In concluding the conference the Deputy Minister, H.E. U Htay Aung mentioned the importance of good governance. “If you don’t want to change, you cannot succeed,” he said, and called on the public and private sectors to pursue the principles of Responsible Tourism.
So I’m very hopeful Myanmar’s new tourism policy will include poverty elimination objectives. When President Thein Sein gave his inaugural speech, he announced poverty alleviation would be a major priority for his government. For tourism this means Burma needs to maximize the net benefits for the poor. The government needs to focus on how the poor can benefit, they shouldn’t assume.
Q: Community-based ecotourism and homestays are very popular nowadays in Burma’s neighboring countries such as Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Do you think Burma can follow the same path toward attracting tourists and achieving the same results as its neighbors?
A: I hope Burma will find her own path and not follow the path of any other country. Of course they should learn from the tourism development mistakes of Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, and many others. But I think it’s inevitable that Burma will make her own mistakes and hopefully learn from them. The question is whether awareness will turn into action.
The government can learn from many community-based tourism models to see if something similar could be suitable. Regionally there are some good examples, especially in Thailand and Laos. The Thailand Community Based Tourism Institute (CBT-I) based in Chiang Mai stands out—they’ve done community-based tourism for nearly two decades. Last year they facilitated various workshops with the Myanmar MoHT and other Myanmar tourism stakeholders about how communities can benefit from community-based tourism. So you see, the Tourism Ministry is already very well informed about tourism development options.
Q: A most concerning issue is that Burma is now experiencing the spread of sex tourism, as you also mentioned in your article. What lessons can Burma learn from its neighboring countries Thailand and Cambodia?
A: I’m glad you asked this question. 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 2009, Terre des Hommes estimated that more than 70,000 children across Asia are being used by sex tourists, mainly in Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand. In Cambodia, a sex tourist can rent two 8-year-old children for three days and pay not more than $30. Most of these children are born into poverty.
The recent case of a Japanese man slapping a staff member of the Orchid Hotel is quite telling of a dilemma I observed in Burma: the slapping caught on video drew much criticism and outraged many people. But surprisingly few people lamented the fact that the Japanese man was a sex tourist. Most focused on the outrageousness of the act, not the wider issue of sex tourism.
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.
Q: To what degree does Tourism Transparency support and/ or coordinate with the NLD in its call for the adoption of responsible tourism and its call for a boycott of package tours and cruises?
A: The NLD never called for a boycott of package tours or cruises. I think what you refer to was a remark made by U Win Tin in an interview before the NLD tourism statement came out, a remark that continues to be misquoted in the media. As you know, the written word counts in Burma, so I think we would be wise to refer to the NLD tourism paper, which does not include a call for a boycott.