruelling 15 hour bus rides, were welcomed into their homes on arrival, or when the dilapidated buses inevitably broke down. Burma’s famous highlights easily outshone their Lonely Planet billing. Bagan and the Shwedagon Pagoda were breathtaking. I wanted to stay in Kipling’s Mandalay forever. But the unexpected extras defined our trip – an ancient monk, serving us tea in a roadside pagoda while we waited for a replacement wheel – the motorbike man who carried us, one at a time, up 5 miles of broken track to the best viewpoint.

Tailor-made holidays in Burma

On my return in 2011, I had to do serious professional things, like hotel inspections, checking itineraries and vehicle standards, and meeting the guides. It was also a vital chance for me to speak to people on the ground – to try and understand more about the changes that had occurred since the 2010 election.

What did I discover? It would be wrong and misleading to state that a holiday in Burma will not benefit the government in any way, but there are definitely ways that individuals and tailor-made travel operators can keep the Generals’ financial gain to a minimum. It is possible, in many cases, to avoid working with government agencies, and bypass government-owned hotels, restaurants and services.

Private hotels do still pay tax to the government – this is something we cannot avoid – but that hotel also employs sometimes 100s of regular Burmese people, all desperately needing an income. Likewise, at tourist sites I met local traders, selling handicrafts and souvenirs, each just as reliant on visitors for their livelihoods as the waiters, the shop owners, the guides and the drivers… the list goes on and on.

Arranging tailor-made holidays in Burma requires me to be brutally honest, with our clients and with myself. I don’t expect this to be an easy ride, or an easy decision to make – I don’t think it should be. But I do believe that responsible tour operators can provide good holidays in Burma, and can allow tourists to travel in a manner that will enrich their lives – and the lives of many Burmese people.

About this week’s guest writer
Nick Pulley
is founder and managing director of Selective Asia, which specialises in travel to South East Asia. Nick began travelling to the region at the age of 17 and has since returned more than 25 times. He was responsible for launching the first Half Moon Parties on Thailand’s Koh Phan Ngan and now works with local people to set up community based tourism initiatives.

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6 Responses to “Now is the time to visit Burma”

  1. Chris 10/06/2011 10:20 pm
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    Thanks for the article!
    I would be interested to learn how you find our about government involvement in Burmese tourism business. Is this information somewhere publicly available, or do you start investigating at the hotels?

  2. Nick 10/06/2011 7:01 am
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    Dear Astri

    Thanks for your thoughts. I think much of what you say is very true however during my most recent inspection trip I visited a number of hotels and resorts in the destinations you mention that had government involvement of some sort. There is also obviously an airline with significant connections to senior military personnel.
    I fully agree that, and stated in my article, that any money coming from tourists is a good thing, providing income for a large number of local people in various industries. However my concern with completely ‘opening the doors’ to quickly and to soon is that tourists will soon forget the very real reasons we were encouraged not to visit for so long. Mass tourism is a dangerous thing and has a habit of covering over the negatives, with large operators glossing things up in order to fill beds.
    Your point about the backpacker (rather than the more affluent tailor-made tourist that Selective Asia caters for) is very true. The backpacker does have a habit of spending a bare minimum, often with little thought for the significant difference spending just a fraction more would make.
    Nick

  3. Astri 09/06/2011 4:32 pm
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    Dear Nick Pulley
    I think that you are making the issue of travel to Burma more complicated than need to be.
    Most of the tourist businesses here are already on private hands, and I would not think that you encountered any government owned hotels and restaurants in either Yangon, Mandalay, Inle og Bagan on your recent research trip. And economically it benefits the local people whether you come as part of an organized tour group or are travelling on your own, so one type of travel is not more “ethically” than the other. The problem is with individual tourists who are so concerned that they end up with hardly using any money at all!

  4. Andi of My Beautiful Adventures 08/06/2011 3:17 pm
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    It’s in my top 5! Will get there soon!!!

  5. Life for Beginners 07/06/2011 2:53 pm
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    This is one country where the people are definitely as beautiful as the lands. :)

  6. Emma 07/06/2011 2:20 pm
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    Really interesting post – thanks for sharing your experiences and thoughts, Nick. I’d actually noticed the other day that Selective Asia had started offering trips to Burma, and so it’s good to hear about the reasoning behind this. Burma’s always been somewhere that I would love to go, and it makes sense that responsible, well-thought out tourism is one of the way forwards on this.

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