Burma took in fewer foreign visitors last year than every other nation in Southeast and East Asia with the exception of North Korea. However, a new dawn of political reform in the Golden Land has alerted travelers to the prospect of visiting this indisputably beautiful and hospitable country.
Hailed by everyone in the Western press from CNN to Lonely Planet to Travel & Leisure magazine as one of the world's “in” places to visit in 2012, Burma finds its tourism industry ready to increase exponentially in the next three years if its sadly inadequate infrastructure can possibly match the demand.
Ohn Myint, Rangoon's deputy director of the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism, said, “We have estimates that in 2012, we can receive 500,000 tourists through Yangon International Airport. In 2015, we will expect over 1 million tourist arrivals to Myanmar.”
But with only 25,000 hotel rooms in the entire country (of which only 8,000 are suitable for tourists), and inadequate airports and transportation options, it is no surprise that the Burmese authorities are looking to neighboring Thailand—which regularly receives around 15 million visitors per year—as a model to learn from.
Burma's tourism officials say they are taking advice from the Tourism Authority of Thailand on improving the country's service sector while exploring further areas of mutual understanding on a “Two Countries, one Destination” campaign. Arrivals to Burma are mostly dependent on Bangkok's international airport, and will be for some time to come, said Ohn Myint.
Burma and Thailand are similar in size and population. Both are predominantly Buddhist, but with diverse ethnic minorities in the highlands. And both countries boast stunning historical sites, lush mountain retreats and hundreds of the palm-fringed paradise beaches that Western tourists would give an arm and a leg for.
But while Burma's beaches are mostly inaccessible and have no resorts or amenities, Thailand's white-sand beaches and aquamarine waters are teeming with tourists from all around the world. Jet-skis rub shoulders with millionaires' yachts in Phuket's marina, and the selection of shops, bars, night venues and entertainment is endless.
Further north in Burma's Andaman Islands, most locals still work as fishermen. Rather than running restaurants, or offering hair-braiding or massages to foreigners on the beach, local women spend their days gutting fish and weaving bamboo baskets.
Of course, it is this unspoilt natural setting that globetrotters yearn for. Now that Burma has all but assured itself of a tourism demand, NGOs and tour agents are calling on the Burmese government to ensure that the country embarks on a project of responsible and sustainable tourism, protecting local ecosystems and taking precautions against repeating the mistakes of its eastern neighbor.
“Phuket has had its day!” said blogger Ramon to an online thread that discussed the murder of an elderly British couple on the island. “Mafia, murder, muggings, rip-offs. It's all turned nasty.”
The same could easily be said for Thailand's other top two beach resorts, Koh Samui and the notorious sex haven of Pattaya.
With an estimated two million sex workers throughout the country, Thailand is the world's sex tourism capital, and nowhere is that flaunted more than in Pattaya, just 70 km down the coast from Bangkok.
Many worry that an uncontrolled policy of tourism in Burma will inevitably lead to more prostitution and, before long, the arrival of thousands of sex tourists.
“The lessons to learn are pretty straightforward,” said Andrea Valentin of NGO Tourism Transparency. “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.
“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,” she said. “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.”
Maung Maung Swe, who currently sits as both the chairman of the Union of Myanmar Travel Association and the vice-chairman of the Myanmar Tourism Board, rejects the notion. “We don't have many discos and bars,” he said. “And Myanmar people don't tend to drink too much. Where there are bars and discos, there are prostitutes. By knowing this, we can prevent it.”
Burma's tourism authorities say they prefer to aim at a different influx of international visitor: the culture tourist.
“We have more than 130 nationalities, different traditions, different languages, different costumes,” said Maung Maung Swe. “It's one of the most wonderful cultures in the world. And of course the Myanmar people have such a friendly and gentle nature, same as Thailand 30 years ago.”
There's no doubt that Burma is a Buddhist Disneyland. Almost every hill and promontory in the country is topped with a stupa. It is probably the only country in the world that can match Thailand and India for “temple tourism.”
From the dazzling Shwedagon Pagoda dominating the Rangoon skyline to the legendary Mahamuni temple in Mandalay to the sacred Golden Rock at Kyaiktiyo, Burma has the potential to offer Buddhist devotees, pilgrims and the curious a full itinerary of temple visits and good karma.
Perhaps it is just as well, because by far the highest numbers of visitors to the country are currently from China and Thailand, two nationalities commonly stereotyped in Burma as tour groups that, when not shopping for jade and gems, are to be found praying and making offerings at Buddhist temples.
Until Burma's beaches, nightlife and infrastructure are developed to the point they can compare to Thailand or even Vietnam, it is more likely that the country will cater more confidently for Buddhist culture tourists from regional countries.
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