Myanmar Bagan TempleIf you do not agree with the oppressive nature and policies of a country’s government, is it better to stay away and protest those policies by not spending your tourist dollars there, or does staying away do more harm to suffering citizens than to a despotic dictatorship?

It was a question that haunted U.S. citizens for decades about travel to apartheid South Africa, and more recently it has been a dilemma for U.S. travelers grappling with deciding whether to visit Myanmar (aka Burma) while the ruling military junta was in power. Many travelers the world over chose to avoid travel to the country during that time, keeping Myanmar’s tourism levels at remarkably low levels — until now.

With President Obama currently on a tour of Southeast Asia that will include a historic stop in Myanmar, making him the first U.S. leader to ever visit the country, changes are clearly afoot.

In March 2011, the junta’s State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) officially disbanded and transferred power to the new Union Government, headed by President Thein Sein, former general and prime minister for the SPDC. Because of Thein Sein’s ties to the former military rulers, however, skepticism abounds as to the likelihood of real and significant reform in Myanmar.

But there are some indications of progress, including the government’s release of several political prisoners, most notably the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and democracy champion Aung San Suu Kyi, who had been under house arrest for more than 15 years.

The Union Government has also initiated cease-fire talks with various ethnic-based militias and allowed opposition parties to participate in parliamentary by-elections held April 1.

Last December, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Myanmar and met with Thein Sein as well as with Suu Kyi. Since that time, the U.S. has begun to cautiously relax some of its sanctions against the country, including lifting a ban on visas for Burmese officials in September. Lifting the ban enabled Thein Sein to meet with Obama in the U.S. and opened the way for financial services and new investments in the country.

Myanmar Inle Lake Tea LeavesThe U.S. government made its position on Myanmar and its rulers very clear, imposing strict diplomatic and economic sanctions following the military’s violent suppression of popular protests in 1988. For most of the years since then, the U.S. continued those sanctions as Congress and subsequent presidential administrations pushed back against human rights violations, according to a report released last month by the Congressional Research Service.

Suu Kyi made clear that in her view, tourism to Myanmar would only nurture despotism.

“Burma will be here for many years, so tell your friends to visit us later,” she famously stated in 1999. “Visiting now is tantamount to condoning the regime.”

Her plea set off an unofficial travel boycott of Myanmar the world over.

But for many people “later” has finally come, as over the past 18 months the military junta has transitioned to a quasi-civilian government.

Nevertheless, the country’s political progress is still fragile, a fact that became glaringly apparent to me as I traveled around Myanmar last month for 10 days with tour operator Haimark Travel.

“The continuation of serious human rights abuses has raised questions about the extent to which there has been significant political change in Burma,” the Congressional Research Service report stated.

Consequently, Congress could choose to impose new sanctions or could rescind more existing sanctions, depending on what human rights progress Myanmar makes.

Lu Maw, a member of the Mandalay-based comedy trio the Moustache Brothers, who have had more than their fair share of run-ins with the government, expressed deep skepticism about the appearance of reform. The Burmese government, he said, “only took off the uniform and put it aside. That’s why I don’t trust it.”

Myanmar Par Par LayOne of his troupe’s members, Par Par Lay, has been imprisoned three times, including one seven-year stint and time in a labor camp, for comedy routines that regularly take jabs at the oppressive nature of Myanmar’s military rulers. They continue to perform their satirical act for tourists but say they are confined to their home in Mandalay and may not perform anywhere else.

Still, when asked if things have improved, Lu Maw said, hesitantly, “Now, it’s better. A little.”

But old fears clearly persist. My guide and driver were both a bit wary about taking me to see the Moustache Brothers. Initially, my driver said he’d feel more comfortable dropping me off down the street. Feeling a bit more courageous later, he ultimately brought me right up to the building.

Gentle steps together

No matter how fragile the country’s progress away from tyranny, U.S. and international tourists are clearly beginning to feel encouraged and have been heading to Myanmar in rapidly growing numbers over the past two years.

Phil Otterson, president of Abercrombie & Kent USA, said, “Interest in Myanmar has increased dramatically in the past year since the National League for Democracy, founded by Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, released a statement saying that it welcomes responsible tourism, then most recently after Secretary Clinton’s visit.”

Myanmar KidsOtterson was in Myanmar this month with the company’s advisory board of top travel agents. A&K has seen bookings increase more than 80% this year compared with 2011.

Last year, 21,680 Americans traveled to Myanmar, and that was a 31% increase over 2010, when 16,500 made the journey, according to statistics released by Myanmar’s Ministry of Hotels and Tourism. For 2012, those numbers are expected to be exponentially higher.

But the figures should be put into context. In 2011, Myanmar welcomed a total of 816,000 foreign visitors, including border crossings, a 3% increase over 2010. Not including border crossings, it welcomed 391,000 foreigners to its main international hubs, Yangon and Mandalay, vs. 310,700 who flew into those hubs one year prior.

By comparison, nearby Thailand recorded 19.2 million international visitors in 2011, a 21% increase over 2010, according to Thailand’s Ministry of Tourism and Sports.

Clearly, Myanmar’s tourism industry has a long way to go. But ironically, what held the country back for so many years is now a major contributing factor to its allure and what sets it apart from other destinations.

Travelers to Myanmar are “going to have an experience that doesn’t exist in Asia anymore,” said Karen MacRae, senior Myanmar specialist for Kensington Tours. “It’s like living in the 19th century. You’re going to see a very traditional place that really hasn’t changed in the past 100 years.”

MacRae lived in Myanmar from 2001 to 2004 and has traveled extensively throughout Asia. She noted that Myanmar is the most untouched civilization in Southeast Asia and possibly in all of Asia.

When asked what brought them to Myanmar, the fact that it was so untouched topped the list of many of the Americans I encountered throughout the country.

“It was the backpacker thing,” said Portland, Ore.-based entrepreneur J.C. Garrick about why he traveled to Myanmar 10 years ago as part of a larger trip around Asia. “I was trying to find the place that was least developed.”

Myanmar Bagan Temple Shwesandaw PayaWith fond memories of the country from his backpacking days a decade ago, Garrick returned to Myanmar last month with his 76-year-old father on a privately guided tour with Kensington Tours. Asked what he and his father enjoyed most about Myanmar, Garrick said it was the small villages where simple economies were still based on crafts like pottery.

“It’s pretty far out to see some place that’s not fully immersed in consumer capitalism,” Garrick said.

Indeed, while there are plenty of tourist trinkets being sold and fledgling tourist economies growing around some of the country’s more well-known sites like Bagan and Inle Lake, there are also plenty of small villages dotting Myanmar’s lush countryside where villagers still live in basic teak or bamboo stilted homes, raise their own livestock, grow their own produce and handcraft goods to sell in other villages.

In these remote hamlets there are few signs, if any, of the outside world. Many of the homes have laminated images of Aung San Suu Kyi hanging on their walls, but even TVs and radios are still rare in these quiet corners of the country.

Opening the floodgates

Traveling around Myanmar, it is obvious that for better or for worse the resource-rich country is not going to be stuck in the past for very much longer.

With economic and political restrictions easing both inside and outside the country, it is ripe for investment. Already the hotel industry is feeling the awakening in the form of year-round bookings that have created heavy competition between leisure travelers and foreign investors for rooms in cities such as Yangon and Mandalay.

Last year, for the first time in recent history, the Strand in Yangon, a luxury hotel that opened in 1901, had nearly 100% occupancy year-round (both during the November-to-March high season and the April-to-October low season).

Myanmar Aureum Palace Hotel Infinity PoolHotels in Yangon are racing to increase capacity. For example, the city’s Traders Hotel, a 270-room, luxury business property, will raise its room count to 336 by the end of next year and 485 by 2014, as it converts floors currently dedicated to offices.

But even as existing hotels rush to add capacity, there will clearly be a shortfall until some additional properties come online in the country’s major metropolises. The result has been rapid price inflation. Tour operators report that over the past two years, some hotels have increased their rates as much as 100% to 200%.

“The recent changes are happening at a pace never before seen in Myanmar,” Otterson said. “Economic growth is starting, and the economy is slowly opening up. However, many hurdles remain, and infrastructure, including roads and telecommunications, are in need of rapid upgrade. There are more hotels now, but [there is] a very serious hotel shortage in Yangon, where exorbitant land prices make any new project uneconomical.”

Tom Markwell of Haimark Travel said he has seen subtle improvements to the traveler’s experience in recent years. For example, he said, a departure tax that used to be required upon leaving Myanmar is now built in to ticket prices, making it more convenient for travelers when departing Yangon.

As for the rate inflation, Markwell said, “the government has stepped in recently and is working to control these increases so as not to deter travelers from choosing to visit due to the escalating prices.”

Additionally, airlift has increased significantly to and from Yangon, including on Thai Airways, Cathay Pacific, Korean Air and All Nippon Airways. Mandalay is now receiving flights from Bangkok on low-cost carrier Air Asia.

As with the hotels, however, airfares and capacity will be a challenge until there is enough supply in the market to meet the growing demand.

Myanmar Inle Lake BoatmanAny travel professional who has ever witnessed a country in transition will recognize these as the usual hurdles and speed bumps on the road to progress. Yet, despite the current challenges, Myanmar offers an impressively comprehensive and competitive travel product, complete with high-end hotels, a seemingly natural tendency toward hospitality and service plus a great diversity of sites and experiences, ranging from historical Buddhist temples in Bagan to charming fishing villages on Inle Lake, from bustling colonial cities to rolling jungles and mountain ranges.

Little wonder, then, that Myanmar is in high demand as a destination. But because of the still somewhat limited supply, tour operators recommend that travelers who want to visit book six months to one year in advance in order to ensure their accommodations, local guides and other ground services (see “Visiting Myanmar” box below).

Complex travel politics

Researching Myanmar as a travel destination, one is immediately confronted with the complexities of tourism politics there.

For the past several decades, Lonely Planet has been the only major travel guidebook publisher to issue a comprehensive guide to Myanmar. Consequently, you see copies of the book all over the country, and Lonely Planet plays a crucial role in framing people’s views of how to visit the destination.

The book has an entire chapter dedicated to “responsible travel” in Myanmar in which it advises travelers how to visit the country so that the majority of their travel dollars will go to the private sector.

A sidebar titled “Who are the cronies?” is dedicated to one of Myanmar’s richest entrepreneurs, Tay Za, owner of Air Bagan, Asian Wings Airways and several luxury hotel chains, including Aureum Palace.

“Tay Za has been described by the United States Department of the Treasury as a ‘notorious henchman and arms dealer,’” the New York Times wrote in an August 2012 travel article about Myanmar headlined “Visiting Myanmar: It’s Complicated.”

Myanmar Inle Lake“In the new Myanmar, though, Mr. Tay Za has apparently changed his ways,” the Times reported. “And even though he remains on the Treasury’s blacklist, it seems that Western tourists have begun to feel comfortable staying at his hotels. After struggling to fill its rooms for years, the Aureum Palace had an occupancy rate last winter of 80%.”

Having stayed at the Aureum Palace property in Bagan and having done my homework before heading to Myanmar, I admittedly felt conflicted. On one hand, the property felt like something out of a surreal fairy tale, with an infinity pool beautifully situated with a view of Bagan’s pagoda-dotted landscape. On the other, the controversial Aureum Tower adjacent to the property shoots into the sky well above the area’s highest pagodas, clearly disrupting the skyline. It stands as a glaring symbol of corrupt politics conflicting with ancient traditions.

But tracing tourism dollars and whose hands they end up in is, as the Times bluntly stated, a complicated exercise.

For example, Lonely Planet states in its chapter about Yangon that “it’s worth noting that all large hotels will have taken part in some financial agreement with the ruling junta to establish their business. Some, like the large Traders Hotel in central Yangon, are joint ventures between foreign companies and the military.”

Consequently, Lonely Planet doesn’t even list Traders in the hotels section of its Yangon chapter.

I stayed at Traders and met with Yinn Mar Nyo, the hotel’s director of sales and marketing, and Advaita Kala, director of communications for Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts, the Hong Kong-based conglomerate that owns Traders. I asked them about the government tie suggested by Lonely Planet.

Myanmar Irrawaddy River PotteryMar Nyo said that the Yangon Traders property is 100%-owned by Shangri-La, contrary to Lonely Planet’s assertions.

That is a lot of conflicting information for a traveler to weigh, and many might question if it should even be the tourist’s responsibility to take all these factors into consideration in the first place. Kensington’s MacRae said that covering Myanmar as a travel destination in this highly nuanced way feels a bit like singling out the country unfairly.

Indeed, there are numerous countries the world over with disagreeable governments and policies, governments that perpetuate human rights abuses. Should travelers start tracing their tourism dollars everywhere they go to find what illegal or unsavory enterprises they are inadvertently supporting? Perhaps. Perhaps not.

For Marilyn Downing Staff, founder and president of Asia Transpacific Journeys, which has been bringing travelers to Myanmar since 1987, “It made no sense to me to further isolate an already isolated population. The only hope that they had was to have the eyes and ears of tourists witnessing their situation and reporting back to the world. And, the only input that they had for many years from the outside world was their interaction with foreigners.”

Tour operators and travel companies that are already operating in the country feel they ultimately can do more good than harm by bringing tourists and their dollars there.

Myanmar Irrawaddy River Paukan“More than 90% of what tourists spend in Myanmar supports economic opportunities for the local people,” said A&K’s Otterson. “This includes hotels and restaurants that are privately owned and directly employing drivers and tour guides.”

For Markwell, it was a very personal decision to go into Myanmar.

“Initially, I considered both sides of the debate when choosing to promote Myanmar as a destination,” he said. “However, after my first time traveling through Burma, I was personally convinced that it was so beneficial to the everyday Burmese working in the service industry. They were so welcoming and so thankful that I was there. I wanted to support them in any way possible.”

Follow Michelle Baran on Twitter @mbtravelweekly.  


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