16 Minutes To Read

Is where you go on holiday a moral decision?

16 Minutes To Read
  • English
  • Bertie Alexander Lawson explores the moral questions surrounding travel to Myanmar.

    The expulsion of nearly 800,000 Rohingya from Rakhine State, the reports of crimes against humanity, and the suppression of journalistic freedom have once more brought the morality of travelling to Myanmar as a tourist into question.

    Prospective visitors are opting for neighboring countries; those that do visit are having to defend their decision; and travel agents arranging trips through the country are forced to explain why holidaying in Myanmar can be responsible and ethical.

    In general, most of us recognize the benefits of responsible travel.

    For the individual, travel can broaden the mind and enhance the capacity for empathy in both the visitor and the host. The tourism industry as a whole has the capacity to engender economic development and provide professional opportunities to a wide demographic.

    But the negative ramifications of unchecked and irresponsible tourism are also real, whether that be the disruption of the lives of locals (as seen in Venice and Amsterdam); environmental degradation (at the hands of luxury cruise ships across the world); the reinforcement of base stereotypes and rancour between guest and host (such as in Barcelona); or the flouting of cultural norms and niceties (as seen here on Mount Kinabalu in Malaysia) and a disregard for heritage in the pursuit of profit and increasing arrival numbers (as referred to here in Japan).

    In most places arrival numbers are increasing – fast. The amount of international travellers worldwide is growing (predicted to reach more than 1.8 billion by 2030) and unless systematic change is effected, as the industry grows, so will the problems.

    It was within this context that in August 2017, BBC Radio 4’s Moral Maze posed the question: Is where you go on holiday a moral decision?

    Through forty-five minutes of heated debate between journalists, polemicists, and industry professionals, three central pillars of argument emerged:

    1) the question of boycotting a country with an oppressive or unsavoury regime;

    2) the crisis of overtourism; and

    3) the manner in which holidaymakers conduct themselves abroad.

    Myanmar, due to the aforementioned reasons, was directly addressed at length under the first point. However each of the three points are applicable when considering this country’s tourism industry.

    I am the Managing Director of Sampan Travel and in the course of everyday business, my colleagues and I grapple with these issues. Far from abstract theoretical posturing, the points raised in the Moral Maze correspond with realities at the coalface of the industry. How they are addressed today will shape the industry of tomorrow.

    After the slump which followed record highs in 2015, Myanmar tourism arrivals are now appearing to pick up once more. As this happens, the morality of a vacation to Myanmar is something that governments, organisations, and individuals must consider.

    Due to the crisis in Rakhine State, it is vital that companies working in the tourism industry consider how they enforce responsible business practices and how they guarantee sustainable travel through Myanmar.

    When attempting to do this, and when attempting to answer the question of morality, the three pillars of argument that rose from the Moral Maze (ethical boycotts, overtourism, and bad behaviour abroad) are a good place to start.

    Ethical Boycotts

    In the first week of September 2018, I received two emails from two separate prospective clients threatening to cancel their trip to Myanmar following the sentencing of Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo. They were “extremely angry”, “really concerned”, and adamant not to contribute their “tourist dollars to ethnic cleansing.” I know that such sentiments filled the inboxes of travel agents and tour operators across the globe.

    It was not the first time that the morality of a vacation to Myanmar was being questioned, and many travellers were having to justify their decision to visit the country to incredulous family and friends.

    The justification for travelling to Myanmar usually takes one of two forms. Firstly, the economic benefit to the people of Myanmar that tourism can bring, and secondly, the value in keeping lines of communication open to a country and its people.

    In the 1990s, Lonely Planet led the way in promoting responsible tourism to Myanmar, making both the arguments for supporting the people economically and by engaging in communication. In the 1996 guide to Myanmar, the editors of Lonely Planet wrote that many “good-hearted Burmese citizens eke out a living from tourism” and boycotting the country would “help cement [the] fear-driven control over the people”.

    Now that travellers have much more freedom about where and how they spend their money in Myanmar (in particular, the freedom to avoid the crony-owned hotels that sprung up in the 1990s), the economic argument holds more weight than it did 30 years ago. It also falls into a wider international discourse about the economic weight of tourism. 2017 was the UN’s Year of Sustainable Tourism and much was made of the economic development it could foster. Recognising its economic clout, the UN World Tourism organization reported that the tourism industry generates $3.2 billion of spending worldwide every day, creates one tenth of jobs globally, represents 10% of the world’s GDP and counts for 30% of the world’s trade services.

    By employing the services of a large demographic of Myanmar people, both tour operators and independent travellers can ensure that their “tourist dollar” plays a role in the development of the country, reducing “leakage” whereby much of the profit generated by tourism seeps out of the country to foreign companies, and the consolidation of profits in the hands of elite families and companies.

    The argument for keeping lines of communication open with the people, however, is more problematic today than it was in the 1990s. This is for two principal reasons:

    • Widespread public support for the Burmese military’s clearance operations within Rakhine State and the refusal to accept the Rohingya as Myanmar citizens, at odds with the perspective of the international community.
    • The role of social media allowing Myanmar people to communicate with the outside world whether or not tourists are visiting.

    Addressing the first point, in late 2018 the online travel guide Travelfish reaffirmed its decision to suspend all research into Myanmar, arguing that “the popular support in much of the country for what was happening in Rakhine made travel there, for us, unconscionable”. This stance was interesting in that it did not direct its attention solely toward the government and armed forces, but also addressed a wider Islamophobia and xenophobia in the population at large.

    It also suggested the futility of the hope that tourists would “open the eyes” of Myanmar’s people by exposing them to an international perspective. This hope reflects that of local tour operators who believe that tourists will be exposed to “the real situation” when they visit Myanmar.

    This two-way eye-opening was intimated by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi back in 2001 when, in answer to a question about the benefits of tourism, she answered that “tourists can open up the world to the people of Burma just as the people of Burma can open up the eyes of the tourists to the situation in their own country if they’re interested in looking”. (Free Burma 2001, in Henderson 2003.)

    I do not believe that minds are going to be changed en masse through tourism but I would argue that these conversations are worth having nonetheless. That is not to say such conversations are going to be comfortable for either party. Both the tourist and the local must be prepared that the other is likely to approach the topic of Rakhine and the Rohingya (to which, a discussion on Myanmar politics will inevitably turn) from a radically different perspective. Without perseverance and patience, the conversation can quickly become heated.

    Those working in the tourism industry, from guides to tour operators to industry association leaders, must improve their attempts to “explain” the situation to foreign tourists. Simply denouncing foreign media as corrupt and dismissing the doubts of tourists as those of a silly foreigner who cannot possibly understand the complexities only serve to further strengthen the image of Myanmar and its people as at best delusional, and at worst, deceptive.

    About two years ago, I attended a Q&A organized for a group of European Travel Agents on a familiarization trip of Myanmar. When the situation in Rakhine was brought up by a representative from a large British travel agent, the senior tourism professional hosting the event responded by lambasting the “ridiculous” BBC and comparing the coverage to a Hollywood movie. When later asked how the country intended to protect itself from a surge of mass tourism, the host joked that the Rohingya were doing the job of keeping numbers down for them.

    Such clumsy and tasteless displays lower the tone of the conversation between the tourist and the local and scupper the positive effects that this interaction can have, such as shining a light on the intricacies of the problems in question, as well as the narratives and stories that run alongside such problems.

    The growth of networks such as Facebook and Twitter into deceptive echo chambers for anti-Rohingya Bamar and Rakhine nationalists, in addition to the pace at which online debate degenerates into abuse, renders the internet an inadequate forum for these discussions to be held.

    Patient and sensitive discussion in person, though rare and fleeting, does have the ability to keep the conversation going and push against the traction of the discourse descending into a shouting match across an increasingly wide abyss.

    Visiting Myanmar can be the morally right thing to do and supporting the economy and communicating with the people are valid starting points when considering doing so. But both tour operators and travellers must go further in looking carefully at where they are spending their money, and how they are engaging in such conversations.


    When someone does choose to visit Myanmar with the intention of travelling responsibly, the next question they must ask themselves is where within Myanmar they will visit.

    Overtourism may be a new word but the concept has existed for a long time. To an audience of wealthy industrialists in Manchester in 1864, in response to the birth of cheap rail travel, the Victorian thinker John Ruskin raged:

    ...there is not a quiet valley in England that you have not filled with bellowing fire nor any foreign city in which the spread of your presence is not marked by a consuming white leprosy of new hotels.

    Today, Ruskin’s ire would be directed at low-cost airlines and “binge flying”, allowing, as the Moral Maze put it, “nearly everyone to go nearly everywhere”, resulting in a tidal wave of visitors to some of the most famous destinations in the world. Overtourism can push up rents, scare away wildlife, and – in some extreme cases – prevent locals from going about activities such as grocery shopping and doctor visits.

    Venice, Barcelona, and Amsterdam, hosting millions of visitors each year, are the places most often associated with overtourism. But even destinations such as Myanmar, which receive only a fraction of these arrivals, can still suffer from overtourism if the host communities and infrastructure are not adequately prepared.

    Although often lauded as “unspoiled” by mass tourism, due to a reluctance of local tour operators to delve beyond the tried and tested destinations, many visitors to Myanmar find themselves in bottlenecks at “honey spot” pagodas, monasteries and villages within and around the “Big Four” of Yangon, Bagan, Mandalay, and Inle Lake.

    One of the most extreme examples is at the Mahagandayon Monastery in Amarapura, where in the high season, scores of tourists crowd in to witness the mid-morning alms collection, jostling and elbowing each other as they thrust cameras and phones in the faces of the stoical monks and novices.

    To the news agency Mizzima, one recent tourist to Mahagandayon depicted it thus:

    “Hundreds of Chinese tourists keep shoving others. I felt sorry and guilty to be among the tourists who are relentlessly holding cameras and phones at them while the monks humbly queue with their heads bowed. This event should be halted, or have numbers significantly curtailed.”

    In February this year, the shameful state of affairs culminated in a brawl between two tourists vying for the best spot to take their photos.

    Not only do such scenes do little to develop good relations between locals and foreigners, but any future spike in economic development is 1) restricted to a limited geographical location and 2) potentially unsustainable as major tour operators (eventually) begin to publicly recommend avoiding these sites altogether.

    Inle Lake is another example of an overhyped destination potentially falling victim to its own success.

    In a previous Tea Circle article, Martin Michalon outlined the “weight of tourism” on Inle Lake. Between 1994 and 1996 (former Military Intelligence Head Khin Nyunt’s anti-climactic “Visit Myanmar Year”) arrivals increased from 3,200 to 21,000. This rose to 60,000 in 2012, 138,000 in 2015, and 225,000 in 2017 (based on declarations by hotels and guesthouses, labeled as “somewhat questionable” by Michalon). Between 1999 and 2014, the little town of Nyaung Shwe underwent a huge transformation, with the resident population increasing by almost 50%. Today the whole of the Inle Lake region hosts over 100 hotels, 1,200 licensed boats for tourists, 350 tour guides, and 40 travel agencies.

    Through numerous interviews, Michalon ascertained that this transformation has led to some local residents feeling uncomfortable in their own town while the central market, a traditional social meeting point, has morphed into a “place of frenzy”. A large percentage of the hotels are believed to simply dump their garbage rather than utilize the municipal collection service (which in itself is no guarantee of proper processing), and the huge number of tourist boats has contributed to murky water and noise pollution.

    On this final point, Michalon wrote the following note to me:

    On 24th January 2016, I sat by the canal from Nyaung Shwe to Inle from 5am to 7pm and counted the boats: I could count almost 900 boats (and each usually does a return trip, hence 2 times noise + water disturbance. This figure includes “Free Independent Travellers + packages + Burmese tourists). This doesn’t take into account the boats of local passengers and cargo. Grand total: 1,000 boats in each direction, ferrying around 5,300 people – tourists and local passengers. And still, this figure doesn’t include all the boats which sail from a lake resort in the morning to the same resort in the evening, and therefore does not sail on the canal to be counted.

    Although the current poor health of the lake itself is principally due to factors other than tourism (ie. the large amount of chemicals used by nearby tomato farms and the threat of siltation from soil erosion in the surrounding hills), Michalon argues that the tourism industry “heavily used and abused the local environment, instead of benefiting it”, and has yet to put its weight (and its revenues) behind the betterment of the region. The rub is that if and when Inle’s health is degraded to such an extent that it loses all its charms, the tourists and tour operators will have the option to move onto the next destination (Indawgyi Lake, anyone?), while local residents are left with the grubby hangover of the tourism bonanza.

    It is important to note that in the Inle Lake region, tourism actors are working in a tangle of vested interests and impotent authorities, cash-strapped governmental committees and NGOs working in isolation of one another. In a report in December 2018, “The Misrule of Inle Lake”, Frontier outlined the bureaucratic inertia and fragmentation between government departments that was preventing progress being made at Inle, presenting the lake as a case study in the alienation of local communities and limits of devolution.

    Inle Lake is one of the most visited destinations in Myanmar. However it is also important to note that those travellers who naturally recoil from destinations such as Inle because it is regarded as a “must-see” can also risk contributing to overtourism if a community or destination is not prepared to host even one coach-load of visitors. The wish to be among the first foreigners to interact with an indigenous community – the “Robinson Crusoe effect” – too often prioritizes the self-centred desires of the traveller while casually disregarding the concerns of the locals. The arrival of travellers to a secluded village, unaccompanied and unannounced, can cause discomfort and unease to a community not used to hosting foreign visitors. Not only is there in this instance an example of a lack of respect and invasion of privacy, the community can also be charged as culpable if something were to go wrong.

    The term “Community Based-Tourism” is overused in Myanmar but the kernel of the idea – in essence, the community calling the shots – should dictate how tourism is managed throughout the country.

    One place where this has been initiated well in Myanmar is in Kayah State. This is home to the Kayan-Padaung ethnic group, famous for the women who traditionally wear brass neck-rings, pushing down their collarbones and making their necks appear longer. For years, Kayan women have been on display in “human zoos” just over the Chinese and Thai borders. Today, at Inle Lake, tourists can gawp at posing Kayan women and even at a “Kayah restaurant” in Yangon.

    Much of the early tourism to Kayah State was of this nature. Visitors would arrive, take photos, pay the women, and depart. Not only did this give no agency to the local residents, it did not allow for the just dispersal of earnings across a community where its members were bearing the brunt of tourism.

    Since 2014, the International Trade Centre (ITC) has worked towards the development of community based tourism in Kayah State in collaboration with the Centre for the Promotion of Imports from developing countries (CBI). Through painstakingly slow consultation with communities around Loikaw, the state capital, 20 new cultural tours were created, generating employment and income for over 100 actively participating community members.

    Between 2015 and 2017, international tourist visits to Kayah increased by 130%, and visitor spending increased by almost 400%. At the close of the first high season (2016-17), the new cultural tours had generated over $10,000 USD of direct income to said community members. (See full results here.)

    In addition to the economic benefits, it is hoped that by putting control back into the hands of the people of Kayah State, the intangible cultural heritage is sustained, and the worth in doing so made evident to the youth of the region.

    The bumper sticker maxim “Take Only Memories, Leave Only Footsteps” signals a welcome shift in how some individuals and tour companies are beginning to judge the trips they make and create. How much tourism gives and takes from a destination (how much the destination is used and abused and how much it benefits) is best judged by the community itself.

    Therefore, the moral question of whether or not to visit a country should be extended to incorporate where one should travel once within that country. By listening to local communities and supporting projects like that in Kayah State, tourists who decide to visit Myanmar, and tour companies operating here, can better target their good intentions to the places where they will be most willingly received.

    The Ugly Tourist

    In the 1990s, one of Suu Kyi’s arguments against travel to Myanmar was that, as her biographer Peter Popham paraphrased, “most tourists who visit tropical destinations have no real interest in what is going on in the places they visit”.

    While the early waves of tourists to Myanmar were a niche segment of the market who likely had an above average interest and – so it follows – knowledge of the country, the new success and ease of the e-visa, as well as the opening of the land border with Thailand, mean that Myanmar is increasingly incorporated into the “banana pancake trail” – the favoured route of backpackers and budget travellers visiting Southeast Asia.

    Backpackers are often lambasted as undesirables. This is unfair and nonsensical, as their expenditure when travelling through a country is more widely dispersed than high-end travellers, and makes its way to those who are most in need of it: e.g. trishaw drivers, small restaurant owners, young guides, etc.

    Nonetheless, the incorporation of Myanmar within the “pancake trail” will commence the start of mass tourism. And with mass tourism comes less desirable travellers with less desirable behaviour.

    Although it is argued that travel has the potential to broaden the mind and offers us new perspectives, it is undeniable that some vacations are mind-numbing, mind-narrowing, and encourage switching off much more than switching on.

    This kind of holiday in Europe may be epitomized by, as it was put in the Moral Maze, “vomiting up La Ramblas”. It is likely even more common when considering Southeast Asia and the Far East, not only due to the delectable triumvirate of sand, sun, and sea, but also because the idea of Asia is still wrapped up and presented in the bells and whistles of the exotic orient: marketing campaigns playing off stereotypes and received knowledge, half-imagined pleasures and desires, Alex Garland’s beach Babylon and the Genii

    The idea that we should prepare and learn about a culture before we visit it was criticized vehemently on the Moral Maze. Umbrage was taken at the perceived argument that a vacation must broaden the mind and could not only be for kicking-back with a beer. The accusation was thrown that there was a “whiff of class snobbery” in this hunt for “the right kind of tourist”.

    I would argue that the goal is not for the right kind of tourist but the right kind of tourism – i.e. it is not about who should travel, but how we should travel.

    When identifying the different biases of those bodies and individuals arguing for and against travel to Myanmar in the 1990s, Lonely Planet wrote: “Our bias is that if people decide to visit Myanmar to see for themselves [they should] go with as much advance information as possible”.

    Beyond the crisis in Rakhine, visiting Myanmar inspires intellectual dives (even if fleeting) into the intricacies of the country. The depth into which guides such as Lonely Planet and Rough Guides delve are admirable in their success in informing readers in a digestible manner. As more travellers conduct their research through online channels such as TripAdvisor and Yelp, it is important that other travel agents and tour operators supplement light content and listicles with in-depth coverage of the country. This is what Sampan Travel attempts to do through the articles on our blog Slow Travel Myanmar, embracing niche and thorny issues of the country.

    Information – whether it be about the political realities, as was referred to in the 1990s, or about cultural sensitivities where the emphasis commonly is today – is not only meant for the benefit of the traveller, but for the benefit of the host as well.

    Girls wearing short-shorts, bare-chested guys, drunkenness, and public displays of affection are going to shock and disgruntle the Myanmar people in a way they will not in Thailand or Cambodia. Knowing how we should and should not behave when abroad can be more subtle than we assume and it often takes more than common sense and courtesy to avoid cultural faux pas.

    The Dos and Don’ts for Tourists in Myanmar (now in their second edition and provided in print format to new arrivals by many tour operators, and also featured on billboards in Yangon Airport) go some way toward providing this “advance information” to those who decide to visit Myanmar, improving the experience for both visitor and host.

    Irresponsible actions commonly committed with the right intentions – eg. visiting an orphanage or giving money to a begging child – can usually be avoided when the best information is communicated to the traveller prior to their arrival. Tour operators, guidebooks, and online travel agents have great power in changing the type of tourism to a destination for the better by simply raising the awareness of travellers.

    It also, of course, requires the individual to be willing to be a better traveller and look critically upon the way they may have travelled in the past. The UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) refers to the tourists’ “right to travel” in its Global Code of Ethics for Tourism. But is also says that “Tourism policies should be applied in such a way as to help to raise the standard of living of the populations of the regions visited”.

    Instead of only thinking about our right to visit somewhere, we should instead recognise that travel is a privilege (an indulgence, even) and one that we must tame so as to travel in the right way.


    Today the tourism industry feeds off an insatiable hunger for us to travel further, and more. Travel bloggers brag about the number of countries they have visited, and governments continue to track the number of tourist arrivals before considering the type of tourism arriving. 

    The bleak conclusion to the debate on the Moral Maze was that the tourism industry, as a demand-led activity, simply cannot go on as it currently does. We will soon reach the point where we are going to have to limit the amount we travel.

    Indeed, there is much pessimism in the industry.

    In TTR Weekly the author and writer Bruce Northam says that he believes “this trend will only get worse”, while Anna Pollock, founder of Conscious Travel, UK, said “The tourism industry knew how to turn it on…but never studied or perfected how to turn it off…a wicked problem.”

    It was back in 1862 that Thomas Cook became the first tour operator to offer a week-long whistle-stop tour through Europe by train. And Ruskin began to rage against the consumerism and haste of the modern tourist: ‘No changing of place at a hundred miles an hour will make us one whit stronger, happier, or wiser. There was always more in the world than men could see, walked they ever so slowly; they will see it no better for going fast. The really precious things are thought and sight, not pace. It does a bullet no good to go fast; and a man, if he be truly a man, no harm to go slow; for his glory is not at all in going, but in being.

    At heart, this kind of slow travel forces us to appreciate what is around us, attempt to understand it, and question our relation to it. It is this question that is important.

    On the Moral Maze, Harold Goodwin from ResponsibleTravel.com said that the foundation of responsible tourism is changing our mindset so that we view places not just as holiday destinations, but as people’s homes. As a guest in their home, we must ask ourselves whether we are contributing to the overall good or bad for those that live there. As outlined above, this contribution can be broken down into questions of where we are spending our money, how we engage with the people, where we are choosing to travel within that country, and how we behave when we are there.

    It is in posing these questions, as Harold Goodwin argues, that we are making the decision to think about the consequence of travel, to take responsibility for our travel.

    For those of us working in the Myanmar tourism industry (and those of us outside it promoting travel to Myanmar), a close inspection of how travel through the country is responsible or is not is a vital activity that must be engaged with each day. This is not merely an act of public relations, but an honest acceptance that Myanmar simultaneously hosts both unrivalled delights for travellers to experience alongside atrocities and sweeping miscarriages of justice.

    In this context, by considering how one can travel responsibly through Myanmar, the holiday in its entirety becomes a moral question. And by asking the moral question, we at least have half a chance of responding with a moral answer.

    Bertie Alexander Lawson, Managing Director of Sampan Travel.  Sampan Travel is a boutique tour operator based in Yangon, creating tailor-made journeys through Myanmar. Sampan Travel was the third tour operator in Myanmar to receive Travelife Gold Certification recognising their commitment to sustainability and has received awards from the Myanmar Responsible Tourism Awards in both 2017 and 2018.

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