Should You Travel to Myanmar? Yes, but It’s Complicated

In its glossy “Do’s and Don’ts for Tourists” pamphlet, the Myanmar Ministry of Hotels and Tourism encourages travelers to responsibly visit Myanmar. Among the many cartoon-illustrated recommendations, the Ministry warmly nudges tourists to speak the language, ask permission before taking photos, and be respectful at cultural sites. But it also suggests that travelers “be mindful of our current situation.” While seemingly innocuous, the message reveals a great deal about Myanmar’s uphill battle for hearts and minds. Perceptions of the country could not be starker. On one hand, outsiders understand Myanmar through sinister headlines of ethnic violence, military repression, and rampant drug trafficking. And yet on the other, the country’s tourists wax poetic about an enchanted land of untouched cultural spoils.

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In November, this contradiction reached its apex when Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey recommended travelers visit Myanmar. After gushing that “the people are full of joy and the food is amazing”, his endorsement was met with derision. The Twitterverse lambasted Dorsey, and tourists by extension, for tone-deafness, privilege, and condoning the actions of the Burmese military. The sentiment soon seeped into formal news outlets and blogs.

Uproxx travel writer Zach Johnston led the charge for a travel boycott in his piece “Can A Socially Aware Traveler Visit Countries That Commit Genocide?” Johnston brushes aside travel’s tricky complexities and argues that even socially conscious travelers should steer clear of countries that “institutionally commit genocide.” Although Johnston concedes that the world is far from a monolith, he asserts that visitors cannot parse daily economic transactions from direct military support. From the $59 visa fee to the $3 ticket for the bumpy ride on Yangon’s famous circular train, every purchase invariably pads the pockets of Myanmar’s all-powerful military.

So, should you avoid traveling to Myanmar? In short, no. But the answer, like Myanmar itself, remains complicated.

Since its opening, Myanmar has capitalized on its rich web of political, economic, and cultural dynamics to attract thrill seekers of all stripes. And indeed, the country’s glasnost has transformed the Myanmar of today into a very different place than a decade ago. In the past ten years, the Tatmadaw, or Burmese Military, have relinquished its stranglehold on power and allowed outsiders in. But these reforms cannot erase the country’s historical intricacies and ethnic tensions. Such complexities demand more experienced travelers who comprehend the value of civic engagement and do not conflate the people and the government. These travelers understand that real policy reform will only happen with continued openness instead of isolation. But if socially conscious travelers want to join this cause, they must understand Myanmar’s bumpy journey from ostracism to engagement.

Myanmar’s Slow but Steady Opening: 2008 to 2018

In 2008, Myanmar inhabited the fringes of the international community. As the hermit kingdom, it existed as a pariah state dominated by an oppressive military, ethnic violence, and economic isolation. The Burmese military exerted control over every facet of civil society, often subjectively changing rules without explanation, such as its impromptu decision to ban motorbikes in Yangon in 2003. The country’s political repression was infamous, with an estimated 2,100 political prisoners languishing behind bars and a press suffocated by government censorship. In 2008, Myanmar made headlines for its poor handling of humanitarian efforts to address the human toll from Cyclone Nargis, which killed an estimated 135,000 people. The United States continued to punish Myanmar with sanctions citing an intransigent and oppressive ruling elite.

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But 2008 was also a watershed. After decades of heavy-handed rule, the Burmese military introduced a new constitution that created a National Assembly, released political prisoners, and loosened its grip on the press. The 2010 elections led to a quasi-civilian government and peace activist Aung San Suu Kyi was freed after 15 years of house arrest. As economic restrictions loosened, Myanmar’s FDI skyrocketed into the billions and connectivity flourished. Mobile phone penetration grew from a mere .8 mobile phones per 100 people in 2009 to 89.8 mobile phones in 2017. Newspapers boomed. By 2017, Myanmar’s media advanced to 73 in the Freedom of the Press ratings, a far cry from 194 in 2010.

The loosening of restrictions provided a path forward for foreign involvement too. After the establishment of a USAID Mission in 2012, the United States began providing technical assistance to smaller organizations and training programs for democracy activists. A February 2015 Civil Society Brief from the Asia Development Bank reported that CSOs are increasingly providing input for Myanmar’s legislative proposals.

As the stigma of a repressive Myanmar faded, tourism steadily increased. Anthony Bourdain’s 2013 Parts Unknown special in Myanmar and Travel and Leisure’s 2014 article “Now is the Time to Visit Myanmar” all raised the country’s profile and spoke of access to unspoiled culture. Myanmar adopted the alluring slogan “Let the Journey Begin”.  And tourists streamed in. While 2010 saw some 310,000 tourists cross through customs, Myanmar’s Ministry of Hotels and Tourism reports that 2018 exceeded 1,250,000 visitors. The country’s annual tourism industry now accounts for $2 billion worth of revenue.

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But its “current situation” has loomed large in the background. Apart from the dominant Burmese, Myanmar is home to 135 separate ethnic groups, making it the most diverse country in Southeast Asia. Military squabbles have plagued the peripheries of Chin, Shan and Kachin States since Burma’s independence in 1949, and flareups between armed groups persist. Yet to fully understand Myanmar, the conflict between the Rohingya and the Tatmadaw stands apart. With no access to government-issued identification cards, the one million Rohingya that reside in Rakhine State are effectively stateless and unable to move outside the territory. Prior to 2008, the Rohingya were spotlighted for their extreme marginalization and Rakhine state continues to have the highest poverty rate in Myanmar.

“The Rohingya situation is far more severe regarding human rights violations than among any other minority,” wrote David Steinberg in his 2010 book Burma/Myanmar: What Everyone Needs to Know. The 2012 outbreaks of violence in Rakhine State displaced 135,000 Rohingya and foreshadowed similar tactics during the 2017 genocide. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s “Early Warning Project” released its 2015 report “They Want Us to All Go Away” which detailed police complicity, civilian attacks, and religious targeting as hallmarks of the 2012 violence against the Rohingya. These attacks precipitated the even more extreme events that would unfold years later.

Genocide, Tourism, and Myanmar’s Economy

In August 2017, troubling reports emerged out of Rakhine state describing a renewed wave of violence, rape, and destruction against Rohingya communities. The Tatmadaw justified these “Clearance Operations” by blaming the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), which launched several attacks against police and military outposts days before. And yet the army’s calculated campaign of devastation suggested that they had been preparing for months. Hate speech rippled through Facebook posts prior to the atrocities and some observers noticed a conspicuous buildup in troop levels in Rakhine state in the weeks leading up to the attacks.

This past fall, the United Nations’ Human Rights Council finally issued its verdict. The 556-page report did not mince words. Through aerial intelligence, eye-witness accounts, and government-issued propaganda, the report assembled a chilling narrative of calculated destruction. Ultimately, it recommended that “named senior generals of the Myanmar military should be investigated and prosecuted in an international criminal tribunal for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.”

The fallout from tourism was drastic. News outlets like the Telegraph discouraged travelers from visiting Myanmar and major tour operators like EF Education International and Go Ahead Tours suspended planned departures for 2018 and 2019. Western visitors from Europe and North America declined in the months following the violence. And this downward trend appears to have persisted. Compared to 2017, 2018 has seen a 25 percent decline in tourism from Western Europe and a 13.5 percent decline from North America. Rakhine State, renowned for the beaches of Ngapali and the ancient ruins of the Kingdom of Mrauk-U, remains closed to outside visitors.

Myanmar’s history of isolation and murky business dealings further compounded the issue. With little knowledge of Myanmar’s tourism landscape or cultural divisions, tour operators bristled at headlines pouring out of the region. In November 2017, Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division Deputy Director, Phil Robertson, noted “The impact will also likely be wider than it might be otherwise because many overseas tourists and tour operators don’t know much about Myanmar and when they hear about the atrocities by the military in Rakhine State, that negatively influences their decision about whether to go to Myanmar in the first place.”

While many observers called for a boycott, not all jumped on the bandwagon. Some backpackers have shone a spotlight on the intricacies and unintended consequences that a boycott might have on the country, including the damage to local businesses or perpetuating unawareness. Others have highlighted the power of travel to bring about self-reflection and dialogue. Travel networks like Matador hosted online forums to debate the merits of a boycott.

Beyond the moral dimension, many framed the value of a boycott through an economic lens. Advocates have claimed that a tourism boycott could deprive the Burmese government of much-needed revenue in the form of visa fees. A deeper look at the socioeconomic realities of Myanmar, however, challenges this assumption. The Nation’s Jessica Loudis argues that the country’s economy relies more heavily on the billions of dollars generated from the sales of illegal “blood rubies” and drugs. At nearly $50 billion, the illicit industries dwarf its $2 billion tourism industry. Despite declining opium production in the infamous Golden Triangle, methamphetamine production led Jeremy Douglas, head of the regional UNODC to affirm that Myanmar “really is the epicentre of the drug trade, at least in the Mekong region.”

Ironically, the same driving factors that facilitate tourism have expanded the ease of illicit markets: roads, ports, and other essential infrastructure from China’s One Belt, One Road Initiative. Drugs are exported to neighboring tourist destinations such as Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia, increasingly through more upgraded ports of entry and brand new highway systems. In his recent book Hello, Shadowlands, Patrick Winn points out that this combination of economic growth and consumer demand may pave the way for a golden age of organized crime in Southeast Asia.

While economic realities may cause tourists to throw their hands up in despair, the decision to abandon Myanmar is far more dangerous than the alternative. Given the importance of revenue from illicit markets, a vacuum of tourist revenue may drive Myanmar towards its booming drug trade to make up the difference. Conversely, the right kind of engagement may help keep Myanmar out of the shadows. But within such a complex landscape, what role can travelers play?

A Road Map for the Socially Conscious Traveler

In its “Do’s and Don’ts” guide, the tourism ministry describes its overarching goal to “ensure that visitors are culturally aware, environmentally conscious, and economically deliberate.” One dimension alluded to, but not explicitly mentioned, is the growing value of Myanmar’s blossoming civil society. Civil society leaders at the Institute for Civic and Political Engagement (iPace) and the Myanmar Responsible Tourism Institute (MRTI) have emerged as formidable players in pushing Myanmar towards greater transparency and accountability. Although they only intermittently interact with travelers, a robust civil society quietly reminds tourists that the government is not its people. As travelers map out their first trip to the country, there are three ways they can help advance the Myanmar of the future.

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Engage and Support Civil Society. While political tourism remains rare, the socially conscious traveler must engage civil society. In the context of a genocide, part of that effort should focus on accountability, governance, and human rights organizations. David Steinberg, author of Burma/Myanmar: What Everyone Needs to Know, recently wrote in Frontier Myanmar that “the Tatmadaw’s plans for perpetual control will not succeed. By opening the society to peripheral freedoms, it has undermined its own, unique control over social mobility…with exposure to the outside world, including through travel, now more available, and with tourism encouraged, the once pervasive social controls are eroding quickly.”

Civil society continues to be at the forefront of pressuring the government for peace. A 2017 Civil Society Report from iPace notes that many organizations provide policy input for legislation on peace-related issues, especially for human rights. The Assistant Director of iPace, Maung Maung Pyae Zone, notes that they continue to train emerging leaders in Myanmar on democratic norms and accountability. While some have gone onto positions in the National Assembly, Pyae Zone pointed out that others have been arrested for protesting government infractions. Travelers can learn the players and help support them.

Support Myanmar’s Growing Responsible Tourism Industry. The Myanmar Responsible Tourism Institute (MRTI) is a bastion of resources for responsible tourism and travel through the country. Their research has promoted the economic impact of Myanmar’s nascent tourism industry, which provides livelihoods to thousands of Burmese citizens. The MRTI led a comprehensive Sector Wide Impact Assessment of Myanmar’s tourism industry and conservatively estimated that Myanmar’s tourism industry could account for nearly 600,000 jobs in 2020. An optimistic estimate placed the figure at 1.5 million.

MRTI also strives to integrate human rights standards into its tourism awards and appraise social enterprises doing good work. As part of the socially conscious traveler’s role, research the Myanmar Responsible Tourism Awards. Moreover, socially responsible travelers should demand that Myanmar adhere to the United Nation’s “Protect, Respect, and Remedy” framework, which demands that tourism bureau’s incorporate international human rights conventions.

Take Your Awareness Home. Socially conscious travelers integrate foreign experiences into their day-to-day lives and serve as citizen diplomats even after they’ve arrived home. From fundraising to social media shares, travelers must capture the beauty and nuance of Myanmar. After having visited civil society organizations and becoming acquainted with the responsible tourism space, travelers can turn that awareness outward. Tourists should write blog posts, donate to organizations, and tell friends about the rewards and challenges of visiting Myanmar.

This is by no means a comprehensive roadmap. Nevertheless, it presents a start. Those who write off Myanmar and urge avoiding the country miss the point. Myanmar’s complex political, economic, and cultural dynamics make it a draw for many travelers, but those features also demand a certain caliber of traveler. Beyond the carefree tourist who may want to relax on the beach or indulge in the festivities of a full moon party, Myanmar requires more from us and we should demand more from it. And the only way to make our voices heard is through continued engagement and curiosity.

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