Responsible tourism in Burma

Responsible tourism in Burma

Travel right in Burma

Many countries suffer under oppressive regimes and military dictatorships, yet Burma is the only country that we at Responsible Travel have ever boycotted as a tourism organisation. The reason for this is simple: it's the only country in which the democratically elected leader, who was subsequently placed under house arrest, has requested an international tourism boycott. And we believed her wishes should be respected.

In 2010, Aung San Suu Kyi was finally released. The following year, her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), stated that they "would welcome visitors who are keen to promote the welfare of the common people and the conservation of the environment and to acquire an insight into the cultural, political and social life of the country." Since then, Responsible Travel has worked with travel companies who we believe are operating in an ethical way, showing high levels of respect for the Burmese people, culture and environment.

However, this is not the end of the story. Burma still has a non-democratically elected government, and corruption and human right abuses continue. Tourists must conduct their visit in a sensitive and informed way at every step of their holiday - from sourcing an ethical operator to avoiding government hotels and behaving responsibly in the country.

Read more about the political issues and how to get involved in campaigns at Burma Campaign UK.

Travelling responsibly in Burma

The key issue

Tourism vs. authenticity

In May 2011, Aung San Suu Kyi's party, the NLD, made the following statement, inviting tourists back to Burma: "The NLD would welcome visitors who are keen to promote the welfare of the common people and the conservation of the environment and to acquire an insight into the cultural, political and social life of the country while enjoying a happy and fulfilling holiday in Burma."

Naturally, there was a scramble to be amongst the first to see this mysterious country, unaccustomed to western culture and not tailored for tourism. It seems ironic that the tourism industry rates places based upon how influenced they are by tourism - and it doesn't bode well for the industry that the places we value most are those where we have had the least impact.

Burma was effectively a clean slate - a chance to start doing things right from the very beginning; much easier, it would seem, than undoing years of poor tourism practices, unrestricted building and development and exploitation of local cultures. But even the most educated tourist - staying in local guesthouses, employing local guides - has an enormous responsibility: as one of the first westerners that local people may have seen, their actions will go on to influence the Burmese perception of tourism long into the future. A sneakily snapped photo, a bare shoulder, a dismissal of local food or an incorrectly calculated tip may give a negative impression of all tourists, as visitors wield far more influence here than in tourism-weary Thailand or Vietnam.

What you can do

Educate yourself. There is plenty of literature about Burma’s history that will help you understand the cultural, spiritual and political complexities of Burma’s 130 cultures. Andrew Appleyard, a trained archaeologist who also works for our supplier, Exodus, recommends From the Land of Green Ghosts, a memoir by Burma’s Pascal Khoo Thwe. You may be on holiday, but Burma is these people’s reality – so it’s simple: treat them as you would strangers in your own country.
Lesley Schofield, from our supplier All Points East: "It's easy for a seasoned traveller to forget that they’re going somewhere which is not used to western tourism. We would like the Burmese people to get used to good, polite, friendly tourists – not people who dismissively walk past, chat on their phones, and don’t engage with the place. It works two ways: they have a lot to learn about tourism, but we also have to introduce them to a good style of tourism. There’s a particular responsibility when tourism is new, to introduce them to tourism that is good for the people and that is respectful, so that their experience of tourists is as good as our experience of visiting the place."

People & culture

Spending wisely & rethinking tourism

Government vs. local spending

Most travellers to Burma are aware of the country’s turbulent history and corrupt government. Much has been made of the need to avoid supporting the government financially when possible, and the problem with staying in junta-owned hotels has been well publicised. Three years after the boycott was lifted, guesthouses, home stays and local hotels are opening across the country to accommodate growing tourist numbers, so government properties are much easier to avoid than they used to be. However, all businesses will be paying government taxes, vehicles have government-issued licences and airlines will return money to the state. It is impossible, therefore, not to fund the government in some way – so extra effort must be made to en ensure money ends up in local hands.

What you can do

Quite simply: go local. Shop in markets, eat in local restaurants, hire guides and purchase handcrafts. There is a growing amount of information online about worthwhile tourism and craft projects, as well as new initiatives springing up on the ground. And remember – haggling may be fun and part of the culture, but a fair price is not the same as the cheapest one.
Andrew Appleyard, from our supplier Exodus:
“Get on a bike, see some of the rural economies where no tourists go and put money into those local economies. Go trekking there as well, because you’re then employing local porters, local staff, to carry gear.

It provides far greater employment that sitting in an air-conditioned vehicle. We’ve got a trekking guide, a mechanic for the cyclists, a support vehicle – so there’s far more employment in active, adventure stuff than there is just in normal tourism.”
Silver craftsBarbara Bauer lives in Burma and works for Partnership for Change, an organisation working to promote responsible tourism. They have opened a centre on Inle Lake called Inle Speaks:
“We try to maintain information at the centre about where to find more responsible craft projects like silk and silver and gold manufacturing or where to find restaurants that are use produce that is farmed more organically. I would recommend that people stop at that community centre and learn more before going out on the lake. It’s right on the jetty where people board the boat to go out of the lake, and it’s open from 7-7 every day.”

Myanmar vs. Burma

Symbolising the difficulties and subtleties of travel in Burma, even the name of the country is a political and cultural minefield. Myanmar is in fact the correct name, and it has been recognised by the UN since the military junta changed the name in 1989. However, as resentment towards the government continues, not everyone chooses to call it “Myanmar”.

Burma is used more commonly – including by tour companies and organisations such as the BBC – quite simply because it is still the most recognised and understood name. Aung San Suu Kyi herself says she prefers Burma, “because the name was changed [by the government] without any reference to the will of the people.”

For others, though, “Burma” has colonial undertones as the name was created by the British, who named the country after its biggest tribe, the Bamar. This means that, technically, “Burma” only refers to a portion of its people – much like referring to the UK as “England”. Some even claim the language should be called “Myanmar”, as Burmese is spoken by the Bamar.

Old Bagan vs. New Bagan

You may have noticed on a map that there are two Bagans – Old Bagan and New Bagan. Unfortunately, there is a sorry story behind this. In the late 1980s, the government moved Bagan’s residents off their ancestral land to encourage tourists to visit the temples. However, the people were not compensated in any way, and as tourists do not visit New Bagan, they do not benefit from tourism – despite having been the guardians of Bagan’s astounding pagodas for centuries. With an influx of foreign investors, golfers and international hotel chains in the region, it’s unlikely this will change any time soon.

What you can do

Hire a local guide, and ask them to take you to the hidden corners of Bagan – it’s a vast site, and tourists huddle in the same spots. Support local vendors, visit the markets, and get on your bike to explore more of the region and its culture. Ensure you book a locally-owned hotel or guesthouse, and avoid the 5-star behemoths at all costs. You can also stay in New Bagan, rather than Old Bagan.

Responsible tourism tips

Travel better in Burma

  • Burma is a very conservative and deeply religious country. Both men and women should avoid wearing shorts – three-quarter or full length trousers are best. Shoulders and upper arms should also remain covered.
  • All photography should be done sensitively. The Burmese are non-confrontational and may not object to being photographed – but this does not mean they are comfortable with it. Don’t photograph people working or bathing, and always strike up a conversation and ask for permission – with words or gestures – before snapping away.
  • The women of the Kayan tribe are famed for their long necks – elongated with heavy brass rings. Many have migrated to Inle Lake to earn a living through tourism. However, while some make an income by weaving gorgeous textiles, others have been rather more exploited. Passengers alight from the boat to see a row of women on a bench, waiting to be photographed, before getting back on the boat and sailing off. The women receive nothing in return, and the tourists learn nothing about the culture – it is, quite simply, a human zoo. Avoid “attractions” like this at all costs, and report any guides who encourage this to your operator.
  • Don’t pay people for photographs, as this can encourage begging.
Barbara Bauer, from Partnership for Change: “Book ahead. So many people arrive to places like Inle Lake without booking lodging, and the monasteries have to cope with the influx of independent travellers as they have this practice that they will help out. If it’s an emergency that makes sense – but if you’re just being irresponsible then it’s just imposing on them. It’s very disrespectful to assume that you can just arrive and the monastery will take care of you.”
  • Burma is a huge country with a complex past and its politics are not as black and white as many foreigners may believe. Aung San Suu Kyi is highly, and deservedly, respected, but not everyone considers her to be a saint. Likewise, not everyone in the military is evil. The Burmese people may be very uneasy talking about politics. If someone is willing, then do ask questions, but do not attempt to impose your own views. Listen, and you will learn.
  • It may be depicted as a pristine wilderness, but deforestation is a serious issue in Burma. It’s one of the world’s biggest exporters of teak wood, as well as being the subject of a booming trade in illegal wildlife – largely for use in Chinese medicine. Of course, there is little you can do to stop this as a tourist, but responsible tourism is always a sustainable alternative to the destruction of forests, so by travelling here and spending money in the right places, you are demonstrating that there is a longer-term solution to logging and poaching. Watch the BBC’s recent series Wild Burma to learn more about what lies in the country’s remaining unspoiled rainforests.
  • Visiting the Green Hill Valley Elephant Camp is an excellent way to support locally-run conservation and social initiatives. Retired elephants are cared for in the forest, and funds support reforestation projects and microfinance schemes. This was not set up as a tourist attraction so visitor numbers are limited – you can visit on a daytrip from Kalaw and see some of the excellent work being carried out here.
  • Looting and the trade in archaeological artefacts is now affecting Burma, and the government has not invested in preserving its enormous cultural heritage. Sometimes, “restoration work” translates as children climbing tall, rickety ladders to paint the pagodas – both historically and socially irresponsible. By paying entrance fees to Bagan and other pagodas, and hiring local guides, you are encouraging investment in these attractions to ensure they exist to make money for local people in the future.
  • The Code works to protect children from sex tourism. Tourism companies can sign up to The Code, and in doing so pledges to undertake six steps to stopping child prostitution – including staff training, providing information to travellers and establishing a policy. A list of tour operators and hotels in Burma that have signed up to The Code can be found here.
  • Don’t travel in huge groups, and if you are travelling in private vehicles do step out of them from time to time, and make your way around on foot, bike or horse cart. Individuals are far less threatening than large groups, and you’ll have the chance to meet Burmese people and discover how they live.
  • Do not buy rubies or gold. There are plenty of rumours about the market being flooded with fakes – but the biggest problem is that the mines are government controlled: your Burmese bling is effectively blood diamonds.
  • Litter and waste disposal is a surprisingly huge problem in Burma. At low tide, the riverbanks and estuaries look like landfill sites, with children picking amongst the refuse to see what they can recycle or sell. Don’t contribute to the problem – while in many cases it’s impossible to avoid using plastic water bottles, you should still try to keep your waste to a minimum and take particularly harmful waste, such as batteries, back home with you.
Photo credits: [Tourist interaction: Greg Walters] [Silver crafts: Cristina Bejarano] [Bagan market: Esme Vos]
Written by Vicki Brown
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