Could Burma be the New Tourist Destination of 2011?

burmaLast week, Asian leaders called for an end to the international travel boycott on Burma, but how will the recent political developments impact tourism, and is it correct to visit?

Last year was a golden year for tourism in Burma. An estimated 300,000 foreign tourists visited the country last year, according to the Bangkok-based Pacific-Asia Travel Association. Yet despite a 30 percent increase over 2009 figures, this is still tiny in comparison with Burma’s neighbouring countries. In 2010, an estimated 15 million tourists visited Thailand, and 17 million went to Malaysia.

A Travel Boycott

Political stigma has long been attached to visiting Burma, or Myanmar as it is recognised by the UN, which has been under military dictatorship since 1962. In 2003, Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s pro-democracy leader who spent much of the last 20 years under house-arrest, called for an international travel boycott to the country, which was then promoted by several activist groups. Fuelling the official tourism industry in Burma would only serve to support the military regime.

On her release in November 2010, Suu Kyi loosened her stance, and in an interview with the Associated Press said that while large scale tourism, such as package tours, were not encouraged, “individuals coming in to see, to study the situation in the country might be a good idea.”

Money to the people

Tourism is an opportunity for much-needed economic growth for Burma, and a chance for the much-isolated Burmese people to connect with outsiders. Burma’s tourism revenue hit $196 million in 2009, almost double what it was in 2002. While tourism is not the main source of economic activity for the country, compared to the billions made from natural resources, tourism can bring personal revenue to the Burmese people.

Tourism in Burma does not necessarily mean filling the junta’s pockets. Increasingly, the government is becoming less involved in tourism, with state-owned services being sold to private investors. In addition, Burma operates two rates of exchange; a fixed official rate, used for government transactions, and a black market rate. Changing money in the unofficial market, and using privately owned hotels and other tourism services is a way of financially supporting the people of Burma without money being absorbed by the state.

But what does it imply for foreign tourists to visit the country? Despite the rare election held last year, the Burmese military are still one of the world’s worst violators of freedom of expression. This week the UN Human Rights Council is set to review Burma’s rights record, as part of a four-year long examination of all UN member states.

Now that Aung San Suu Kyi has been freed, we shall see this year whether that will influence foreign tourists’ decision to visit Burma.