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Repressive governments are a dime a dozen. But a military campaign of ethnic cleansing against a minority population is a notch above the usual filth, and as this horrific scenario plays out in Myanmar, travel brands are weighing how to respond.
Tour operators and other travel companies always assess the security situation in any country they operate in. Many have blanket policies for when any type of violence breaks out while others evaluate the situation on the ground on a case-by-case basis.
In Buddhist-majority Myanmar, the country’s one million Rohingya Muslims have become victims of what many non-government organizations and human rights groups consider genocide by Myanmar’s military. More than half a million people have fled the country en masse in recent months to neighboring Bangladesh.
This isn’t the first time Myanmar’s Muslim population has suffered and died under a military campaign, and the travel industry has a history of speaking out against the country’s military government. Ethnic tensions have plagued the country for decades.
After opening up of the decades-long sanctions against Myanmar a few years ago, tour operators and other travel brands started reentering Myanmar. But the calls for a boycott have begun anew even as Myanmar’s military campaign against Muslims — which started in earnest in 2012 — feeding off ethnic and religious divisions, has attracted popular support across the country.
Years ago, the government erased the citizenship of the Rohingya population and militants began fighting the authorities. Buddhist population, which is more loyal to the government, took offense. Many Buddhists in the country view the Rohingya as outsiders, even though they have lived in Burma for generations.
The U.S. Department of State hasn’t issued any travel alerts or warnings for Myanmar since the violence resurfaced over the summer. But the State Department’s Burma page reads, “Recent violence in Rakhine State has displaced thousands and has resulted in civilian casualties. The U.S. Embassy in Rangoon currently advises against travel to Maungdaw and Buthitaung townships.”
The U.S. government is also debating whether to levy sanctions against Myanmar’s government after the Trump administration said it’s considering taking action against the country if the violence continues.
The UK government’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which issues travel alerts and warnings, has taken a harsher stance. The foreign office’s most recent update in September reads, “in late August and early September 2017, security operations in northern Rakhine have involved the clearance of villages and mass displacement of populations. There has also been burning and looting of property; there’s a significant risk of intercommunal violence in Rakhine state and international NGOs can also be the target of hostility.”
The foreign office is also advising against all but essential travel to parts of Myanmar’s Rakhine, Shan and Kachin states where much of the violence is concentrated.
Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s state counselor and de facto head of government, called for a travel boycott when she was under house arrest at various times from 1989 to 2010, but has been criticized for failing to address the current crisis.
Last week Suu Kyi made her first visit to Rakhine since the violence began but whether she plans to take action to end the crisis remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, Myanmar’s national tourism board, Myanmar Tourism Marketing, doesn’t appear to be addressing the violence and is busying itself with promoting the country’s Balloon Festival, which takes place this month.
Tour Operators Split in Response
Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Go Ahead Tours, part of EF Education International, had been running a Myanmar tour, but recently canceled all planned departures for 2018 and 2019, said Heidi Durflinger, president of the tour operator.
“We can easily move quickly to visit another destination,” said Durflinger. “Our approach has been to cancel itineraries in similar situations in the past, but it’s a case by case thing with Go Ahead.”
Cornell University, albeit not a tour operator, was planning to bring a group of alumni on a nine-day trip to Myanmar in January but decided to cancel due to low registration numbers, said Ben Rand, a spokesperson for the university.
On the other hand, Melbourne, Australia-based Intrepid Travel, part of the Intrepid Group, is still going full-steam ahead with its Myanmar tours and has eight departures scheduled for November, for instance.
Intrepid believes in letting travelers decide for themselves whether it’s appropriate to travel somewhere, said Leigh Barnes, Intrepid’s regional director for North America.
The company is monitoring Myanmar to see if its tours would be impacted by the conflict, but so far hasn’t seen disruptions, said Barnes. “It’s obviously horrible what’s going on in Myanmar but we’re not calling for a boycott because we don’t see how that could help the local population,” said Barnes. “We think that would hurt people in the communities we visit. But I remember that we did see hotel rates triple in the three months after the country reopened to travelers six years ago and so far we see steady demand.”
Classic Journeys’ tours don’t visit the impacted areas in Myanmar, said Edward Piegza, founder and president. “With Myanmar locals being closed off to media, we’re unable to get any additional info from our guides on the ground there,” he said. “We’re still running tours to Myanmar since the area we venture to is safe for travel.”
Myanmar’s Murky History With The Travel industry
But many tour operators are still concerned with the violence as two particularly popular tourist attractions, the beaches of Ngapali and the ancient ruins of the Kingdom of Mrauk-U, are located in Rakhine State, said Phil Robertson, Bangkok-based deputy director, Asia division, for Human Rights Watch.
“The impact will also likely be wider than it might be otherwise because many overseas tourists and tour operators don’t know much about Myanmar and when they hear about the atrocities by the military in Rakhine State, that negatively influences their decision about whether to go to Myanmar in the first place,” said Robertson.
Robertson argued that sanctions in the 1990s and 2000s against Myanmar’s military were effective at spurring the creation of democratic institutions — although progress has been tepid.
“At the time, there was a great deal of controversy about whether tourists should boycott Myanmar, and the boycott argument won out – in part because at that time, so much of the basic tourist infrastructure was government or military owned, and tourist dollars flowed directly into military pockets,” said Robertson.
“The crude Visit Myanmar Year campaign of 1996 was the epitome of the Myanmar military trying to cash in on tourists,” he added.
Human Rights Watch is currently focused on implementing targeted sanctions against key military commanders implicated in the ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity regarding the Rohingya, Robertson said.
“The plan this time around is to focus on the likes of Global Magnitsky Act sanctions that will penalize specific wrong-doers,” he said. “But if this doesn’t work, then we’ll have to go back to the drawing board, examining other sanctions that might be more effective. We’re in this for the long haul, just as we were when Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest, seeking our help so many years ago.”
Responsible Travel, a UK-based booking site that offers tours around the world that educate travelers about how their behavior impacts local cultures and environments, has boycotted Myanmar in the past – the only country the company has ever boycotted, said Justin Francis, CEO.
But this time around, the company so far isn’t pulling the plug, said Francis. “The reason we previously boycotted Burma was that much of the tourism infrastructure, including much of the accommodation, was owned and controlled by the military junta,” he said.
Suu Kyi advised international visitors to stay away in the past, said Francis, but much of the government control of tourism has changed and private enterprise has developed. “We can be far more confident than before that responsible tourism can improve the lives of local communities, and now sell Burma,” said Francis.
Francis said this time around, Responsible Travel is considering whether reinstating a boycott would hurt local communities dependent on tourism more than it would hurt the government.
“Our view, for now, is that if we can continue to benefit local communities and help keep Burma visible to the international community through tourism, then we’ll continue to sell it,” said Francis. “However, we feel strongly that tourists must be made aware of the persecution of the Rohingya community.”
Boycotting By Example
Tour operators continue to bring travelers to Myanmar because many aren’t aware of the genocide taking place, said Pauline Frommer, editorial director of Frommer’s, a publisher with 60 years’ experience in offering travelers’ trip advice, including the safety of destinations.
Frommer said the crisis hasn’t been widely reported on. “That’s probably because we’re living in a very fraught period and it’s hard to get the attention of people even with a genocide,” she said. “Things are happening every day.”
Frommer’s was considering researching and publishing a Myanmar guidebook last year but nixed plans earlier this year after more violence broke out. “A lot of countries have human rights issues but close to half a million people are displaced right now,” said Frommer.
“When it’s something like this it’s so different than other places with human rights abuses, the only response is that we won’t support this government. I think this approach worked in South Africa, for instance,” she said.
The publisher isn’t afraid to take a stance and get political when it feels it needs to, said Frommer. “We have a huge box in our Walt Disney World book about SeaWorld that address the concerns many people have about how the company’s treatment of orcas and other animals is unethical,” she said.
Frommer’s also focuses on giving travelers statistics to help them make travel decisions. “Take Paris, for example, and the attacks that have happened in recent years – our guidebook’s introduction says that ‘it may not seem like Paris isn’t the center of the news cycle anymore, but it’s still a leader in global discussion,'” she said.
But unlike Intrepid, Frommer’s feels traveling to Myanmar won’t help end the violence. “We wouldn’t call for a boycott on our blog but if someone asked me to comment on this, I’d say that the UN Human Rights chief has called what’s going on in Myanmar a textbook case in ethnic cleansing,” said Frommer. “Tourism dollars still have fingers in many pots. I wouldn’t want my tourism dollars to support this incredibly tragic situation.”
Frommer’s and other travel media are certainly different from tour operators and companies that depend on getting travelers on their tours and have more to lose if they shutter operations in a particular destination.
The travel industry clearly condemns the Myanmar violence and understands the severity of what’s happening. But when it comes to canceling tours or curtailing business in the country or publicly taking a stand, companies have diverging views and many are waiting to see how their clientele react to headlines before making decisions.