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.
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.”
“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.”
- http://www.intrepidtravel.com/adventures/community-based-tourism-myanmar/ and
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?