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Who's paying for your holiday?
Hazel Marshall on the ethics of travel to Burma

Tourism almost inevitably destroys what it creates. Everybody hates being called a tourist. Many people insist on being called travellers rather than tourists, even if their only plan is to party on a beach in Thailand before heading off on the ubiquitous Kiwi Experience in New Zealand and then to work in Australia. They either don’t notice or don’t care that they are doing nothing more than following the hundreds of thousands of those who have gone before them, like so many lemmings jumping off the cliff in search of real experience. But they shouldn’t kid themselves. They are tourists. We all are.

Tourism in developed countries can be incredibly annoying. Having spent a number of years in Edinburgh I know the frustration of having your part of the world completely overrun by tourists at certain times of the year. Trying to buy lunch from my local sandwich shop becomes an impossibility during the Festival as they have either run out of food or the queue is too long. But that is a mere trivial hindrance. I also know that tourism brings a lot of money and employment into the area and Edinburgh benefits immeasurably from it. Similarly while Spain may hate the carbuncle that is Benidorm and most of the Costa del Sol, it is only one part of the country’s economy.

But the same is not true of underdeveloped countries. There tourism can be a make or break venture. It can too often be run by large companies or corrupt governments (local or national) and is of little or no benefit to the locals. Arguments that tourism can pump money into the local economy become irrelevant when it is discovered that that money goes straight into the pockets of those in charge.

Burma is a prime example of this. In 1996 the military junta who rule the country launched a campaign to ‘Visit Myanmar’ - a campaign designed exclusively to encourage tourism in their country and to increase foreign investment.

In order to encourage this tourism, major infrastructure projects were undertaken in order to improve accommodation and transport links around the country. Unfortunately, these projects were only made possible by the use of forced labour and by the forcible removal of people from their homes in order to make way for luxury hotels and golf courses. Nobel Peace prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy asked tourists not to visit Burma as their arrival and their money would only increase such practices.

As you may have gathered from the above, the market at which the Burmese military junta, who rule the country, were aiming was not backpackers but the up-market package tourists. Journalists or those who wanted to ask questions were not welcome. Instead, those who were willing to close their eyes to the abuses around them could buy into packages like the one offered by the up market Abercrombie & Kent, who offer a trip into Burma aboard the luxurious cruise ship Road to Mandalay. The brochure describing the trip hearkens back to a time of golden temples and to the colonial era.

That harking back to the mythical history of the land and mentioning of the colonial spirit (ie. a spirit where the whites are looked after in complete luxury while the local people serve them and are kept in poverty) is a deliberate ploy to entice those people who do not think, or maybe do not care, about where they take their holidays.

Each tourist who enters Burma, or Myanmar, has to pay $300 directly to the military junta. In exchange they are given tokens which can only be used at certain hotels, for certain taxi companies and at certain restaurants. That money is then used primarily for military spending . Burma has no external enemies. Each tourist to Burma is therefore paying the military junta to attack the Burmese people.

There is no free travel within Burma itself. You cannot decide for yourself where you want to go. This is another reason why up market package tourist companies are encouraged above backpackers. They are taken only to select places - Rangoon, Mandalay and Pagan - and shown sanitised versions of Burmese history and culture. Want to see the picturesque villages of the Padaung with their ‘long-necked’ women? - just sign up to a tour and that will all be arranged. Just don’t ask them any questions when you see them.

So what can be done about this? Well, firstly, don’t visit Burma. Whatever arguments you may use to persuade yourself that you are really doing an okay thing can easily be refuted by the arguments put forward by Free Burma UK and TourismConcern. Don’t kid yourself that you are not directly lining the pockets of the military junta and thereby assisting in slave labour and the forcible removal of people from their homes. Don’t think that things are improving there and therefore it’s now okay to go. If the thousands of Burmese who are imprisoned, tortured and killed aren’t enough to persuade you that Burma is ruled by a corrupt regime then think of James Mawdsley. It is a sad fact that it often takes someone of our own culture to undergo bad things to make us that things are bad. He was imprisoned and beaten for over a year just for handing out democracy leaflets there.

There is an ongoing boycott against the travel book company Lonely Planet as they insist on bringing out a travel guide to the country, thereby giving the regime tacit approval. By providing the book they are saying that it is a travel destination. You can read their argument for publishing the book at

Western visitors do not tend to bring democracy with them - one of the arguments for visiting Burma is that Western tourists will tell the Burmese people about Western democracy - they tend to bring their own prejudicial ideas about culture and their own notions about what they want from their holiday. Sadly, therefore, as in so many southeast Asian countries, the biggest growth is in sex tourism - something that begets prostitution, increasing numbers of people with AIDS and a despoliation of culture.

These things happen in other countries - primarily developing countries - and yet they are not boycotted. The difference in Burma is that tourism is being used as a weapon against the Burmese people - forcing them to leave their homes and become forced labourers in order to provide the luxury hotels and the roads which are needed for tourism to be a success. By not visiting Burma there will be no demand for these hotels to be built and the Burmese people may get to remain in their own homes.

I will leave the last words to someone other than myself. Someone who knows what she is talking about.

Please use your liberty to promote ours.
Aung San Suu Kyi


© Hazel Marshall 2001

A response from John Prohaska to Hazel's article:

Hazel, I was very impressed with your article. It was strong and passionately written. I read it very carefully as well as the accompanying link to the rebuttal of LP. I realize your purpose is to persuade and therefore, you'll intentionally exclude any "on the other hand" type of statements. Nevertheless, I felt a certain ruthlessness in your article's tone to create doubt in my mind. You are correct when you say all travelers are tourists. However, not all tourists are travelers. If nothing else, there are degrees and shades of grey that you overlook and one might think that travel is an insidious, cloying cancer-like evil that is wholly self-serving, leaving behind only destruction and cultural obliteration. Your description does disservice to all of us who (like yourself, probably) try very hard to learn and be a positive presence while abroad and struggle to control the corresponding negative impact. I myself have recently attempted to define the difference between travel and tourism, cutting through appearances and peripherals such as budget, style of accomodation, and length of stay to dtermine the truth of the distinction. Despite the persuasiveness of your article, I assure you it can not compare with seeing the realities with one's own eyes. You wrote that the high-end market has been targeted by the military regime for the development of tourism. I could have guessed their reasons without reading your article; greater control to funnel a higher percentage of their expenditures into government coffers and prevent them from seeing the "truth." The exact same tactic was used when Cuba chose to promote tourism in their country. (See chapter 9, dictator's handbook) But while a backpacker must pay $200 upon entry, that is nothing compared to what they'll pay in meals, entertainment and lodgings over their stay, the majority of which goes into the hands of middle to lower class Burmese. Knowing that LP publishes a guidebook is no more remarkable than the military junta being in disagreement with your views. Despite your opinions and feelings on the subject, people WILL GO. And WHEN they go, it is better that they carry a copy of LP that at least includes info on the current bad state of affairs than not. I might concur that LP could devote a bit more space to the ugliness of the situation, but don't expect them to not publish a guide. They are a PUBLISHING FIRM. Amnesty Int'l is down the road. And despite being widely used, there is absolutely no evidence to indicate that any form of sanctions has ANY effectiveness to induce social change. (Though I must include that the model you outline is a unique situation.) I do not claim to be in total disagreement with you. While I would love to go to Burma (not Myanmar) I am "fortunate" to not have to make that choice right now. I only say that the tone of your article is such that it lessens the impact it might potentially have made upon the reader. As I stated, (and you well know) people, predominantly BPers, will still visit Burma. I think it would have doubled or tripled the effectiveness of your article if you had devoted a portion to "If you MUST go." On this topic you might have offered tips, ideas and strategies as to how we might do the least harm. You might even have explored the unlikely possibility that there might be things to do that are good or helpful while we are there. Despite the adversarial tone of this response, I think your articles is well-written, passionate and educational and I would think hard about including Burma in my travel itinerary. But things are rarely so one-sided as we think and a more well-rounded approach to this article would exert more influence upon your readers. Hammering upon them only serves to turn their attentions elsewhere. That being said, I look forward to your next article. The lengthiness of my response can only be attributed to the provocativeness of your piece. (And that's a good thing.)
John Prohaska

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