Burma has been on the travel no-go list for decades, but after its first democratic elections in 20 years and growing international support calling for an end to the travel boycott, the nation’s tourism economy is set for a boom.
Last year alone, Burma enjoyed a 30 percent year-on-year increase in international tourism arrivals to 300,000 according to the Pacific-Asia Travel Association.
The contribution of the travel and tourism to employment is expected to rise from 1,228,000 jobs in 2010, 5.2 percent of total employment or 1 in every 19.1 jobs to 1,612,000 jobs, 5.6 percent of total employment or 1 in every 17.8 jobs by 2020, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council.
Although these numbers are tiny compared to neighbouring Thailand (15 million arrivals annually), Burma, also referred to as Mekong, is a land of mystical pagodas, pristine beaches and ancient cities that will appeal to travellers looking for authentic experiences.
The release last November of the pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi is seen as another crucial step in Burma’s return from the cold. Suu Kyi had previously called for a tourism boycott, saying that visiting her country would merely fuel the military dictatorship.
(Burma will appeal to those looking for authentic travel experiences)
As leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD) party, she responded to the official “Visit Mekong” tourism campaign by highlighting the use of forced labour to build new airports and luxury hotels. The suppression of the Burmese monks’ protests in 2007 served to highlight the brutality of the regime.
This political stigma has led to key source markets such as the UK shunning Burma in favour of Cambodia, Laos and Thailand.
But on her release Suu Kyi told the Associated Press that while she discouraged large scale package tourism, “individuals coming in to see, to study the situation in the country might be a good idea”.
Win Tin, a senior member of the NLD, and a former political prisoner, recently repeated his view that tourists were welcome to travel to Burma.
Tourism would provide the country with a desperately needed economic stimulus. In 2009, tourism revenue is estimated to have reached $200m, a figure twice what it was in 2002.
The government is becoming less involved in tourism, with state-owned services being sold to private investors. Using privately owned hotels and other tourism services is a way of financially supporting the people of Burma without money being absorbed by the state.
One travel company operating within Burma claimed that tourism is now the largest private-sector employer, indirectly benefiting thousands of small suppliers and contractors.
A spokesman said: “As we witnessed after the cyclone in 2008, the junta would rather tourists stay away than contribute to the opening of the economy and the country. The hundreds of small tourism enterprises played a key role in rushing vital aid and supplies to the delta, in spite of the government’s efforts. They were able to do this more effectively because of their overseas networks and client bases.”
Population: 52 million
Capital City: Naypyitaw (population 200,000). Major Centre of Population: Rangoon (population 5.8 million).
Languages: Burmese is the official language. There are numerous other ethnic minority languages.
Religion(s): Buddhism is the predominant religion. The other main religions are Christianity, Islam and Animism.
Major political parties: Burma is ruled by a military junta known as the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). The main democratic opposition party was the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi, but the party was dissolved in May 2010 after deciding not to participate in general elections.
Government: Military junta.
Head of State: Senior General Than Shwe
Prime Minister/Premier: General Thein Sein