Myanmar relishes its past while looking toward a bright future

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Book it! Tour operators to Myanmar

Absolute Asia runs a nine-night program that flies into Sittwe, from where travelers embark on a river cruise to the ancient Arakan capital of Mrauk-U, where a vast array of 16th-century temples is waiting to be explored. Then its off to Ngapali Beach for three nights, with a return to Yangon for one final evening.

Journeys Nature + Culture offers a three-night package from Yangon to Bagan, Inle Lake (Heho) and Ngapali Beach, and also a three-day diving expedition in the islands of the Myeik Archipelago.

Indochina Services is one of the first international travel companies established in Myanmar. Indochina Services is a destination management company that recommends tour operators specific to the clients home country.

Uniteam is a travel agency and tour operator based in Yangon that is associated with the Bayview Hotel. Uniteam offers a four-night beach extension to Ngapali Beach and a number of adventure trips that travel to the Myeik Archipelago and, coming in late 2005, rafting and kayak expeditions along the headwaters of the Ayeyarwaddy River north of Putao. 

Somerset Maugham compared it to a sudden hope in the dark night of the soul. To Rudyard Kipling, it seemed a golden mystery, while Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglass marveled at the loveliest ... I have known.

Each was describing the Shwedagon Pagodas zedi, a solid-gold, bell-shaped monument encrusted with more than 4,000 diamonds. Not merely a single monumental structure, the pagoda comprises a raised compound whose maze of shrines exudes a vibrant, spiritual intensity unlike any other.

Accompanying devout Buddhists through such a revered landscape, one cannot help but sense something deep and powerful. Indeed, Myanmars many stupas, temples and monasteries serve as a reminder of the extent to which this country remains largely unspoiled, its traditional customs more firmly in place than those of most other Southeast Asian countries.

Situated along the eastern coasts of the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea, Myanmar is bordered on the southeast by Thailand and Laos, on the northeast by China and on the northwest by Bangladesh and India.

Myanmar is most easily accessed via Bangkok, which is just a one-hour flight from its capital city, Yangon. Yet the countrys tourism efforts over the past decade have yielded mixed results. Most notable among these efforts was dubbing 1996 Visit Myanmar Year, a marketing disaster with numerous shortcomings, including scant publicity, limited budgets and an uninformed government.

These problems were greatly compounded by international politics, as human rights advocates organized a travel boycott to protest the Myanmar regimes notorious human rights abuses, which included the use of forced labor, the recruitment of children into the military and the persecution of ethnic minorities.

Opponents of the boycott argued that tourism encourages openness. Besides, they pointed out, visitors hand money directly to ordinary citizens, and Myanmars robust trade with China, Thailand and India rendered the boycott ineffectual anyway.  So how, they asked, could a boycott advance the cause of human rights?

Roughly 650,000 tourists traveled to Myanmar last year, an increase of more than 25% over 2002. They generated $136 million, up from $99 million.

Such growth is boosting investors confidence that as a destination, Myanmar offers more than the traditional history, culture and religion themes long associated with the country throughout the era when it was known as Burma. (In 1989, the military government changed the countrys official name from the Union of Burma to the Union of Myanmar, claiming that Burma was a vestige of European colonialism.)

Ecotourism adventures and high-end bungalows are being developed in Kachin State in the north, as are beach resort areas along Myanmar's 1,758 miles of coastline.

Still, Myanmar's tourism industry is threatened by the countrys widespread poverty, its geographical and political isolation and lingering questions about human rights violations.

Seeing is believing

The marketing slogan Seeing Is Believing rests on the premise that if tourists come to Myanmar, they will find the country a safe, enjoyable destination, said Raymond Bragg, general manager of Traders Hotel, a Shangri-La property. Bragg also is chairman of the Myanmar Tourism Promotion Boards Marketing Committee.

The committee is a private-sector initiative thats endorsed by the Ministry of Hotels & Tourism. Established in 2001, it has struggled to create an image at odds with the reality of an impoverished and isolated nation whose military receives more than 40% of budgetary outlays, leaving little room for health and education initiatives, let alone tourism.

In the early 1990s, following nearly three decades of repressive military rule, the country suddenly opened up to foreign business. International hotel conglomerates were among the first to rush in, pumping desperately needed capital into the countrys fledgling tourism industry. But Myanmar's political instability proved a serious impediment.

In recent years, a longstanding ideological war between the ruling majority and ethnic insurgent groups has been further complicated by clashes between military rulers and an opposition movement led by Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) party. The victor in a 1991 election, Suu Kyi was subsequently placed under house arrest, her NLD followers beaten and jailed. A U.S. and European Union ban on new investment soon followed, sending international business initiatives tumbling.

Although tourism eventually began a slow recovery, it was dealt blows by the pan-Asia economic crisis of 1996 and 1997, followed by the SARS scare and the plunge in travel that followed 9/11.

While Bragg acknowledged that criticism of the government remained a marketing impediment, he asserted that it was counterbalanced by the jobs that tourism created. "We look at it purely from a tourism point of view," he said.

Bragg attributes the industry's rising fortunes to improved marketing efforts and to the governments investments in infrastructure. This past January, Air India and Air Qatar launched services with links to Europe, and carriers serving Thailand, Singapore and Hong Kong have increased their weekly flight schedules. Much of this follows Myanmar's decision to support a more active national airline, recently adding a third domestic carrier, Myanmar Airways International.

A further boost is expected after the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) Tourism Forum in Yangon -- an event to be held in January that involves all the tourism industry sectors of the 10 member nations of Asean (Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, the Lao Peoples Democratic Republic, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam). It is expected to draw 450 buyers and 100 media participants.

Myanmar's tourism route typically begins in Yangon, taking in the cities of Mandalay and Bagan with a stop-off at tranquil Inle Lake. It draws a high-end traveler looking for final frontiers, whether on the rail line between Bagan (one of Asias great temple cities) and Mandalay (Myanmars cultural capital) or aboard ferries that traverse the Irrawaddy River.

Private developers expansion efforts in more outlying, nontraditional areas, Bragg said, also reflect greater confidence in traveler safety as a result of recent peace accords between the government and ethnic insurgent groups.

Moreover, travelers are beginning to realize something that their governments may fail to appreciate: Cultural exchanges and economic investments can soften hostilities between nations. Today, Myanmar remains a lonely, largely forgotten state, but that may soon change as investors eye tourism opportunities in three distinct regions of the country.

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