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Archive for February 22nd, 2008

Burmese man ©Leeroy09481Here’s an interesting dilemma to weigh …

When a country has gone to hell in a handbasket, is it better to give it a wide berth or barge in and take a look around?

This is the debate between the British Trade Union Congress (TUC) in conjunction with Tourism Concern Burma, and the Lonely Planet Guide going on right now, with one side insisting that travel to Burma constitutes unethical support of the repressive regime that rules the country and makes life miserable for its people, while the other argues that there are pros and cons, and that people should make up their minds for themselves.

Listed at the front of the book are points for and against:

Its reasons not to go include:

Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi opposes tourism
The military government uses forced labour
International tourism seen as ‘stamp of approval’
Money from tourism goes to the military government

Reasons to go are:
Tourism is one of few areas to which locals have access
Carefully targeted spending reaches individuals in need
Locals have told travel guide authors they are in favour
Abuses less likely in areas frequented by foreigners

I’ll admit that I am no fan of tourists … living where and how I do has calloused my view on those who traipse into a country, treat the place like Disneyland and the people like entertainment hired to amuse or serve, then depart with no thought whatsoever as to what legacy they might be leaving. In fact, I detest their arrogance and their ignorance and wish they would all stay home and annoy their own.

On the other hand, I am quite fond of travelers.

There’s a big difference between those needing to place a check mark saying BTDT alongside other peoples’ homes in hopes of impressing friends probably too busy doing the same to actually be impressed and people seeking knowledge and horizon expansion. Of course, both can be called tourists, but the impact made is as contrastive as are the motivations.

And motivations do count in travel, especially when talking about travel to a place like Burma.

Adventurers looking for the undiscovered destination come in many flavors, and where those determined to fill the first-white-man-the-village-has-ever-seen types can do a lot of damage and ruin the place … not only for those coming behind, but also for the locals, and forever … some with a gentle approach may prepare the ground for the populace to have some control over the changes about to descend on their world.

High-end tourists, those demanding Five Star service in Six Star destinations, aren’t likely to head for Burma until Raffles builds a resort and Bill Gates puts another Four Seasons on another “unspoiled” bit of property … spoiling it forever like the place he’s building in my back yard … but there are a few of the more intrepid rich guys who will rent a villa with the full complement of staff so they can be the first in their private-jet-parking group to say, “Had a lovely couple of days in Mandalay.”

They could have just as well been in Mauritania or Mauritius for all the Myanmar they experienced, but that wouldn’t be the point, now, would it?

I suspect sex tourism will be on the agenda for far too many who look for new ground to break in South East Asia and might figure the poverty in Burma would make for easy pickings.

Holiday destinations rise and fall in popularity, and the trendiness of Burma is probably only a matter of time as other countries become tarnished with familiarity. I predict this will be both a good thing and a bad thing and that life for the Burmese will change both for the better and for the worse as it becomes part of the homogenized world of franchises that Lonely Planet, like every guide book ever written encourages whether meaning to or not.

Calling for a boycott of Lonely Planet seems just silly, as I know I wouldn’t be writing about tourism to Burma had they not pressed the issue, and I’m betting others are doing the same in reaction to the BBC coverage it spurred.

Twenty years ago, I would have been one of the first to buy the book and try to plan a trip. These days, however, I’m just hoping a few of the rude and pushy tourists cluttering beaches and driving on the wrong side of the road in Seychelles decide to go there instead.

Photo Credit: Leeroy09481

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