HONG KONG — As dramatic political reforms continue to take shape in Myanmar, a wave of tourists has already started to arrive, eager to explore the country’s magnificent temples, beaches and highlands.
But with much of the tourism infrastructure owned by notorious henchmen and ex-generals from the old military dictatorship, how can a tourist travel in the former Burma without enriching the very people who kept the country in the dark for so many decades?
And how can Myanmar, as it grows its tourism sector, avoid following Thailand and Cambodia into sex tourism?
The National League for Democracy, the opposition party led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, acknowledges that “the callous expectation of sex tourists presents an obvious evil.”
The party also said it wants to guard against other social ills, “thoughtless practices such as the indiscriminate distribution of money or gifts that have made habitual beggars of children in some communities.”
Andrea Valentin, the founder of Tourism Transparency, a Thailand-based advocacy group, spoke recently with the online news site The Irrawaddy about the possibility of sex tourism taking root as Myanmar’s mainstream tourism infrastructure develops.
The spread of sex tourism is my biggest concern for the future. Sex tourism is a multibillion-dollar industry, and it’s not all about adult prostitution. I am worried about child sex tourism and the vulnerabilities of Cyclone Nargis orphans. I fear the financial lure will prove too irresistible for poor women and girls, men and boys, who will be violently exploited.
The lessons to learn are pretty straightforward: If Burma wants to have more prostitutes than monks in the country, then they should follow Thailand’s tourism development approach. Hopefully Burma will want to avoid Cambodia’s 30,000 children involved in sex tourism, some of who are as young as five.
In a conservative country like Burma, where sexual activity is seen as a very private matter, the sad truth is that it won’t be too difficult to develop a thriving sex tourism industry. Sex tourism brings in foreign currency and generates revenues, and local communities are reluctant to act or intervene in this taboo, making women and children far more vulnerable to sexual exploitation.
Burmese commenters on The Irrawaddy expressed similar concerns.
“We have enough massage parlors and karaoke bars already in Yangon,” said Moe Aung. “Why would we want to create a decadent ‘nightlife’ just to attract tourists? We are better off attracting the right sort — and not the riffraff or pedophiles like Gary Glitter.”
Paul Gadd, the former rock star known as Gary Glitter, was expelled from Cambodia in 2002 and convicted of sexually abusing two preteen girls in Vietnam in 2006.
Maw She, another commenter, said, “Myanmar should not be Thailand. We should not copy those red districts in Thailand. Any kind of sex industry should be strictly regulated. We should not let our children become sex slaves. People should be taught to make a living by morally rightful and dignified ways of lives.”
Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi and other democracy activists have felt somewhat conflicted over the years about foreign visitors. She called for a full-on boycott when the junta launched a splashy travel campaign in 1996, and in 1999 she said, “Burma will be here for many years, so tell your friends to visit us later. Visiting now is tantamount to condoning the regime.”
The N.L.D. and Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, who will formally take her seat in Parliament on April 23, have since moderated their stance. In a statement last spring they said they would now welcome tourists “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.”
Revenues from tourism — $319 million last year — have doubled since 2008, according to government figures. The average tourist spends $120 a day, a figure that is certain to rise.
Two-thirds of visitors come from Asia, mostly Chinese and Thais, and Western Europeans account for 21 percent. Only 21,700 Americans visited Myanmar last year, about 5.5 percent of the total.
(Full disclosure: I have been to Myanmar about a dozen times in the past 15 years, mostly covertly and mostly as a reporter. I have flown on Air Bagan and stayed at the Myanmar Treasure Resort Hotel, both of which are owned by Tay Za, the wealthy and flamboyant tycoon who is targeted by U.S. sanctions and described by the Treasury Department as “a notorious regime henchman and arms dealer.”)
“The jackpot linked to the tourism sector is the only valid reason for the junta allowing foreign tourists into the country,” the French advocacy group Info-Burmanie said in a still-useful and clear-eyed travel report that it published last summer.
The political landscape has certainly changed since then, with orderly by-elections being held on April 1 that were a triumph for the N.L.D. A release of some political prisoners and a series of reforms led by the new president, U Thein Sein, have encouraged Western countries to begin easing some of their sanctions against the government.
What’s your view? Is it fully appropriate to go to Myanmar now? Would you try to avoid giving too many of your tourist euros or dollars to the nefarious former generals? Or is this not a major concern for you, since airlines, bus companies, hotels and restaurants provide jobs and salaries for local workers? Let us know some specifics about how you try to travel responsibly, whether to Myanmar or elsewhere.
This article was originally published on "New York Time Blog", 10 April 2012.