The ethics of travelling to Burma
We have been offering travel to Burma for the last 15 years, and we always ensured that as little revenue as possible made it in to government hands.
We were always careful to ensure that anyone who travelled to the country was fully aware of the political issues, so they knew what to expect when they travelled.
Clients always came back captivated and delighted to have travelled and met the humble people of this beautiful land.
When Aung San Suu Kyi first hinted her acceptance of tourists returning to Burma she stressed that this should be responsible travel, travelling with ‘eyes open’ and actively encouraged what has subsequently been referred to as higher-spend, lower density tourism, which for us is no change to what we were offering before.
The biggest difference now is that Burma has leapt to the top of lots of people's must-see list and there are simply not enough hotels to meet demand.
Up until recently, there were sanctions in place against trading with companies that have direct government connections. Some of these businesses were connected with tourism.
We can tell you which hotels and services are owned by government officials if wish to avoid them. We prefer not to use hotels and services that have connections with the government, and instead we favour smaller, privately owned entities that include our local family-run partner, who employs over 200 staff.
Audley staff and clients raised funds to rebuild a school after it was destroyed by Cyclone Nargis, and we encourage Audley travellers to visit the school as part of their tour and make a donation to its ongoing operation.
If you would like to find out more about the ethics of travel to Burma, please read on for further information and sources of information, or speak to one of our Burma specialists.
As sanctions have been lifted and further political prisoners are freed the situation in Burma is likely to continue changing. This is why we send our staff on regular trips to keep up with the latest news and happenings, seeking out new experiences without taking advantage of this beautiful country and its people who are relatively naïve when it comes to tourism.
Our Chairman attended a World Economic Forum (WEF) in Myanmar in early June, focusing on tourism and overall infrastructure. They appreciate that the arrival of tourism brings challenges to a relatively undeveloped country and they are keen to ensure that the impact is positive.
This short YouTube video clip gives you more information about how the WEF councils work together with an overall aim of improving the economic state of the world.
Over the past few years, there have been some changes to the ruling junta’s stance on human rights, since its formation of a nominally civilian government.
We were delighted by the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and her subsequent landslide win of her seat in the April 2012 elections. Hilary Clinton, then the U.S. Secretary of State, visited Burma in December 2011 and certain U.S. and European Union sanctions have been relaxed.
William Hague, the UK Foreign Secretary, visited in January 2012 and after talks with Aung San Suu Kyi and senior members of the current Burmese government, stated “if reforms continue we are ready to build a new relationship with Burma”.
David Cameron subsequently visited Burma in April 2012 and certain sanctions were relaxed. Most recently President Barack Obama became the first serving US President to visit Burma, when he made a brief stop in November 2012.
President Obama visited Yangon and met with both President Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi, followed by a landmark speach at Yangon University, heart of the pro-democracy protests in 1988.
Both President Obama and Aung San Suu Kyi expressed their optimism over the progress that has been made, but also cautioned against complacency and stressed that the work and drive toward full democracy must continue.
Given the pace of significant socio-political events in Burma, a useful timeline can be found on the BBC website.
The Burmese people are, at last, being given more access to the Internet and free press, with less censorship. Burma hosted the South East Asia Games in 2013 and the ASEAN forum in 2015.
These are all reasons for optimism, but Burma has a very long way to go.
The country’s main voice of government opposition, the National League for Democracy, has changed its stance on travel to Burma.
It now recognises the positive effects of small-scale tourism but warns against the detrimental effects mass tourism can bring.
This concurs with our longstanding view that travel to Burma by well-informed people who are interested in not only seeing the country, but also learning about its social and political issues, can bring many positive benefits to the people of Burma.
Is it possible to travel to Burma without much of the money going to the government?
Much of the infrastructure is either government-owned or is owned by companies or individuals linked to the regime, although most of the international class hotels are wholly or majority-owned by overseas interests.
By eating in smaller restaurants, employing local drivers and guides, and buying locally made souvenirs and other things from small shops and street vendors, you can ensure that money goes directly to the local people and not to the government.
But, unless you stay in very small simple guesthouses and travel by local buses you will be using transport and hotels during your stay from which the government will derive some tax revenue.
Tourism is different from industries such as logging, oil, gas, gems and fishing because it is mainly privately owned so is not as directly linked to the government, but some of these private owners will have government links.
Where can you find out more about the issues?
The Internet is the best place. Irrawaddy.com is a website containing vast amounts of information about Burma's past and present. It's an excellent place to find out what the main issues are and is a great source of links, interviews and reports on the debate that surrounds them.
The Burma Campaign UK works for human rights, democracy and development in Burma and is part of a larger international organisation. Its website is an excellent source of information. The UK Foreign & Commonwealth’s official site has details of William Hague’s visit in January 2012.
On 2nd December, 2009, Intelligence Squared, one of the UK’s leading debating forums, hosted the first discussion of its kind on the subject of sanctions against Burma.
Entitled 'It's time to lift sanctions on Burma', speakers for the motion were Thant Myint-U, a Burmese historian and former head of policy planning in the UN's Department of Political Affairs, Dr Frank Smithuis a medical doctor and campaigner who ran Médecins Sans Frontières-Holland in Myanmar for 15 years; and Derek Tonkin, former British ambassador to both Vietnam and Thailand, and currently chairman of Network Myanmar.
Against the motion were Mark Farmaner, Director of the Burma Campaign UK; Benedict Rogers, Southeast Asia team leader for Christian Solidarity Worldwide; and Brad Adams, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch Asia Division.
We attended the debate, which provided an interesting introduction to the main arguments for and against sanctions, although the debate on tourism was only given slight coverage.
Does tourism revenue make a significant difference to the survival and power of the regime in Burma?
I think this is a very important issue that is often skirted over when the subject of tourism is discussed. Tourism is certainly a source of foreign currency for the regime, but personally I think it is essential to look at the bigger picture and ask if there is any realistic possibility that the regime would struggle if the revenue from tourism was reduced or stopped altogether.
First, some hard facts. As a very rough guide, Burma earned some US$165 million gross (or what Thailand earned in only four days) during 2006 from some 175,000 international visitors arriving at the main international arrival gates of Yangon (Rangoon) Mandalay, Bagan and Muse/Ruili (on the Chinese border). Compare this with Thai earnings of US$13.4 billion in 2006 from some 13.6 million visitors.
After meeting operating costs, servicing loans, and paying land rent and taxes to the state, the net profit available for distribution is likely to be less than US$30 million, most of which goes to private and international owners. The state is known to be concerned that both land rents and taxes are in some cases behind schedule.
In short, at its present level, tourism is not a cash cow for the state whose main sources of hard currency income nowadays are natural gas exports, timber, fish, agricultural products, jade and precious stones.
Based on this of this evidence, tourism would need to increase by a factor of five, if not ten, to become a significant hard currency earner.
I believe this issue also needs to be looked at from a much broader perspective, namely Burmar’s general situation in terms of its political and economic relations with other countries and trading blocks such as China, Japan, India, the U.S., the European Union and Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
The first point to me is critical and it would be easily possible to write endlessly on this subject alone. To be reasonably brief, I point out several key factors that you may wish to further investigate:
Burma sits between the dynamic and rapidly developing economies of China and India, both of which consider their current and future strategic relationship with Burma to be very important.
China in particular has been very supportive of the regime and is working intensively to strengthen economic relations. Burma’s vast natural resources and the fact that Burma offers a route from Southern China to seaports in the Indian Ocean for imports and exports are key.
The Chinese government has reportedly leased an island in the northern Andaman Islands from the Burmese and built a naval base here to protect its 'interests'.
The Chinese nonetheless publicly acknowledged in discussion in the UN Security Council on 15 September 2006 and 12 January 2007 that Burma has particular problems, some of them serious, and - to quote from the latter record - 'sincerely hopes and expects that the Myanmar Government will... listen to the call of its own people, learn from the good practices of others, and speed up the process of dialogue and reform'.
Against this realistic background, I think it is fair to say that China’s policy on Burma is one of the major factors that will influence the future survival of the Burmese regime. Without Chinese support the campaign to get rid of the regime is much less likely to succeed.
Further, in November 2006, China hosted a summit of African nations to build stronger ties with them. Of 53 nations, 48 attended, with 40 of them represented by the nation’s leader.
China has made it very clear that it has no intention of interfering in the internal affairs of these countries. In particular, it is actively working with the regime in Sudan (despite the Darfur crisis) and the regime in Zimbabwe (despite the current humanitarian crisis).
This strongly supports the view that it will continue to develop strong economic relations with Burma without any attempt to promote change or democracy. China’s own lack of democracy does of course make this even more unlikely.
What is Audley’s wider record on Responsible Tourism?
We are very committed to responsible tourism in general and we are working closely with several organisations in the UK and around the world on this.
We have been awarded the highest rating by the Association of Independent Tour Operators (AITO which is independently audited) for our current approach to RT and we are totally committed to attaining the highest possible standards in this area.
Only a handful of AITO members have achieved this rating. We are proud of the fact that we offer information on charities, NGOs and community projects to clients travelling with us enabling them to gain a deeper understanding of the countries that they visit.
In many cases we can also arrange for clients to visit these projects and schools as part of their itinerary. One such project in Burma has had direct involvement from Audley.
In 2008 we raised in excess of £11,000 to help fund the rebuilding of a school, a two-hour journey from Yangon, that was devastated by Cyclone Nargis.
This money has helped provide ongoing support to the school and community, which welcomes Audley clients who are interested in giving something back to the country in which they travel by donating school equipment or sponsoring a child’s education.
Four out of five clients who book with Audley have either travelled with us before or have been recommended to us by people who have. We believe our positive approach to responsible tourism is one of the main reasons why so many of our clients travel with us again and again.
Responsible tourism is very important to people who work at Audley. Most of us have travelled extensively and have seen the extremes of what tourism delivers around the world.
While the Southeast Asia team clearly has the direct involvement with the Burma issue, people on the other six teams also take an active interest in Audley’s approach to issues like Burma and other RT considerations.
For more information see our Responsible Travel section.
Founder Managing Director, Audley Travel