Tricia Barnett: Is it time yet to take a holiday in Burma?

Travel View

It was a simple enough question from a thoughtful journalist committed to environmental and human rights issues and a long-time supporter of Tourism Concern: "Would you like to come to Burma with me now that it's opened up to tourism? We can write an article which will tell it like it really is."

It took me a month to agree to go. As the director of Tourism Concern, I'd been leading a campaign for 16 years not to go to Burma because of the horrendous human rights abuses, and the fact that the money that went from our pockets into the military junta's coffers could be used to buy arms to continue the subjugation of the Karen and Kachin and other minority Burmese groups.

To go was a very difficult decision for me, even though Aung San Suu Kyi and her NLD party issued a statement last November that said that visitors coming in small groups, and in solidarity, were welcome.

Yet, it is an interesting time to visit Burma. There is massive hope and expectation, and the language and tone of those in power is changing. Aung San Suu Kyi is broadcasting and holding interviews. She is in the papers. New laws are in the pipeline. Journalists are reporting from Rangoon and the capital Naypyidaw again.

But, as Anna Roberts, co-director of The Burma Campaign, asked me: "Are they really going to change things or is this simply to encourage the dropping of sanctions? Although people have been released from prison, there are still political prisoners in jail. As for tourism, you can't put democracy in your backpack. You can't go as a witness."

What has happened to the people who were forcibly removed from Pagan so that its magical beauty – 3,000 stupas and monuments – could be witnessed "undisturbed" by tourists? The Women's League of Burma would help me understand what is happening to the Kachin women. I would gather testimonials from those who had been forcibly displaced in South-east Burma, whom tourists would never meet.

Having made the decision to go, a generous tour operator agreed to take my journalist friend and I. That's when the circus began. I was clear about our intentions, which they supported. Yet, even though this operator had abided by the boycott all these years, they eventually chickened out of taking both of us because of the "risks" to their operations there. They weren't political they said. Sorry, but wasn't it political when they supported the boycott? I couldn't find another operator to take us.

Why, someone once challenged me, does Tourism Concern champion the cause of human rights in Burma and yet leave alone Israel, Indonesia, Tibet, the USA and Turkey? This raises several issues. Are holidays unquestionably our right? Is it unfair to bring moral values in to play? Each of us makes our own decisions about moral boundaries. But, I would like to posit the question: What are the real costs of our holidays?

Tourism Concern once got a card from Aung San Suu Kyi's sister-in-law, which I treasure, saying that Suu Kyi had asked her to thank us for supporting the request that tourists abstain from visiting Burma until democracy was restored.

If you do decide to go, please think carefully how you do it.

Tricia Barnett is director of Tourism Concern