Why Is the Tourism Industry Ignoring the Reality of Myanmar?

Delicate question this. Should the tourism industry be supporting Myanmar while its regime kills and persecutes the Rohingya people because of their religion?

I ask after reading a trade story yesterday headlined Myanmar Jubilant as Asia Arrivals Swell based on government claims that in 2017 Southeast Asian tourist visits to the country increased 109% year on year.

The first issue is the figures themselves.

An article in the New Myanmar Times, Why Myanmar’s Tourism Numbers Don’t Add Up,  explains how the government has been boosting its tourism figures over the past few years to meet lofty targets.

The gist is that  Myanmar a now treats regional day-trippers as tourists when the global standard is that visitors must stay at least one night to be considered a tourist.

This disparity can easily be gleaned in the latest Myanmar government figures by comparing the 13% increase in regional arrivals through Yangon International Airport in 2017, well short of the claimed 109% overall boost. 

Exaggerated numbers combined with naive next big thing optimism from developers, created a hotel building boom which has led to dramatic oversupply.

The flawed ‘build it and they will come mentality’ is well covered in this Bloomberg story, Myanmar’s Tourism Destination Dreams Fade Amid Empty Hotels

Logic says many of Myanmar’s hotel investors are in the red, a situation that’s unlikely to change with western tourists, their main market, no longer inclined to visit a country involved in what has been called genocide.

According to this Washington Post report,  Doctors Without Borders estimates that 6700 Rohingya were killed during the first month of ‘ethnic cleansing’ between August and September last year. 

The United Nations believes more than 500,000 Rohingya have fled the country and now live in refugee camps in neighbouring Bangladesh.

Which brings us to the tourism industry and its promotion of Myanmar as a desirable destination.

An excellent example is Intrepid Travel, a fast-growing outfit that grossed $350 million last year and describes itself as an independently-owned company with a ‘purpose beyond profit’.

In recent times it has sought and received a lot of publicity for withdrawing from Orphanage Tourism and also animal attractions such as elephant rides and tiger petting.

On its website Intrepid has been declaring:

Beautiful Myanmar is stepping out of a chequered past into a new era of hope and optimism.

Visitors can expect to be dazzled by shimmering cities of gilded temples, enlivened by emerald green landscapes and humbled by the warm smiles of gracious villagers.

Now is the time to contribute to Myanmar’s blossoming future – peaceful pagodas, sacred sites, ancient towns and monasteries await.

Really?

Of course that’s not the reality and Intrepid – which dominates Myanmar travel search results – has said since this story was published it will update the copy (which has now happened).

Spokesperson Gillian Monahan commented: “As you say, the copy on our website isn’t appropriate given the current situation in Myanmar. That was an oversight and our team is working on updating it now.

“While we won’t be proactively promoting peaceful pagodas in Myanmar, we will continue to visit the country.”

She said Intrepid doesn’t believe in boycotting countries.

“We do believe that travellers can have a positive impact on the places they visit and we’ve worked particularly hard to have a positive impact in Myanmar.

“Besides employing local operations staff and local tour leaders, we’ve recently set up a community-based tourism project with the help of ActionAid Myanmar and partnered with DFAT and AVI to support a new Sustainable Tourism Hub, which will launch later in the year.”

She added that  The Intrepid Foundation, has raised almost $30,000AUD for ActionAid Myanmar and another $23,000AUD for Red Cross in Myanmar by matching all donations dollar-for-dollar.

Other companies though are still promoting Myanmar as some kind of mystical untouched Southeast Asian paradise.

How can modern travel companies, who all love just love jumping on a cause, can claim to be so connected to the communities they visit and yet be so out of touch?

Further reading: 
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/asia/myanmar/articles/burma-myanmar-rakhine-is-it-safe-to-visit/

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13 thoughts on “Why Is the Tourism Industry Ignoring the Reality of Myanmar?”

  1. Myanmar has been in the news over and over again in the second part of 2017 and the Myanmar Tourism Industry urges tour operators and travel agents NOT to turn their back on the tourism industry as Tourism does contribute significantly in poverty reduction (http://step.unwto.org/content/tourism-and-poverty-alleviation-1) and according to the World Bank “poverty has declined between 2009-2010 and 2015” http://www.worldbank.org/en/country/myanmar/overview . The World Bank assessment, however, signals that poverty remains substantial. According to the Asia Development Bank and UNDP over 13 million people (or 25% of the population) in Myanmar live below the national poverty line http://www.mm.undp.org/content/myanmar/en/home/countryinfo.html and https://www.adb.org/countries/myanmar/poverty

    Since September Myanmar Tourism Marketing condemned the violence in Northern Rakhine State, showed support for all displaces and emphasized that Myanmar is a very safe place to travel (https://www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/burma)

    Myanmar Tourism Marketing has emphasized on the fact that tourism benefits people all over Myanmar from any race or religion

    We do call on all tour operators from any nationality to support the Myanmar tourism industry and actively promote Myanmar as a tourist destination and we ask people NOT to politicize tourism but instead help Myanmar to celebrate its diversity.

    All call to punish all people in Myanmar working in the tourism industry is not sustainable, nor the right thing to do but quite the opposite.

    Myanmar Tourism Marketing – http://www.myanmar.travel

    1. It’s complex. My view is that the tourism industry needs to take leadership and comment in some way on what’s happening in Myanmar, not pretend there’s nothing going on with picture-perfect prose. Travel can help but it needs to be on the front foot, address the issue and find some way to support local industry while acknowledging that the Myanmar story has changed. For once, travel should take the lead.

      1. Aung Kyaw notes above that Myanmar Tourism Marketing has condemned the violence, it is taking leadership and commenting on the situation.

        There are plenty of ways travel supports local industry, and this is happening in Myanmar (and everywhere else) every day.

        RE Intrepid, you’re right they should’ve updated their website, but also see their blog on the situation https://www.intrepidtravel.com/adventures/the-situation-in-myanmar/

        “For once, travel should take the lead” – I wonder what you mean by this ?

        1. Travel is a global industry that rarely if ever (I can’t think of a single example) takes the lead on major issues. It sits back, says nothing, waits for things to happen and reacts but only if lobby groups force them to.

  2. Martin, your second article referenced on why ‘Myanmar’s tourism figures don’t add up’ is three years old. The government changed the way it calculates its figures two years ago. YOU need to catch up.

    Secondly, the Bloomberg story you quote was quite simply biased, unbalanced and inaccurate. An unworthy piece of journalism, with little merit.

    You’re right, Intrepid should amend it’s website to reflect the current situation, which is far more complex than you suggest. You and all potential travellers to the country need to be aware a travel boycott will not help the majority of the Myanmar people, and it certainly won’t help the Rohingya.

    Each of Myanmar’s states and regions, and their people, are keen to develop tourism. For many there are few development alternatives. Most are unlikely to support brutality and persecution. Have you seen this article, one of the better BBC pieces that goes beyond the usual soundbites http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-42899242

    A more assured way to bring about change, would be to promote more tourism and have the tourists speak to as many Myanmar people as possible about their views and opinions. Change comes through dialogue and understanding, not isolation, soundbites and ignorance as to the complexities of the country’s situation.

    1. Hello Paul, thanks for your input. Please detail how the Myanmar Govt now calculates tourism numbers, that was the only information I could find on the methodology. It would also help if you could explain the disparity between airport arrivals from SEA +13% and the overall SEA traveller increase cited of 109%. The Bloomberg article looks fine to me and it’s no secret that Myanmar hotel occupancies are terrible. As for your final point, this story was designed to stimulate debate, which it has done in a very limited way.

  3. Hi Martin,

    You’ve specifically highlighted Intrepid Travel in this your story, so I’d like to address a few of the concerns you’ve raised.

    As you say, the copy on our website isn’t appropriate given the current situation in Myanmar. That was an oversight and our team is working on updating it now.

    While we won’t be proactively promoting peaceful pagodas in Myanmar, we will continue to visit the country. You can read more on why we don’t believe in boycotting countries: https://www.intrepidtravel.com/adventures/why-we-dont-believe-in-travel-boycotts/.

    We do believe that travellers can have a positive impact on the places they visit and we’ve worked particularly hard to have a positive impact in Myanmar. Besides employing local operations staff and local tour leaders, we’ve recently set up a community-based tourism project with the help of ActionAid Myanmar and partnered with DFAT and AVI to support a new Sustainable Tourism Hub, which will launch later in the year. You can learn more about these two projects here: http://www.intrepidtravel.com/adventures/community-based-tourism-myanmar/ and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jIDcpbGFdrk

    Our not-for-profit, The Intrepid Foundation, has raised almost $30,000AUD for ActionAid Myanmar and another $23,000AUD for Red Cross in Myanmar by matching all donations dollar-for-dollar. To find out more about these projects and make a donation, visit: http://www.theintrepidfoundation.org

    Finally, the story refers to the publicity we’ve received on ending elephant rides and orphanage visits. We believe that advocacy is key to delivering on our Purpose. The decision to be the first global travel company to end elephant rides was a huge business decision for us, because at the time South East Asia made up 40% of our business. I’d like to say it was a good PR stunt, but the truth is we were completely overwhelmed by the positive response we received. Instead of losing customers, have gained new customers. It showed us that having a Purpose Beyond Profit can be profitable. We do talk about all this openly because we genuinely hope it encourages other companies to do the right thing.

    It’s good to have a discussion on tourism ethics and we’re happy to participate. We’re certainly not perfect but we are genuinely trying to have a business that is a force for good.

    Cheers,
    Gillian

    1. Hi Gillian, thanks for your considered reply and good to hear about Intrepid’s Myanmar initiatives. I’ll update the story, and look at a followup on the pros/cons of tourism boycotts.

  4. Hi Martin, it’s not my job to explain to you how the country calculates its visitor numbers 🙂

    Sorry, I don’t mean to critical or rude, but if you think the Bloomberg article looks fine, then maybe you don’t know the facts on this issue either?

    Yes, Nay Pyi Taw has way too many rooms, as do some other destinations in the country, but these will balance out in time. Many destinations wrestle with over supply – like Bangkok, for example. But I do agree there are a few accommodation issues to address in Myanmar.

    Can I ask if you’ve ever visited the country ?

    1. Hi Paul, well I thought you’d know about how the tourism numbers are calculated since you’ve disputed the way I’ve reported it, saying the methodology has changed.

      I don’t see how you can say it’s wrong without telling me what’s right. One interpretation is you don’t actually know….

      All good though, your feedback is very welcome.

      I’d like to visit Myanmar but haven’t been there yet.

  5. Hahaha – Hi Martin, as you can likely imagine, calculating visitor numbers is complex and would take considerable time and effort to describe here. Not surprisingly I don’t have the time to do that here. 😉

    Maybe now is a good time to visit Myanmar, get a stronger feel for the situation, and develop a more in-depth story as to whether tourists should be visiting the country? I’m sure a number of western media outlets would be interested ??

    Interestingly, it’s literally just been announced Intrepid have won another award for one of the projects Gillian mentions above….https://www.hospitalitynet.org/news/4086960.html

    Community-based tourism is priority of the State Councillor’s government – there are plenty of upcoming sites to visit that would make wonderful stories ! I can help with suggestions, if you like ?

  6. Thanks, Martin, but I’m not a journalist and will that to those who are.

    I simply care a lot about the situation, and want to do my best to encourage those writing and commenting on it to think deeply about the issues, before offering advice and telling people they shouldn’t be visiting the country – as this will not help anyone !

    Best wishes
    Paul

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