Tourism sidesteps Rohingya crisis


YANGON, 21 September 2017: Myanmar Tourism Marketing has made repeated impassioned pleas for tourists to continue visiting the country.

Nothing wrong with that, MTM is the official body that promotes the country’s tourism on behalf of its stakeholders.

Membership is made up of a multitude of travel firms, hotels and airlines and the government’s Ministry of Hotels and Tourism has a strong say in MTM directives.

Its plea for tourists to continue to support the country by booking travel is eminently understandable. MTM has monitored a dramatic fall in advance travel bookings for the peak season October to March, and a wave cancellations.

Last year, tourism generated 2.9 million international tourist arrivals and this year the industry was confident arrivals would surpass 3 million.

The cancellations are blamed on a vicious military crackdown that forced more than 400,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee from their homes in the northwest coastal region of the country to neighbouring Bangladesh.

The military was responding to last month’s vicious attack on remote police units by members of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA),  who are demanding  independence for the Rohingya.

Critics of Myanmar’s regime called the military counter attack a “scorched earth” campaign that destroyed between 176 to 214 villages and left an estimated 1,000 people dead. Close to half of the 1 million Rohingya Muslims in the northwest coastal region were made homeless. They fled to neighbouring Bangladesh.

In this context it could be considered insensitive of the tourism industry to talk about entertaining tourists in luxury, when so many people are homeless and stateless at the hands of the nation’s military.

But there is tremendous commercial pressure driving tourism across Asia, and in the name of business it is easy to assume that drawing more tourist dollars to the country will do more good, than harm.

The flurry of MTM press statements and postings on Facebook confirm the travel industry in Myanmar is at panic stations. There is even a campaign to host journalists who will be wined and dined in luxury hotels and chauffeured around the country to popular destinations.

Of course, they will see a country going about its normal business, travellers happily catching holiday experiences through a ‘selfie’ lens, unperturbed by events faraway on the northwest border.

The journalists could save the country the cost of the trips, by stating the obvious from their offices.  Tourists are safe in any of the country’s popular destinations. That’s never been in doubt.

What does concern some travellers is the accusations that the military used excessive force described  by the UN as “ethnic cleansing” to once again smash what little life was left for Rohinghya Muslims.

In its impassioned pleas, MTM says: “Visiting Myanmar now is “the right thing to do” to support poverty reduction, bringing peace and sustaining development all over Myanmar for everybody from any race or religion.”

Its Facebook postings read: “Myanmar Tourism Marketing notices that some travellers start to wonder if it’s “the right thing” to visit a country that is published in a negative way in the news.

“Myanmar Tourism Marketing would like to urge tourists, worldwide, to come and visit the country now, as it is the right thing to do to support all people living in Myanmar.

“We call on people, worldwide, to support all people of any race, religion or ethnicity in a peaceful way and come and visit Myanmar now as this will help reduce poverty around the country… Postponing or cancelling trips to Myanmar will hurt the people more.”

Unfortunately, MTM is glossing over  economic realities. Large corporations, hotel groups, regional investors, airline companies and foreign controlled tour companies dominate tourism.  Across ASEAN, only a very small proportion of tourism revenue ends up in the pockets of village communities, perhaps less than 10%.  Instead 90% of the vast flow of tourism dollars streams into the bank account of a small wealthy elite; possible no more than  10% of the working population. They stand to lose the most if tourists stay away from Myanmar not the villagers.

MTM’s plea is on behalf of “corporate tourism” is a response to real fears that international goodwill is fast diminishing.  It correctly assumes that it could cut travel bookings during the peak season especially by consumers who travel with their conscience.

We all recognise the truth in the MTM statement that “Myanmar stretches over more than 2000 km from north to south and has astonishing nature, culture and adventure to offer for tourists.

“It’s also one of the most welcoming and friendly countries in the world and so very safe to visit as long as you stay within the green areas.” (See UK FCO travel advisory map identifying safe zones).

None of this will wash with travellers who believe that sustainable tourism requires a conscience too. They will stay away whatever is said and probably scorn the efforts of journalists on a junket to persuade them otherwise.

Myanmar’s military has to take a step back and end decades of persecution of the Rohingya that has left them stateless and living in refugee camps. They suffered  a revocation of their Burma citizenship in 1982, when they were taken off the official list of  135 ethnic minorities.  There is plenty of evidence during the 1990s and 2012 that suggests the military carried out, or encouraged campaigns, to rid the land of the Rohingya presence. But that’s the past and discussing where to lay blame hardly helps the thousands of Rohingya Muslims to find a place they can call home.

Tourism leaders should concentrate efforts on urging national leaders to resolve the issue through dialogue.

Sponsoring junkets for journalists to live out an Alice in Wonderland experience could be interpreted as insensitive and frankly a  waste of money. This is a national issue far beyond the scope of irrelevant brochure prose and bloggers dwelling in fantasy land.

For the Rohingya it is about the right to have a home and be part of a nation. That’s the issue that transcends the call to bolster business.

Tourism will survive the bad times and flourish when there is genuine good news that sets a nation on a path to unity and respect.

That path might not be easy, but there is no alternative. The tourism industry should be leading a campaign to turn the mindset of the government, military and even “the Lady” to understand that Myanmar must once and for all make matters right. It is a land that has the culture and moral strength to be an example of goodness and compassion, a place where strangers are welcomed as honoured guests refreshed by a memorable travel experience. It starts with embracing Rohingya for what they are; part of a nation, “our people,” not strangers, not guests.


  1. Dear Don,

    Why, should we all get punished for the army’s actions? We simply can’t influence at all to them neither can Aung San Suu Kyi.

    To put things more in perspective you need to separate ASSK and NLD led government and the military. She does not control the army nor those people who are committing the violent acts against the muslim population in Rakhine.

    It is quite impossible position to succeed in all efforts ..given the current circumstances and the status quo.

    The military is active in various regions in Myanmar and there has been a battle going on for decades.

    Yes it is terrible what is happening in Rakhine state and we wanted it to stop even before this crisis started.

    How could tourism industry in Myanmar go against the military? It makes no sense.
    The UN and lots of different nations leaders even Pope are trying establish dialogue… without much success. Sanctions have never worked, and never will.

    We have no answer how to fix this humanitarian crisis as it is beyond the scope or our reach.

    What we continue to do is keep the windows and doors open and to the world do our best avoid sliding back to darker times of tighter control by the regime.

    We want to encourage liberal policies, open access, celebrate cultural diversity, have home stays, community based tourism and providing livelyhood through tourism to people across Myanmar.

    As business people we are happy to employ people from all walks of life ethnic backgrounds without any discrimination and as private sector want to provide equal opportunities to all.

    Your comments about Alice in wonderland press tours are simply ignorant.
    If you would live in Myanmar or had travelled around there recently it is life as usual. So these Alice in wonderland trips are normal life and it is completely safe. We don’t take people on tours just to look out of bus window but to experience local life and to understand challenges people have in their lives and try to help in various way. With tourism money and good will of people many health clinics, libraries and schools have been built.

    As always with conflicts or disasters when people follow media and some disaster happens in other side of the large country they think that its no more safe to whole country.

    Also all criticism, demands and pressure on Aung San Suu Kyi and her “government” which has no saying over security, police or armed forces in the country, have made many people feel dissappointed about Myanmar.

    We have tried to our best follow the situation and to share with our colleagues, clients and partners realistic information written by investigative local and international media who look into deeper reasons and factors that contribute to this crisis and to gain better understand to form their own opinions.

    It is sad to see some signs again of emotional bullying for against travel to Myanmar.

    We hope for peace, harmony and no drama and to see more visitors to come to this fascinating country and to contribute to adding jobs, capacity building and economic advancement. Likewise you should not stop travelling to Philippines, Malaysia, India, US, Venezuela, Cuba if there is bad leadership or not good government or natural disaster that happened or some remote area that has unrest.

  2. What a load of crap. Tourism is an agent of change. Yes, some of tourisms dollars trickle up. Most trickles down to people deliver food to your table, clean your room, and who make and sell the trinkets tourists buy. You have made very broad statements about the economic power of tourism that are unsupported by facts.

    That said, your final paragraph is spot on. All kinds of industries need to remind all those in power in Myanmar that they have taken a perilous path. Now that she has gone go the dark side, however, it is doubtful that “the Lady” still has a conscience. She has not turned out to be Myanmar’s Nelson Mendela, and she no longer deserves our respect.

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