By Jessica Loudis* – The Nation
The country’s treatment of its Rohingya minority is vexing tourists, but not enough to stop the violence
In 2014, the New York Times travel section published a feature on Myanmar. Declaring it was the Southeast Asian country’s “moment,” the writer advised would-be tourists to check out Yangon’s golden Buddhist pavilion and the colonial-era hotel bar that was once a hangout for George Orwell and Rudyard Kipling.
It was a hopeful moment. Current Prime Minister Aung San Suu Kyi—nicknamed “the Lady”—had been released from house arrest four years prior, and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), had gone on to win a sizable majority of seats in parliament. A Nobel Peace Prize winner and daughter of the country’s revered independence leader, Aung San Suu Kyi was expected to usher Myanmar away from decades of military rule, and towards a more open and inclusive future. Tote bags with her face on them hung in the central Bogyoke market, and bootleg copies of her autobiography were sold in the streets of the capital.
Before long, the crowds arrived. Myanmar had a record 4.7 million tourists in 2015, the year the NLD took office, up from 0.8 million four years earlier. Income from tourism more than quadrupled, hitting $2.12 billion, and the government even hired a company called “Image Diplomacy” to help craft its publicity campaign.
However, in the ensuing years, Myanmar’s reputation has been tainted. With the world watching, Suu Kyi’s government has failed to stem the military’s systematic campaign of violence against the Muslim Rohingya minority. According to a State Department report released in September, since 2016, over 700,000 Rohingya have fled the country, nearly 300 Rohingya villages have been razed, and as many as 25,000 people are believed to have been killed.
For years, Suu Kyi had been criticized by the international community for staying silent about the persecution of the Rohingya. By December 2017, when Médecins Sans Frontières released a report saying that at least 6,700 Rohingya were murdered over the course of a month that year, it was no longer possible for the Lady to feign innocence. She was not just ignoring the situation—she was tacitly condoning it.
From an economic perspective, the negative press posed a problem. After the NLD swept the 2015 election, the World Travel and Tourism Council projected that the tourism sector would grow 8.4 percent by 2025, claiming the biggest chunk of the country’s gross domestic product. Tourism, in other words, was increasingly central to the country’s growth. This was a major reversal: following decades of political and economic isolation, Myanmar’s leaders were suddenly beholden to forces beyond their control.
What’s going on now in Myanmar has an eerie resonance with the events of 1996, when the government launched the “Visit Myanmar Year” campaign with the goal of attracting half a million international visitors. At the time, the country’s ministers were “obsessed with achieving ever-higher arrival figures,” noted scholar Martin Michalon, as if these numbers legitimated their rule. And tourism didn’t only generate good press; it represented a potential economic windfall. Many of the country’s hotels and tourist establishments were owned by government apparatchiks, and nearly half of the country’s budget was funneled to the military.
In response to the campaign, Suu Kyi—who was then under house arrest—called for a tourism boycott. In an interview with The Independent, she argued that money foreigners spent in Myanmar would only fund the dictatorship, and encouraged international governments to blacklist the regime. According to Michalon, who works on the development of tourism in Myanmar, the impact was immediate: just 251,000 visitors traveled to the country that year, far short of the junta’s goal. The Lady was still a moral authority back then, and when the boycott took off, it became the largest since that against apartheid South Africa.
In the U.S. and Europe, Suu Kyi’s call to action set off a debate that shaped the way people thought about the ethics of travel. Was it worse to visit a country ruled by autocratic leaders and pay into their systems, or to stay away and forgo the opportunity to interact with locals? According to Michalon, the argument “pitted NGOs against the Lonely Planet guidebook editors,” the humanitarians against those in the travel sector. Contrary to the NGOs who backed Suu Kyi, Lonely Planet argued that a boycott would only force dependency on the government and have a corrosive effect on locals. Though the boycott went on to become overwhelmingly popular, the company continued to publish books abut Myanmar.
By the mid-2010s, however, public opinion began to change. Thanks in part to messaging by the travel industry and the rise of “ethical tourism”—the idea that travelers can consciously minimize their environmental, social, and economic impacts, usually through all-inclusive tours—tactics such as boycotts started to fall out of favor. Michalon notes that two decades after Suu Kyi’s interview, an opinion poll found that most tourists said they disapprove of boycotts in favor of ethical travel.
Perhaps as a result of this shift, there haven’t been any major calls for a renewed travel boycott this time around. And yet, even without a boycott, the steady flow of chilling news out of Myanmar seems to be achieving the same polarizing effect. According to official government figures, the number of visitors from North America fell by 15 percent in the first six months of this year, while those from Europe dropped 26 percent. In light of these figures, an official boycott seems almost superfluous.
Complicating matters further, Myanmar’s leaders have adopted a new strategy and begun focusing their efforts on attracting visitors from Singapore, Vietnam, the Philippines, Japan, Thailand, and China (where the government is busy conducting its own campaign against ethnic Muslims). Burmese officials have eased restrictions on travel from South Korea, Japan, and China, and dropped a rule requiring that tourists from these countries arrive with at least $1,000 in cash. At a recent regional tourism trade show in Malaysia, Myanmar set up a booth right near the entrance.
This tactic has worked. In February of this year, the UK Telegraph reported that to Myanmar was up 18 percent—“despite ‘ethnic cleansing’ of Rohingya.” By the end of 2019, officials anticipate that tour groups from Asia will increase by 25 percent.
At the same time, the debate over ethical travel is far from resolved. In an article for The Asian Journal of Tourism Research, Michalon observed that the government and the tourist industry remain as entangled as ever, and that corruption within the country’s tourism sector tends to map neatly onto state corruption.
“In spite of the new political context,” he writes, “stakeholders’ strategies have not changed significantly: cronies, their opaque businesses and their money laundering investments have remained a dominant feature of the touristic landscape.”
Ultimately, going—or not going—to Myanmar won’t make much of a difference in the country’s politics. The question, then, may be what will replace the travel boycott, and how to effectively exert pressure on Suu Kyi’s government. One useful example might come from activists who have been agitating against the purchase of what they call “genocide gems”—rubies and sapphires sourced from Myanmar, which generate between $61 million and $31 billion a year in sales. (The official data is at odds with estimates generated by good-governance organizations.)
In 2017, activists convinced Cartier to stop carrying Burmese gems, and they are now petitioning Bulgari to do the same, which could potentially cut off a major source of government revenue. And there are other options. The US imports hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of goods from Myanmar each year, and is currently on track to give the country more revenue from US exports than ever before.
There’s no simple solution, of course. Yet with Myanmar’s government showing no signs of changing course with the Rohingya, these may be places to start.
*Jessica Loudis is writing a book about global cities and gentrification.