Responsible tourism in Myanmar

Many countries suffer under oppressive regimes and military dictatorships, yet Myanmar is the only country that we at Responsible Travel have ever boycotted. There were two reasons for this. First, 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. And second, much of the tourist infrastructure was owned by the military Junta, meaning there was no way to ensure that travelling to Myanmar would put money into local people's hands. This has since changed.

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 Myanmar's people, culture and environment.

However, this is far from the end of the story. Myanmar still has a non-democratically elected government, and corruption and human right abuses continue. Since 2017, the persecution of the Rohingya – an Islamic people who live in western Myanmar - has made headlines around the world, with many describing the brutal massacres as genocide.

We always encourage tourists to conduct their visit in a sensitive and informed way at every step of their holiday, but this is particularly crucial in Myanmar. From sourcing an ethical operator to avoiding government hotels and behaving responsibly in the country, we’ve shared our main responsible tourism tips below.

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

People & culture

The persecution of the Rohingya

At the start of 2017, over a million Rohingya people lived along Myanmar’s western edge, mainly in the state of Rakhine. There have long been tensions between Myanmar’s predominantly Buddhist population and the Islamic Rohingya, who speak a language related to those spoken in Bangladesh. Despite having been here for many generations, the Rohingya are still considered by many Burmese to be “immigrants”, and the government denies them citizenship, making them a stateless people.

Over the years, there have been sporadic attacks by Rohingya militants on police officers and Buddhist monks. As tensions boiled over, in August 2017, the militants attacked government forces, and the response was a “clearance operation” by government security forces and Buddhist militia. Prior to August 2017, over 307,000 Rohingya had fled to temporary settlements or ill-equipped refugee camps along the border. Since then, as of January 2018, an additional 655,000 Rohingya have become refugees, according to UNHCR, bringing the total to almost one million. The government attacks have been described as ethnic cleansing and even genocide, and they are utterly shocking in their brutality. Far from targeting insurgents, the militia have slaughtered women, children and babies, and have razed remote villages and urban centres; Human Rights Watch reported that at least 288 villages have been destroyed by fire, with many thousands killed. International aid agencies have been blocked from delivering essential supplies to many communities in conflict zones, with the Myanmar government accusing them of supporting terrorists.

For many people reading about this violence, one of the most shocking aspects has been the lack of response from Myanmar’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. The Nobel Peace Laureate was democratically elected and viewed with incredible hope for a freer, more peaceful Myanmar. However, she has repeatedly rebuffed requests to intervene and support the Rohingya. Suu Kyi does not have control over the military, but her refusal to condemn their actions throws into doubt her commitment to human rights – something she has long been praised for. At present, she has not even acknowledged the ethnic cleansing that is taking place within her country’s borders – and has described the violence as a means of dealing with terrorists.
Many are calling for a second tourism boycott of Myanmar, but at Responsible Travel, we do not believe that this will have the desired impact at all. Given the recent tourism boom, there are now many Burmese people working in tourism, and withdrawing now would harm these local businesses. Rather than impacting the government, jobs and livelihoods would be lost, and it's the citizens - the vast majority of whom have absolutely nothing to do with the crisis in Rakhine - who would suffer. This is a political crisis, and it needs a political solution; a tourism boycott will not make any difference to the corrupt leadership.

- Updated 2 February 2018

Tourism vs. authenticity

In May 2011, Aung San Suu Kyi's party, the NLD, made the following statement, inviting tourists back to Myanmar: "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.

Myanmar 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 Myanmar's 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 Myanmar'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 Myanmar's Pascal Khoo Thwe. You may be on holiday, but Myanmar 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."

Government vs. local spending

Most travellers to Myanmar 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. Several 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.”
Barbara Bauer lives in Myanmar 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

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.”
Myanmar is a large country with a complex past and its politics are not as black and white as many foreigners may believe. Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded a Nobel peace prize in 1991 and was treated as a saint when she won the general election in 2015; she has since turned a blind eye to what many have described as a genocide of the Rohingya. 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 Myanmar. 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. 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. Myanmar has suffered from the looting and trade in archaeological artefacts, 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 Myanmar 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 more approachable than large groups, and you’ll have the chance to meet local 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 Myanmar. 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, use an effective filter system such as LifeStraw and take particularly harmful waste, such as batteries, back home with you.
Written by Vicki Brown
Photo credits: [Page banner: Thomas Bors] [Rohingya: EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations] [Inle lake: Chinh Le Duc] [Monks: Dominic Chung]