Myanmar: A Nation At A Crossroads

 @MarkJohansonIBT
on March 29 2012 11:04 AM
Aung San Suu Kyi
A woman buys pictures of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her father and the country's independence hero General Aung San in central Yangon. REUTERS

As Myanmar (Burma) prepares for this weekend's much-publicized by-elections involving pro-democracy leader and Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, one thing is abundantly clear: The once-hermetic nation is now officially open.

The Burmese people have always had a reputation for being some of the world's kindest, most welcoming individuals, but nearly 50 years of military rule virtually closed off this Southeast Asian treasure to the world.

Now, the leaders of the National League for Democracy (NLD), the opposition party that has urged foreigners to stay away since 1996, have a new message: We want people to come to Burma.

The NLD revised its boycott to encourage independent travel late in 2010 following Aung San Suu Kyi's release from house arrest. Myanmar remained under the radar until it topped nearly every tourism list as the must-see place to visit in 2012.

Three months into the New Year, the emerging nation is struggling to keep up with the demand.

Events have moved so quickly since Dec. 1 when Hillary Clinton visited the country, said Marilyn Downing Staff, founder and president of Asia Transpacific Journeys, a highly acclaimed Boulder, Colorado-based tour operator named one of the Top 10 Tour Operators, and the only Asia Specialist, in Travel + Leisure's 2011 World's Best Awards.

We call it the 'Hillary blessing', Downing Staff said. The non-in-the-know average person thought you'd be shot in the street if you went to Burma. Of course it couldn't have been further from the truth and with more of a world eye on Burma there's been a huge shift in thinking and demand.

Downing Staff operates tours to and is an expert on the region, having made her first visit to Burma (now Myanmar) in 1987.

With timeless towns, towering pagodas, and fervently Buddhist locals, Myanmar promises the authentic Asian experience that's fading in neighboring Thailand. There are no McDonald's or Starbucks and no name-brand Western Hotels. But much of that is about to change.

Myanmar is eager to rev up its economy with the hard currency that comes with foreign tourists, but officials question just how far to open the doors.

The government is drafting new laws to make it easier and more tax-friendly for foreign hotel chains to do business. Meanwhile the tourism board encourages entrepreneurs to open up more restaurants that cater to international tastes, to provide more transport options, and offer more English-speaking tour guides.

They're at the crossroads where they can do this well or open up the floodgates a la Thailand, Downing Staff said. They have one of the most intact ecosystems in the world and a well-preserved culture. If they could consciously develop that ... wouldn't it be wonderful.

The government has taken several astonishing steps to stop potentially harmful development projects, yet Downing Staff notes human greed is a powerful force.

Myanmar's main attraction is its time-warped atmosphere. Yangon is one of the last cities in Asia that has its 19th and 20th century architecture intact. The buildings were left unblemished by the rapid development seen elsewhere in Southeast Asia.

The entire nation is an architectural museum of colonial buildings, many of which the people can either level or renovate. Sadly, these old concrete and plaster buildings are not easy to restore and it would be much cheaper to demolish and rebuild.

Richer countries can preserve historic architecture, Downing Staff noted. But for poor countries like Burma, it can be much harder.

It's easy to forget that all of this excitement is really just four months old, but in that time period real estate in the nation's largest city and former capital, Yangon, has nearly doubled. Tourists eager to explore the once-taboo travel destination are struggling to find rooms at booked-out hotels and flights in are similarly difficult. Hoteliers like Starwood and Marriott International are looking and ready to pounce.

Many hope things will go the way of Bhutan by aiming for a limited higher-end tourism market, but at this stage in the game, there is no resolution and no direction.

At this moment in time they've been under a mushroom for 50 or 100 years, Downing Staff said. There's a bit of naivety and the Burmese are delighted to see you. They're not yet jaded by tourism. Culturally it's quite remarkable.

Most visitors follow the trail from Yangon up to Inle Lake, Kalaw, Mandalay, Bagan, and Mt. Victoria, before heading back south to the big city once again.

One of the biggest tourism attractions is Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Suu Kyi, whom many see as the face of the nation. Tourists flock to her rundown opposition party headquarters in Yangon to take pictures and buy T-shirts printed with her warm face.

Experts encourage Myanmar visitors to prepare for a country that is just emerging. Years of economic mismanagement by the military, coupled with U.S. and European sanctions imposed due to the regime's human rights abuses, have left the nation in poverty with a third of its estimated 60 million people living on a dollar a day.

Though many are very poor, they are well-fed, well-clothed, and very friendly, Downing Staff remarked. The country has -- even at its worst -- been warm, welcoming, and open.

Even with the sanctions, most of which remain in place for now, the number of tourists visiting Myanmar is surging.

424,000 people visited Myanmar during the fiscal year 2010-2011, according to official data. The nation's 570 hotels and 160 guesthouses are stretched to the limit, with a total capacity of just 24,692 rooms - compared to neighboring Thailand's 4,000 hotels and resorts and 19 million visitors.

If early indications pan out, the 2012 numbers will be unlike anything the nation has ever seen. It's the start of something big - but what exactly that is remains to be seen.

For many years you felt like Christopher Columbus, Downing Staff recalled. You could be the only foreign visitor at any given point, but those days are going. It's not all bad, but it's a huge shift. Burma will change profoundly in the next five years - even in the next two. Some changes will be very much for the better and some of it, regrettably, will not.

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