Simon Calder

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
In a few weeks' time the rain will be pouring down on the scarlet stone of the fort in Mandalay. Fat, tropical raindrops will cascade from the 1,200 steps that link the pretty pagodas stretching up the holy hill beyond. Not the ideal time to visit Burma.

By November, though, the military government will be welcoming thousands of tourists, assisted by dozens of British travel companies. The tour operator Steppes East, for example, urges travellers to visit soon. "For anyone contemplating a trip to Myanmar, or Burma as it is perhaps still better known, go now before it changes too dramatically... it will only be a few years before the charm of colonial Burma is replaced by the less attractive side of western investment." There is a downside, we learn, but nothing serious: "Some hotels outside the capital are a little tired".

Some of the Burmese people may be a little tired, too, as Vivien Morgan reported in the Independent last year: "This is the reality of life in Burma for hundreds and thousands of people - forced into unpaid work to polish and prettify the country for a tourist boom in 1996.

"In scenes reminiscent of a biblical Hollywood epic, they labour from dawn to dusk. The prisoners no longer wear leg-irons (though they still do in parts of the country off the tourist map)."

These pages carry travellers' tales from all around the world, but for the moment you will not read about Burma. This is not for lack of expertise; my colleague Harriet O'Brien, Travel Writer of the Year, was in Burma two months ago. She knows the country intimately and will, at some happier point, resume writing about this entrancing country. But while the murderous regime that this week arrested 200 pro-democracy supporters continues to oppress its people in the name of tourism, we will not publish editorial that implies this is a good country to visit.

Six years ago this weekend, the National League for Democracy won a clear election victory. The ruling junta, the State Law and Order Restoration Council, refused to give up power. Faced with international outrage and a consequent loss of aid, the regime turned to tourism for economic salvation. Visit Myanmar Year 1996 is the traveller's chance to bankroll bankrupt totalitarians.

One powerful argument in favour of tourism rests with its power to spread ideas and thereby ease repression. Another is that visitors ease economic privation among ordinary people; Burma is one of the poorest countries in the world. But Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy, is urging tourists to shun "Visit Myanmar Year". And we respect her judgement.

So how can we possibly justify running travel stories on other countries where human rights abuses have taken place: Guatemala, China, and - on this very page - North Cyprus?

There is no easy answer. We take seriously our responsibility to the people of the places we write about, and debate minutely the ethics of encouraging travel to particular nations. Mostly, we conclude that the human benefits of individual contacts outweigh the moral costs of supporting reprehensible regimes. But not in a nation where tourism is blatantly built upon human suffering.