Search This Blog

Saturday, October 20, 2007


Ten years ago Roland and I arrived in Egypt just as everyone was leaving. The airport was packed with tourists and they were all headed out. Sixty or so tourists had been slaughtered at the temple of Hatshepsut in Luxor by some Islamic extremists from al-Gamaa al-Islamiya. Not only did we have the temple of Hatshepsut to ourselves, and not only did we have the Luxor region to ourselves, we pretty much had all of touristic Egypt to ourselves. We also had an entire luxury ship cruising the Nile to ourselves... well it was Roland and I plus 2 elderly Brits on their way home to England after a lifetime of foreign service on the Arabian Peninsula. Four of us. It was the best. Not for the 60 dead tourists who were chased through the ruins and chopped up with scimitars... but for us, the following weeks.

Anyway, when the military regime in Myanmar started responding to peaceful protests from monks in Yangon by wholesale slaughter Roland suggested that this might be a perfect opportunity to visit. I mean not that week but after the troubles died down. We were planning on spending most of December in Thailand anyway.

The only really great hotel in Yangon is The Strand, an old colonial Victorian palace in the heart of the city. It's a small, opulent hotel with only 32 suites, all with lavish, up-to-date amenities. And prices to match. But they're not fools either and when I pointed out that foreign tourists would probably be passing on Myanmar this season, I was able to get a drastically reduced rate. (According to today's NY Times "up to 90 percent of bookings by tourists have been canceled," since the unrest. And Reuters is reporting that "the military junta's ruthless and bloody crackdown have hit tourism hard, with some hotels slashing prices by 80 percent to try to attract visitors," which are still largely empty.)

I got a little nervous yesterday when I saw that Bush had slapped more sanctions on the military dictatorship there, but this morning I saw that the regime (theirs) has lifted the curfew and the ban on public gatherings. The regime (ours) is still grousing about this and that but it doesn't look like they will do anything to ruin our trip-- or do as much damage to the already damaged country as they have to Pakistan with their misguided, DC-centric, foolish policies.

That isn't to say that the whole enterprise-- for Roland and I-- isn't a little hairy. Every other day one of us asks the other if we're making a mistake going.
An ominous calm has settled here, less than a month after the military junta crushed an uprising for democracy led by the nation’s revered monks. People have quietly returned to the squalor and inflation that brought them to the streets in protest. There are even suggestions of peace: young couples embracing under trees around scenic Kandawgyi Lake; music from a restaurant drifting across the placid water.

But beneath the surface, anger, uncertainty, hopelessness-- and above all, fear of the junta-- prevail.

...After the government shut down Internet access and denied visas for outside journalists, keeping much of the world at bay, terror continued to rage through Yangon, the main city, for days, according to witnesses and dissidents here. Soldiers raided homes and monasteries to arrest demonstrators, witnesses said, using pictures taken by government informers during the protests.

Even back when the Times Travel Section did a big feature on Myanmar in 2006, tourists were grappling with the morality of traveling to the country. On the one hand, "As Southeast Asia modernizes rapidly-- Starbucks appears to be colonizing Thailand-- Myanmar, as Burma is now called, remains the last country in the region preserved in amber... Western influences are almost nowhere to be found." On the other hand, the reasons aren't because the people are charmed by the quaintness of yesteryear.
There's a reason for this sensation of being stuck in time, of course. Decades of rule by one of the world's harshest military regimes have left the country isolated and its economy a shambles, discouraging tourist arrivals, putting modern amenities out of many people's reach, and keeping the Burmese wedded to traditional life. (In 2005, Myanmar received some 660,000 foreign visitors, according to the government, compared with the more than 11 million in Thailand in 2004, as reported by the Tourism Authority of Thailand.) "There's only one destination where we won't market holidays, and that's Burma," said Justin Francis of Responsible Travel, a British travel agent promoting socially responsible trips. "We'll market trips anywhere else where we think it'll benefit local people-- even Zimbabwe."

...Like Responsible Travel, and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy opposition leader, many Myanmar-oriented human rights groups support a boycott of tourism, which they see as endorsing the government. The groups draw up "dirty" lists of travel agencies that send tourists there, blast publishers of Myanmar guidebooks, and try to shame celebrities who visit, like Mick Jagger. "It's naïve to say you can help as a tourist," said Tricia Barnett, director of Tourism Concern, a British group advocating responsible tourism, who believes that most of the tourist infrastructure remains closely linked to the regime.

For other travelers, convinced their tourism dollars will help average Burmese, the appeal of the last truly Asian place in Southeast Asia is exactly the reason to come. "When I was in Burma, I've never met anyone who said that I shouldn't be there," said Andrew Gray, founder of Voices for Burma, another advocacy group. Mr. Gray argues that educated tourists can spend money on local businesses without government links and help average people in one of Asia's poorest nations.

The call for a boycott has sparked fierce debate on Web sites and in hotels across the Asian backpacker trail. "I don't know of any debate that's as vocal as this one," said Brice Gosnell, a regional publisher at Lonely Planet. That's not necessarily bad. The debate educates potential visitors, and many independent travelers I've encountered have waded through political tomes before choosing to go.

No comments: