Welcome to Burma – 2011's hippest holiday destination

Travellers are poised to return after Aung San Suu Kyi's release

Despite the lure of its gleaming pagodas, fabled cities and pristine beaches, military-ruled Burma has been off the tourist map for years, shunned by conscientious travellers who feared that visiting the country would help only to prop up one of the world's most oppressive dictatorships. But with the release late last year of the pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, whose calls for a tourism boycott have long kept holidaymakers away, travel industry experts are cautiously hopeful that foreign visitors might once again beat a path to one of south-east Asia's unspoilt gems.

Accolades such as being named Wanderlust magazine's "top emerging travel destination of 2011" should help to propel Burma from a tourism backwater to an exciting new destination – although activists warn that the nation needs to make a lot of progress before becoming a guilt-free holiday paradise. "Burma needs to be visited with care. But those who do visit carefully... inevitably return with exceptional memories," said Wanderlust in its award citation. "There are the sights, natural and man-made – the stupa-studded plains of Bagan, Yangon's giant golden pagoda, the floating gardens of Inle Lake – but it's the resilient and welcoming Burmese people who create the lasting impression."

Burma – still in the grip of dictatorship, despite holding its first elections in 20 years last November – has far to go if it is to seriously compete with its Asian neighbours as a tourism destination. Last year, more than 300,000 tourists visited the country, according to the Bangkok-based Pacific-Asia Travel Association. That was nearly a 30 per cent increase on the year before, but still a trickle compared to the 15 million who visited Thailand and 17 million who went to Malaysia.

Ms Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) party first called for tourists to boycott Burma – or Myanmar as it is officially known – in 1995 in response to the junta's "Visit Myanmar" campaign and amid reports of forced labour being used to build new airports and luxury hotels. The boycott campaign was particularly effective in Britain, where travellers were happy to bypass Burma in favour of Thailand, Laos and Cambodia – a sentiment that was reinforced by the bloody suppression of the Burmese monks' protests in 2007, followed by the regime's callous response to the devastating Cyclone Nargis in May 2008.

But the release of Ms Suu Kyi from house arrest last year, following a peaceful, albeit fraudulent, election, has already improved Burma's image in the eyes of tourists, those in the industry say. "The release [of Ms Suu Kyi] and peaceful elections has given tourism quite a substantial boost," said Brett Melzer, an Australian who, with his Burmese wife, owns Balloons Over Bagan, a private company that takes tourists on hot air balloon rides over the ancient temple city. "We are seeing an increase in numbers right across the board, but big increases from the US and the UK – which were traditionally opposed – and the emerging markets of Russia, Brazil, Mexico and Australia from almost zero a few years ago."

Since her release, Ms Suu Kyi says she is no longer in favour of a total boycott and that some tourism could be beneficial. While package tours and cruises should not be encouraged, she believes, "individuals coming in to see, to study the situation in the country might be a good idea".

Those who do come to Burma find gentle, hospitable people and a wealth of attractions: Rangoon's fading colonial grandeur, the romance of Mandalay, windswept beaches on the Bay of Bengal, stilted villages on Inle Lake and the stunning temples of Bagan on the banks of the Ayeyarwaddy River. Burma's relative underdevelopment and the absence of global brands, cash machines and fast internet, is marketed as a "step back in time" or "a glimpse of authentic Asia". Most Western tourists try to avoid government-owned hotels in favour of family-run establishments, following the advice given in guidebooks such as Lonely Planet, so as to hand as much of their tourist money as possible to ordinary Burmese, who are not associated with the government. But with hotel taxes, admissions charges and airport duties, it is impossible to visit Burma without paying something to one of the world's most brutal regimes.

One of the largest domestic airlines is owned by Tay Za who, according to the US Treasury Department, is "an arms dealer and financial henchman of Burma's repressive junta". Nor can tourists avoid being corralled into a fairly small number of sites, as much of Burma remains off-limits, such as the sensitive border areas inhabited largely by ethnic minority groups and the Ayeyarwaddy Delta, the area that took the full force of the 2008 cyclone.

Mark Farmaner, director of the Burma Campaign UK, which highlights abuses by the regime, said: "No one should be under the illusion that the release of Aung San Suu Kyi means that there is any positive change in Burma, there isn't. Horrific human rights abuses continue to be committed by the dictatorship."

Nevertheless, visitors are often surprised by the warmth and friendliness of locals and their willingness to talk and joke about the deficiencies of their government. It is far from the downtrodden, repressed image that many have of Burmese people.

"We don't want to be cut off from the world," said Htay Oo, an unofficial tour guide and taxi driver in Rangoon. "We want people to come. We can learn from them and they can learn from us. If they stay in their country, how does that help?"

what the guidebooks say

The Rough Guides group, which unlike Lonely Planet refuses to publish a guide to Burma on ethnical grounds, says it has no plans yet to reverse its stance.

"We're greatly heartened by the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and hope this will ultimately help open Burma to travellers. However, we think it is too soon for a complete change of mind," said Clare Currie, the company's publishing director. "We are not currently planning to publish a guidebook to Burma – such a guide would really depend upon sustained improvements in the political situation as well as on a proven and robust travel infrastructure."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Travel Customer Service and Experience Manager

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing travel comp...

Recruitment Genius: Cleaner / Caretaker / Storeman

£15500 - £17680 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A position has become available...

Recruitment Genius: Head of Sales - SaaS B2B

£60000 - £120000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This conference call startup i...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This digital and print design a...

Day In a Page

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen
RuPaul interview: The drag star on being inspired by Bowie, never fitting in, and saying the first thing that comes into your head

RuPaul interview

The drag star on being inspired by Bowie, never fitting in, and saying the first thing that comes into your head
Secrets of comedy couples: What's it like when both you and your partner are stand-ups?

Secrets of comedy couples

What's it like when both you and your partner are stand-ups?
Satya Nadella: As Windows 10 is launched can he return Microsoft to its former glory?

Satya Nadella: The man to clean up for Windows?

While Microsoft's founders spend their billions, the once-invincible tech company's new boss is trying to save it
The best swimwear for men: From trunks to shorts, make a splash this summer

The best swimwear for men

From trunks to shorts, make a splash this summer
Mark Hix recipes: Our chef tries his hand at a spot of summer foraging

Mark Hix goes summer foraging

 A dinner party doesn't have to mean a trip to the supermarket
Ashes 2015: With an audacious flourish, home hero Ian Bell ends all debate

With an audacious flourish, the home hero ends all debate

Ian Bell advances to Trent Bridge next week almost as undroppable as Alastair Cook and Joe Root, a cornerstone of England's new thinking, says Kevin Garside
Aaron Ramsey interview: Wales midfielder determined to be centre of attention for Arsenal this season

Aaron Ramsey interview

Wales midfielder determined to be centre of attention for Arsenal this season
Community Shield: Arsene Wenger needs to strike first blow in rivalry with Jose Mourinho

Community Shield gives Wenger chance to strike first blow in rivalry with Mourinho

As long as the Arsenal manager's run of games without a win over his Chelsea counterpart continues it will continue to dominate the narrative around the two men
The unlikely rise of AFC Bournemouth - and what it says about English life

Unlikely rise of AFC Bournemouth

Bournemouth’s elevation to football’s top tier is one of the most improbable of recent times. But it’s illustrative of deeper and wider changes in English life
A Very British Coup, part two: New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel

A Very British Coup, part two

New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel
Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

Icy dust layer holds organic compounds similar to those found in living organisms