Myanmar is the newest chapter location for the American Society of Travel Advisors, a move that reflects growing interest in an intriguing, once off-limits destination, but also comes amid concerns about the ethics of promoting tourism to a country rife with controversy over human rights abuses and even genocide.
While Myanmar’s emergence from over 50 years of military rule and the election of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has opened the doors to global tourism, the government’s forced evacuation of an estimated 900,000 Rohingya Muslims, many of whom now languish in refugee camps in Bangladesh, has given pause to some tour operators and travelers about visiting there.
Earlier this month, ASTA announced the formation of the new chapter, along with plans to work with Myanmar on a variety of projects. These include a pavilion at the ASTA Global Convention in August and a Myanmar Road Show to meet with U.S. travel advisors that would include tourism education and training.
Bob Duglin, the travel trade group’s vice president of international membership and expansion, traveled to Myanmar earlier this month to meet with tourism officials. He spoke at the first meeting of the new chapter, which has 100 members and is headed by Kyaw Bohne Aung, managing director of the Global Asia Myanmar Travel & Tours Co. Duglin also signed a Memorandum of Cooperation with the Union of Myanmar Travel Association, a trade group similar to ASTA.
According to Duglin, the idea for the new chapter came about at the urging of Aung, who attended an ASTA regional meeting last year.
“He pointed out that we already have a lot of members there — travel agencies who primarily handle inbound business,” Duglin said. “Myanmar is looking for ways to meet with the U.S. travel market. Most countries know Americans spend more per diem than others, so everyone wants visitors from the U.S.”
While Duglin did some research with the State Department on the safety of visiting Myanmar, he said the political situation there was not an issue. He also noted that about a quarter of ASTA’s Myanmar membership is Muslim.
“ASTA doesn’t endorse government policies either way,” he said. “Our concern is with increasing travel.”
Duglin came back from Myanmar with positive impressions.
“The people were very friendly and engaging and I found the country to be very safe,” he said. “There’s an authenticity there that recalls the days before mass tourism.”
He also believes giving members access to Myanmar education training will be an important benefit.
“It’s an opportunity for travel advisors to be ahead of the curve in educating their clients about an emerging destination,” he said.
Among those who agree is Lorraine Simpson, a travel advisor and owner of Masterminds of Travel, who is organizing a fam trip to Myanmar in late March.
“This is a positive step for ASTA, as I believe this kind of education is needed,” she said. “Negative publicity almost closed down Mexico, which is not fair as every country has problem areas. It’s important for agents to get out and see Myanmar for themselves. It’s the most interesting and welcoming country I’ve ever been to.”
Although opposed to Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya Muslims, Simpson doesn’t believe a travel boycott would make any difference.
“Travel boycotts are counterproductive,” she said. “The government and military could care less if you don’t go. It’s the regular folks who suffer.”
While Myanmar’s political situation may not be a road block for some, it is for others.
Stuart McDonald, co-founder of Travelfish, a travel guidebook site focused on Southeast Asia, is troubled enough about events in Myanmar to have stopped any new coverage of the country. He has also stopped traveling there, although he is not calling for a boycott.
“I would ask anyone considering travel there to first read up on recent history and current affairs and make their own informed judgment from there,” he said. “We suspended all planned research to the country following the jailing of the two Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo.”
McDonald has mixed feelings about ASTA’s decision to form a Myanmar chapter and to partner with tourism entities on training and promotion.
“I think you can never have enough travel training, and as Burma remains a developing destination, I’m sure the training will be well-received,” he said. “Hopefully it will deliver long-term benefits — especially when or if the situation in the country changes.”
McDonald’s more dubious about any involvement with promoting tourism to Myanmar.
“Worldwide tourism promotion is generally very rose–colored-glasses stuff — does the world really need another Ballooning over Bagan campaign?” he said. “The money could probably be far better spent supporting organizations trying to do good work in adverse situations within the country, allowing them to better serve the travelers who are still choosing to visit.”
Blue Roads Touring, which does small-group tours to Asia, also has hesitations about offering itineraries to Myanmar. General Manager Ed Pettitt said he worries that too much of the tour revenue would be channeled toward the government rather than local people.
“The infrastructure in Myanmar doesn’t allow us to access the small vehicles we need and give people the kind of non-branded experience that ensures the money is going to the local providers,” Pettitt said. “Part of sustainable, responsible tourism is making sure the economic benefit goes to the local communities.”