Burma promotes tourism as critics urge protest

source : CNN February 20.

YANGON, Myanmar (AP) – The tourism industry thinks it can make the magic of Myanmar – golden pagodas, ancient cities, sarong-clad people – a more potent lure than the calls for a protest of this military-ruled nation.

Business people maintain that lackluster marketing, few international air links and bureaucratic hassles rather than political activists have held Myanmar back from becoming one of Asia’s top tourist destinations.

They’re especially hopeful about a new promotion campaign they have planned.

“The biggest thing is awareness. The country has basically been locked away from the world since World War II,” said Duncan T. MacLean, who heads the recently formed Marketing Myanmar Committee.

Travelers urged to stay away

The industry contends it isn’t worried by the protest campaign started by Aung San Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy leader and Nobel peace laureate who is urging tourists as well as foreign investors to shun her country.

A number of human rights advocacy groups around the world have taken up her call. They argue tourist spending goes into the coffers of a junta that brutally crushed a people’s power uprising in 1988, uses forced labor on tourism projects and tramples on basic human rights.

“The tourism industry and visiting tourists are helping sustain one of the most brutal regimes in the world. The cost of a holiday could be someone’s life,” says the Burma Campaign, which is based in Britain. Although tourist numbers have leveled off the last three years, arrivals are up some sixfold from a decade ago.

Where once only limited and regimented group tours were available, about 200 travel agencies now offer jungle treks, river cruises, steam locomotive travel and ballooning over ancient temples. Hotels have mushroomed.

MacLean estimates that Myanmar, also known as Burma, saw 150,000 to 160,000 tourists last year. The government’s figure, which appears to include businessmen, diplomats and other foreigners, is 200,000.

Tourism increase predicted

MacLean, also general manager of the Hotel Equatorial, predicts the country will see an increase in business travelers soon and then a significant rise in tourist visits during the 2001-02 high season.His committee, which brings together the private and government sectors, plans major promotion campaigns this year, including the first direct push in the United States.

“Each year our marketing gets more effective. It looks like we’re going in the right direction,” said S.B. Chetry, local operator of the U.S.-based tour agency Journeys. “We should start on a steady growth from now on.” Not if groups like the Burma Campaign have their way.

“It’s such a beautiful, magical place; it would be wonderful to have people go there in the future. But we have to hold off now,” said a spokeswoman, Yvette Mahon. “We don’t have any sense that the campaign is not working.”

.Mahon said in a telephone interview that her group is focusing on France, Germany and Italy, which send the most Western tourists to Myanmar. It is also urging people not to buy the most popular guide book on Myanmar.

Guide: Positives outweigh negatives

.The 2000 edition of the Lonely Planet guide argues that tourism revenue flows largely into ordinary people’s pockets, since most of the industry is now privatized. It also says the presence of foreigners has at times ameliorated human rights abuses

“We continue to believe that the positives of travel to Myanmar outweigh the negatives,” the guide says.

Expatriates and Myanmar people who benefit from tourism generally echo that position and say their focus is on making it easier for foreigners to visit. They want the government to issue tourist visas on arrival and end a requirement for tourists to change $200 into a special currency that does go to the state.

“The industry is just a baby. We’re in the crawling stage,” MacLean said. “The new tourism is only about five years old.”

The government-organized Visit Myanmar Year in 1996 was largely a flop, but Chetry said it did heighten Myanmar’s international profile and prompted the government to offer incentives to the private sector.

Hotels proliferated and travel agencies were able to obtain such hitherto scarce items as telephones and faxes. These allowed them to plug into the outside world where they are now trying to play down the politics and lure visitors with come-ons like “Be mesmerized by Myanmar.”

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