Travelling responsibly in Burma
Shwedagon Pagoda, located in Yangon, is considered one of the most sacred Buddhist pagodas by the Burmese. (Jane Sweeney/LPI)
The political situation in Burma makes the question of tourism a difficult one.
Few people had high expectations when the old military regime handed power to a nominally civilian–led – but still military–backed – government in March of 2011. Yet recent developments have persuaded many that the new leadership, under the presidency of a former general, Thein Sein, is serious about reform. If you do decide to go to Burma, here are a few trips for travelling responsibly.
Why have travellers stayed away?
In the past, the Burmese opposition (the National League for Democracy, or NLD) has argued that a visit to Burma amounts to an endorsement of the regime and puts money in the government’s pockets. There’s evidence that some tourism developments have been built with forced labour, and that villages have been cleared to make way for high-end hotels. A drive to increase tourist numbers by the Burmese government in the 1990s was met with a boycott from many travellers, although some argued that this added to the isolation of ordinary Burmese people.
What are the reasons to go now?
The NLD’s Aung San Su Kyi now suggests that responsible travellers can help to change Burma. Other pro-boycott activists, including Burma Campaign UK, have also reversed their position on the issue in recent times. Burmese people invariably welcome visitors and, with a little thought, it’s possible to ensure much of the money you spend goes to the private sector rather than the government.
How can I maximise the amount of money that goes directly to local people?
All visitors to Burma have to pay a visa fee and a tax on purchases, which goes to the government. Some visitors choose to avoid government-run attractions – for a full list, download the free Should I Go to Burma? chapter from Lonely Planet. It can help to spread the money you spend across a range of smaller businesses where it’s less likely the regime is taking a cut. Be sure to make any charitable donations in person.
Should I travel with an organised tour?
As a rule, organised tour visitors experience less interaction with Burmese people than individual travellers. There’s been evidence in the past to suggest that some organised tours are steered towards businesses with strong links to the government. That said, a few international tour operators such as Transindus and Wild Frontiers actively work with Burmese communities. There are a small number of Yangon-based agents who can arrange private guides, transport and accommodation in country – try Good News Travels and Columbus Travels.
How should I behave in Burma?
Burma is a very safe country to visit, but meeting Burmese people requires sensitivity and tact. Don’t ask locals what they think about the regime, and be wary of places that treat ethnic minorities as attractions – notably the "long-necked" Padaung women in Shan State. For further information, take a look at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s advice for travellers to Burma.
This article was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.