The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]

NLD Welcomes Responsible Tourism, But Warns Against Abuses
By KO HTWE Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Correction Appended

Burma's opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) said it welcomes responsible tourism that does not cause human rights abuses and environmental degradation in the country.

“The NLD would welcome visitors 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 while enjoying a happy and fulfilling holiday in Burma,” said the party statement released on Friday last week.

The statement marks a remarkable change in the party's policy toward tourism which it formally boycotted since 1996 when the ruling military regime actively campaigned for tourists to visit the impoverished Southeast Asian country which is nonetheless rich in historical and natural sites.

In its statement, the NLD said that its previous boycott of tourism was aimed at drawing international attention to the country's human rights violations and the monopoly over the tourist industry by the ruling elite and its cronies.

Due to its tourism boycott and support for Western economic sanctions against the country, the NLD has been in the past accused by the ruling military leaders of neglecting the welfare of the public and worsening the country's economy.

But shortly after release from her latest round of house arrest last November, Suu Kyi indicated her support for responsible tourism. Her senior party colleague, Win Tin, has also publicly welcomed individual tourists rather than the officially organized package tours which observers say mostly benefit the country's rulers.

Despite its cautious welcome of foreign tourists, which came almost two months after the nominal civilian government came into office, the NLD—which is now officially banned—also highlighted various negative effects related to the tourist industry.

“Local populations have been displaced, often without compensations or satisfactory relocation, to make way for construction of hotels and other tourist facilities,” the announcement said.

“To make matters worse, forced labor is used for some construction projects. The net result is its economic hardship exacerbated by the abrupt breakdown of a traditional way of life and gross violation of basic human rights,” it added.

“While the callous exploitation of sex tourists presents an obvious evil, thoughtless practices such as the indiscriminate distribution of money or gifts that have made habitual beggars or children in some communities do not receive enough attention.”

Soe Win, a Rangoon-based politician who contributed to the NLD statement said: “Should the government and all players including investors in this tourist enterprise take responsibility, respect ethics and preserve the ecology, we would readily embrace tourism.”

Even with the political opposition welcoming foreign tourists to the country, several factors—Burma's lack of infrastructure, the military's tight control and bureaucracy, longstanding civil war in many border areas—continue to raise the question: how can Burma attract visitors to the country?

There are nearly 600 hotels, guest houses or resorts across Burma, and some 6,000 licensed tour guides, according to government data. But the country has highly restricted Internet access, credit cards are all but unknown, and transportation is slow and unreliable.

And, Burma's tourist figures pale when compared to neighboring Thailand, which regularly receives some 14 million visitors a year. Vietnam receives about four million, while about two million visit Cambodia and Laos. During 2009-10, Burma received just 200,000 visitors.

Correction: May 26, 2011

In its online report 'NLD Condemn Tourism in Burma,' (Tuesday, May 24), The Irrawaddy misinterpreted the NLD's statement on tourism released on May 20, 2011.

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