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International tourists set sights on Burma

Empty beach chairs are seen in the early morning on Feb. 15 on Ngapali beach in Burma. Tourism in Burma, also known as Myanmar, is increasing as the government opens up its doors to the rest of the world.

A series of events has helped draw the world's eyes to Burma over the last year — and for once it's not all negative attention.

The release of political leader and democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi in late 2010 after almost 15 years of house arrest was followed in March of last year by the transfer of power from a much-derided military junta to nominally civilian regime. Reconciliation between the western world and the Burmese state, long accused of authoritarianism and human rights abuses from forced labor to human trafficking, took another step forward three months ago when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton paid the country a landmark visit, meeting with both Suu Kyi and the leaders in power.

More recently, "The Lady," a film starring Michelle Yeoh as Suu Kyi, has sparked further interest in Burma, which is also known as Myanmar — especially after the influential and beloved Suu Kyi herself openly encouraged tourists to experience the country, abandoning her former stance that sanctions, essentially boycotting all travel to Burma, were the only way to provoke change. 

People seem to be heeding The Lady's words: growing numbers have been visiting — and they're not just backpackers on the hunt for adventure. Once there, visitors say they find the relatively undeveloped country beautiful, friendly and eye opening.

"For most, Myanmar is an unknown. There's simply not been enough travelers coming back for word-of-mouth [news], and most guidebook companies stopped publishing books about Myanmar under the so-called travel 'boycott' years ago," said Patrick Morris, managing director at Indochina Travel, who adds that since the developments late last year his company has seen a "sharp increase" in bookings. "Myanmar suffered from negative press for so long. Although travelers could not articulate why they were hesitant to go there, there was nonetheless significant apprehension or fear."

International tourist arrivals in Burma increased 27.7 percent between 2009 and 2010, from 243,000 to 311,000, according to the World Tourism Organization, a UN agency based in Madrid. Data is not yet available for 2011, but given the improvement in the country's reputation since the end of 2010, that number is likely to continue to rise. 

Given these recent developments, the stigma against visiting seems almost dated, and many familiar with the country tend to favor a strategy known as engagement. "Boycotting Burma is an outdated stance," said Tom Hunter, a former staffer at the Myanmar Times. "Sanctions and restrictions do nothing but isolate the country and push it in the wrong direction. To effect change, people need to engage and interact with the Burmese people."

Even with April 1 elections looming — in which Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), will participate, having boycotted the last ones — and knowledge that certain groups still protest visiting Myanmar at all, travelers interviewed for this story seemed to be nonetheless awed — if consciously so — by the standard tourist itinerary: the thousands of untouched temples in Bagan; ethnic minorities at the Heho market; fishermen and stupas of Inle Lake; the former royal seat of Mandalay and the busy capital, Yangon. In a turn for the tacky, tourists are even flocking to the NLD headquarters, where vendors have set up stalls selling T-shirts, mugs and key chains emblazoned with Suu Kyi's face.

"The country is enchanting, with its breathtaking natural beauty, folkways untouched by globalization and above all, the gentle, sweet, respectful, devoutly Buddhist people," observed Nancy Jennings, a minister from New York who visited Burma in February. "But there's a darker side to the story. Burma is one of the poorest countries in the world, and that was clearly evident in what we saw of village life. No running water or electricity, inadequate medical care, AIDS on the rise, poor roads — except for the spanking new highway with no cars on it, built for the generals to use to access the new capital from the airport in Mandalay. But there's hope — with the recent opening to the world, the upcoming elections, the efforts of Aung San Suu Kyi, and the growing tourist industry, which is bringing employment and new possibilities to many." 

In spite of the growing number of tourists, navigating the country can be daunting. In addition to the lack of transportation infrastructure, if visitors aren't using a travel agent to craft their itinerary, even setting up hotel stays can be a chore — e-mail is infrequently checked because Internet access is unreliable, which also makes it near impossible to book online except for a handful of places in Yangon. There are no ATMs, and even getting a good exchange rate from U.S. dollars to the local currency, the kyat, can require some haggling in a black market. 

Travelers recommend using online forums like Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree, TripAdvisor or Travelfish to get in touch with responsive, reputable hotels and local agents who can book domestic flights. Winging it upon arrival is becoming less and less advisable. Or go the luxury route, with Boulder, Co.-based Asia TransPacific Journeys or Abercrombie & Kent, which has been working on the ground with local Burmese staff for 20 years.

It remains to be seen whether Burma can even handle the inevitable deluge of tourists. "Flights are full, trains are full and hotels are fully booked," said Jeff Parry, an Australian married to a Burmese woman who is the founder of Bike World Explore Myanmar. But despite the logistical challenges, visitors will find "tranquility, peace and the visual absence of soldiers and weapons," he added.

It's not all temples and cycling trips, though. Though Suu Kyi expressed a change of heart, and though many in the industry support engagement rather than sanctions, the controversy about whether to go at all lingers on for some groups, who still believe tourist dollars shouldn't be spent in a place where they can trickle down to a regime criticized for violating crucial freedoms.

"Tourism was a controversial issue, but now it is much less so," said Macquarie University economics professor and Burma expert Sean Turnell. "The democracy movement in Burma now broadly supports tourism, but asks that visitors try to spend their money with local, small tourist operators, rather than government agencies and those connected to the country's crony elite."

For those bent on visiting but who hate the thought of indirectly supporting the government, the latest Lonely Planet guide includes an itinerary that avoids many state-levied taxes and fees and details how to patronize private businesses instead, plus a six-page section on how to travel responsibly in Burma.

Most believe that when entering Burma was against The Lady's wishes, visiting was harder to do in good conscience. But now that she's invited foreigners to meet her people and to assess the country on their own terms, it's harder to justify not going.

"I personally don't have many ethical qualms with going," said Sam Gellman, a freelance travel photographer based in Hong Kong. "The [local] people all insist that you tell your friends to come as well. People are not fans of their own government, but they really appreciate tourism. I think the chance to meet them, to tell their story, makes the experience worthwhile, despite some funds going to a bad cause."

Gerald Hatherly, an Abercrombie & Kent travel specialist who spends 150 days a year on the road, is optimistic about Burma's future but warns of potential changes ahead, emphasizing that this rare window for travel won't be open forever. "Like China in the late 1970s and 1980s, the transition from a closed society to a more open one is thrilling and exciting, and travelers enjoy seeing this," he said. "[But there are] huge challenges Burma now faces to bring the country up to speed. People are understanding and forgiving, but they will not always be that way. What was unique and in a way charming about Burma before was that it was relatively isolated; now, as it opens, things will inevitably change, and with change will come negatives. You just have to look at Thailand to understand how negatives might manifest themselves (i.e., the seamier side of tourism). Let's hope that Burma can avoid these traps."

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