Thu 24 Feb 2005
Filed under: Inside Burma,News
Maria Ruiz knew pro-democracy campaigners were urging tourists to stay away from Myanmar, but the lure of a country that promises a glimpse into a time gone by in Asia proved too great.
“Bagan, it’s a really magical place. There’s something in the air,” the Peruvian tourist said of the region that hosts a world famous collection of thousands of 11th and 12th century Buddhist stupas, pagodas and shrines.
“I think the boycott is mainly for the tour agents, because all the money goes to the government,” Ruiz said after two weeks touring the military-ruled country.
“We organized everything ourselves,” taking private transport and using private hotels to avoid giving money to government-affiliated businesses, she told AFP.
Ruiz is among the segment of independent travelers that surged 64 percent last year to comprise nearly half of all air arrivals, in part due to the increasing use of the Internet to book reservations, the junta said recently.
Pro-democracy campaigners are urging tourists like Ruiz to stay away from Myanmar, but growing numbers are ignoring that call.
They fuel one of the only growth areas in an economy decimated by years of neglect, mismanagement and international sanctions.
Similar to the boycotts which put pressure on South Africa’s former apartheid regime, the Burma Campaign UK — which refers to the country by its former name — has lined up politicians and celebrities to back the “I’m Not Going” campaign.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair this month joined stars like US actress Susan Sarandon and British actor Sir Ian McKellen in backing the campaign, pledging not to take holidays in Myanmar and urging others to do the same.
Myanmar’s ruling junta, however, is eager to attract more tourists to the country, whose isolation gives it an appeal that other countries in Southeast Asia are losing fast.
Nearly 657,000 foreigners visited the country last year, up from nearly 600,000 in 2003, according to tourism authorities.
Their goal is to raise that number to 750,000 this year, and are in the midst of a Yangon airport expansion that could see the facility handle Boeing 747s and up to 2.7 million passengers per year by 2006.
Unlike in neighboring Thailand, which receives more than 10 million tourists annually, people in Myanmar have relatively little contact with the outside world, and traditional ways of life still hold great sway.
Women and children wear sandlewood makeup, and traditional dress is still widely worn instead of western clothing.
The nation has yet to modernize, so Yangon’s streets are still lined with colonial buildings and solemn Buddhist temples. Fewer than one million cars are registered in the entire country, so traffic and pollution so common in other Asian cities has yet to clog the roads and air.
But the isolation that leaves Myanmar with a flavor of days gone by in the rest of the world is born of a military regime that stands accused of flagrant human rights abuses including forced labor, recruitment of child soldiers, and the detention of thousands of political prisoners — most notably Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
Because the military keeps tight tabs on the struggling economy, the junta takes a hefty slice from official foreign currency exchanges and many businesses, including hotels and restaurants.
That is why pro-democracy campaigners like Aung San Suu Kyi have urged travellers to wait to visit a free Myanmar.
But that hasn’t kept tourists from coming.
French, Germans and Italians on package tours stroll the streets of Yangon, and farther north groups hike through the Bagan plains. Most of the foreign visitors come from other Asian countries.
Cindy Tsang, a 35-year-old tourist from Hong Kong, said she had worried about Myanmar’s notoriously oppressive military rulers before she and her husband came here on holiday.
“My friends didn’t want to come with us,” Tsang said as she shopped for last-minute souvenirs.
“They were scared about the government and about the level of development.”
Independent politician U Win Naing said the junta had not taken much notice of the calls for a tourism boycott.
“A tourism boycott doesn’t affect them much. It just denies them some revenues,” he said.