Turning Tourism Awareness into Action
Thursday, March 22, 2012

Dr. Andrea Valentin is the founder of Tourism Transparency, an NGO campaigning for an open and accountable tourism industry. Dr. Valentin recently returned from Burma’s first Responsible Tourism Conference held in Naypyidaw.

Dr. Andrea Valentin
Question: In February, you were invited to read a paper at the “Responsible Tourism Conference” in Naypyidaw. Can you briefly explain what responsible tourism is? What are the differences between traditional tourism and responsible tourism? And what could responsible tourism bring to Burma?

Answer: Responsible tourism offers a solution to the problems caused by mass tourism. It’s about travelling in a better way and taking responsibility for the impacts that our actions have socially and economically on others and on their social, cultural and natural wellbeing. It minimizes negative impacts, involves local people in decisions, improves working conditions and contributes to conservation of natural and cultural heritage. Responsible tourism is culturally sensitive, generates respect between host and guest, and provides more enjoyable experiences for tourists through meaningful connections with locals. It can bring great benefits to travelers, the host population and the tourism business, without causing intolerable ecological and social damage.

The demand for responsible tour operations is definitely on the rise worldwide, and businesses following responsible tourism standards increase profitability. Personally I think this is more than a passing trend, because responsible tourism is a consumer-based counter to the mass production of tourism.

Of course there are many problems with responsible tourism. It seems everything has gone green these days. Not long ago tourism was one of the least likely industries to have an ethical dimension, but today we are seeing more and more claims about being carbon-neutral, sustainable, organic, eco, green or responsible. Green-washing is a real threat. When a company or organization spends more time and money claiming to be green than actually implementing business practices that minimize environmental impact, we speak of ‘green-washing.’ This is a big problem for sustainability.

During my pro-poor tourism talk at the Responsible Tourism conference in Naypyidaw, I stressed that the long-term success for sustainable tourism in Myanmar [Burma] depends on whether it can deliver development to civil society, especially the poor and poorest. I suggested that government take steps to strengthen the pro-poor benefits of tourism. I mentioned to businesses to embrace pro-poor tourism by adapting their supply chain and facilitating partnerships with the poor. There are many partnership models for locals to benefit from tourism—but we need fair land and resource rights. Businesses could offer microfinance aimed at promising small businesses, or create rural cooperative societies. Such initiatives could be coupled with rural manufacturing and cottage industries. The government could create incentives for companies to invest and operate in pro-poor ways.


Q: In your recent commentary at DVB [Democratic Voice of Burma], you pointed out that many of those who benefit from Burma’s tourism sector under the 1990 Tourism Act are government cronies and rich businessmen, not the local residents. Do you think that Burma’s tourism policy will incorporate poverty elimination objectives in the near future? What were your impressions at the Naypyidaw conference?

A: My impression was that the Myanmar Ministry of Hotels and Tourism (MoHT) and the Myanmar Tourism Board (MTB) are making extraordinary efforts. On the first day, no less than 22 ministries attended the public sector workshop and spoke with each other about tourism for the first time. On the second day, tourism businesses discussed how to include responsible tourism; and on the third day, international speakers spoke about how to take responsibility for tourism.

The conference was on not about whether, but how responsible tourism could become central to tourism development. The Tourism Ministry recognizes the need for a unified government approach to develop tourism responsibly. They are acutely aware that successful participation by the public and private sectors depends on a range of critical factors that can be influenced by changes in policy and private sector support.

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. Instead the NLD are raising awareness about the impacts of tourism, and recommend that tourists should support businesses engaged in effective outreach programs.

Tourism Transparency is non-partisan, and it’s not easy for us sometimes. But there’s no other way to bring transparency to tourism in Burma—we absolutely must be non-partisan in order to be effective. We connect with many different tourism stakeholders to present the full spectrum of opinions.

We held a responsible tourism workshop at the NLD headquarters last year. Since then we communicate regularly with the NLD. Basically we tell them what’s going on from our perspective and ask them their opinions, after which we agree on the next steps. We take this approach with other stakeholders too.


Q: Can you outline specific and practical steps that Tourism Transparency recommends Burma adopt for: its beaches and coastal areas; the conservation of historical sites; the conservation of colonial architecture?

Coastal areas include some of the richest and most fragile ecosystems on earth, such as coral reefs and mangroves. Unspoiled beaches attract tourists, and locals benefit from tourism through economic growth and employment. Tourism will only be successful if the natural environment and biodiversity of Burma’s beaches remain pristine. The ecosystems of small islands are particularly vulnerable to ecological damage. Short-sighted and inadequate tourism planning can lead to the destruction of biodiversity. Tourist appeal can reduce, and local people, highly dependent on tourism because they swapped careers from fisherman to tour guide, can lose their entire existence.

Tourism Transparency recommends developing a sustainable policy and legal framework under which tourism occurs. We also recommend embracing proven sustainability technologies and building capacity of the many stakeholders involved in tourism. This will ensure that conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity is included into tourism development policies that bring social, economic and environmental benefits.

Regarding conservation, I hope Burma will learn from Siem Reap in Cambodia. The Angkor International Coordinating Committee has developed a good visitor management model. The committee, chaired by UNESCO, decides on what restoration is allowed and how visits are managed. Siem Reap used to be a collection of quiet little fishing and farming villages, but within 10 years it turned into a tourist enclave.

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