Should we still be traveling to Myanmar?

Inle Lake, Myanmar (Burma) – Photo by Danny Postma on Unsplash

DESPITE the United Nations describing the current violence in Myanmar as “textbook ethnic cleansing”, there are currently no official sanctions against traveling to the country.

The Burmese military is acting upon the premise that the marginal group in Myanmar, the Rohingya Muslims are “extremists” and inciting violence against the minority.

This campaign has openly existed since 2012, one year after the Myanmar dictatorship ceased.

Many refugees have fled to the border with Bangladesh, only to be met with a hostile restriction. “Many people are arriving hungry, exhausted and with no food or water,” Mark Pierce, Bangladesh country director for the Save the Children aid agency, told The Telegraph.

The US Embassy in Myanmar reassured travelers there were no major risks to foreigners, but they do recommend avoiding the northern state of Rakhine.

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Protestors chanting “Long live Rohingya” demonstrated outside the Myanmar embassy in Kuala Lumpur to condemn the deadly violence against the Muslim minority. Source: Shutterstock

Opinion is split among travel operators

Tour operators are still split in response about running trips to the country.

“We can easily move quickly to visit another destination,” tour operator Go Ahead Tours president Heidi Durflinger told Skift“Our approach has been to cancel itineraries in similar situations in the past, but it’s a case by case thing with Go Ahead.”

Other travel operators, such as the Melbourne-based small-group coordinator Intrepid Travel, have not canceled any of their scheduled tours to Myanmar.

The travel agent is closely observing the events in Myanmar and is conscious that canceling planned tours could have a detrimental effect on the communities they visit. “It’s obviously horrible what’s going on in Myanmar, but we’re not calling for a boycott because we don’t see how that could help the local population,”  Intrepid’s regional director for North America Leigh Barnes told Skift.

Most of Myanmar’s national income is created by the exportation of gemstones, such as rubies. However, tourism still plays a big part in the economy since the country allowed mass tourist access in 2008.

“We think that would hurt people in the communities we visit. But I remember seeing hotel rates triple in the three months after the country reopened to travelers six years ago and so far we see steady demand,” Barnes said.

Two of the most visited tourist attractions in Myanmar are in Rakhine State, where the violence is overtaking any sort of normalized life. The beaches of Ngapali are as pure as can be, with uninterrupted white powdered sands and luscious green forest, and the ancient ruins of the Kingdom of Mrauk U are rich in history. Yet with the current forced exodus of the Rohingya taking place in the region, visiting these two tourist attractions is completely out of the question.

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Ngapali Beach, Myanmar. Source: Shutterstock

The moral conundrum

Despite the advice of tour operators and embassy announcements, the moral dilemma ultimately falls upon the traveler.

Back in the 1990s, tour operators and travelers faced a similar conundrum. Despite sanctions that lessened the military’s grip on the country, the enforcers still had control over the state, which meant any revenue created by tourism would go directly to the military.

“The crude Visit Myanmar Year campaign of 1996 was the epitome of the Myanmar military trying to cash in on tourists,” Human Rights Watch Bangkok-based deputy director for Asia division Phil Robertson told Skift.

The country’s current affairs resonate with the those of the 1990s, and companies such as Responsible Travel – a UK-based booking site focused on showing travelers real culture and how their behavior impacts communities – have now boycotted the destination altogether.

Their reasoning for this? “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 believe her wishes should be respected,” said CEO Justin Francis in a blog post.

A lorry entering Kutopalong Refugee Camp to distribute food. About 600,000 refugees headed to Bangladesh. Source: Shutterstock.com

Travel tips

If you are traveling to Myanmar – whether on business or leisure – avoid talking about the current violence taking place with any locals. This could make them feel very uneasy.

Also under no circumstances must you visit Rakhine. You will put yourself in a vulnerable position that could be detrimental to your wellbeing.

The politics shrouding Myanmar are difficult to decipher and undoubtedly ongoing. If you are visiting the country, plan ahead, keep up-to-date with news and any travel information and be wary the democratic country from which you visit may not be the same democracy you perceive in Myanmar.