Tips on being a more responsible consumer and tourist in Burma
•Keep it in the family – Stay at guesthouses and family run hostels. Avoid the bigger (and more expensive) government run hotels, many of which were built by forced labour. Staying in the latter will ensure your money isn’t going anywhere except into the government’s pockets.
•Shop around – Not sure what is local and what isn’t? Don’t buy everything at one shop or guesthouse. If you buy the different things you need at different local shops, then you are supporting a wider portion of the community. Furthermore, it diffuses funds, making it more difficult that a large part of your money will go to a government run establishment.
•Support the Arts! – Want a souvenir? Buy artwork! It is easier to buy artwork and crafts from the artists themselves, making sure that they receive money for their efforts fairly.
•Say no to trains. Take the bus! – Yes, you took a plane. But it was a necessity. Once inside, there is nothing except your own will to keep you from taking ferries, trains, and travel agency sponsored transportation. So don’t. All of these are more likely to be government run. Buses, though, are mostly privately owned and operated. While many tourists describe the experience riding buses as less comfortable, it’s cheaper, and you’ll enjoy beautiful scenery while supporting local enterprises.
Ethical Tourism in Burma
__Tourism and travel also act as investment in Burma. Back in December 2002, Aung San Suu Kyi stated: "We have not yet come to the point where we encourage people to come to Burma as tourists." However, tourism does happen and ultimately helps to generate some revenue--for both the government and for the locals. Lonely Planet says that “tourism remains one of the few industries to which ordinary locals have access in terms of income and communication.” The same website further states that there are plenty of reasons to consider visiting: human-rights abuses are less likely to occur in areas with a strong international community presence; similarly, keeping people isolated from international witness cements a government’s ability to promote internal oppression.
Rangoon, Burma (Nora Godkin, 2011)
_Back in 1996, Daw Suu said, “tourists should wait until Burma is a freer and happier country” to visit, in direct response to the ruling junta’s proclamation of that year as “Visit Myanmar Year.” Back then, the regime actively needed the money. The call for a travel boycott was inspirational, and for years brought to question the concept of responsible consumerism in regards to Burma.
Times, though, have changed. The NLD now welcomes visitors keen on promoting the welfare of the common people and the environment, though they continue to warn against the abuses taking place in the country. In an interview published in The Times newspaper in November 2010, where the more relaxed approach to tourism was announced, NLD leader U Win Tin said: “We want people to come to Burma, not to help the junta, but to help the people by understanding the situation: political, economic, moral – everything.”
_“The more relaxed approach to tourism does not mean the problems in Burma are over and people can go on holiday there like in a normal country,” said Mark Farmaner, Director of Burma Campaign UK. “There is still no way to visit Burma without the dictatorship and their business cronies taking some of your money. Mass package tourism, staying in a luxury hotel or just lying on a beach isn’t going to help the people of Burma, but it will help the generals. Tourists will have to be very careful to minimise putting money in the generals’ pockets if they do plan to visit.”
(To read more, check out this article published by The Irrawaddy: http://www.irrawaddy.org/article.php?art_id=21352, or 'Visiting Myanmar: It's Comlicated', published by the New York Times in August 2012)
_Such points bring up a key aspect of traveling to Burma: the moral dilemma. Many times, travelers are discouraged by ethical dilemmas when it comes to traveling to Burma. Anyone planning a trip to Burma should not be discouraged out of fear that they’ll fund oppression during their time there. The truth is that this is not an economically solvent argument: today, miniscule distributions gathered during visits do not actively influence large-scale government projects. The Burmese government isn’t really building cities on the contributions of backpackers. Today, billions are recruited from the sale of natural resources, logging, gems, minerals, and natural gas to surrounding countries. Some tips soon to be enumerated below will ease some discomfort by giving ideas as to how visitors may actively work to fund local enterprises over large government ventures. However, it is important to understand perspective: no matter how much you patronize local hostels and stores, some money will always filter to the government in the form of licensing fees. Even traveling by bus (typically operated by locals) gives demand to the supplier of gas and spare parts--officially or on the black market.
Because of the opportunities locals have to make money from tourism, it is important that visitors do not feel pressured to forgo opportunities of travel. The trick here is being a responsible, well-informed tourist and consumer: taking into consideration the best ways to invest your money, mostly by learning what funds local businesses and what goes directly into the government’s pocket.
Ultimately, the decision over whether to travel to Burma or not is one left for the traveler. Research, though, is amply recommended.
(For Lonely Planet’s Q&A click here.)
Ethical Burma tourism resources:
EcoBurma (www.ecoburma.com) is a non-profit project run by the Czech non-governmental organization Burma Center Prague that seeks to promote responsible travel to Burma through innovate awareness-raising and capacity-building.
•Empower People: We want locals in Burma to have the capacity to identify issues related to tourism and the strength to defend their rights.
•Contribute Stories: We want to change the way people travel to Burma by raising their awareness. We won’t achieve this through classroom lessons, but through stories from travelers and locals.
•Own Your Choices: We want you to make an informed decision about your trip to Burma, in every detail. The choice is yours.
The 'Choices' section of the website has some great information and resources!
Lonely Planet: Myanmar/Burma Travel Guide
The Lonely Planet: Myanmar/Burma travel guide features an entire chapter devoted to the ethical debate over whether or not to go to Burma as a tourist, as well as useful tips and advice on how to minimise money going to the government. All recommended accommodation and services are private-owned, and, where possible, government and government-crony hotels are pointed out so travelers can avoid them. Lonely Planet does a great job in its guide book (and the Myanmar/Burma chapter in its Southeast Asia on a Shoestring travel guide) painting an honest picture of how much money will inevitably benefit the government even if you take all possible precautions.
(The chapter, "Should you go?" is available to download for free online!)