Myanmar plans to reopen to tourism in early 2022. But who will go?
By Lilit Marcus, CNN
As several Southeast Asian countries begin to ease travel restrictions, Myanmar, which has some of the region’s most spectacular destinations, has announced that it hopes to start welcoming international tourists in early 2022. .
While this may sound like great news for travelers planning their trips after the lockdown, Myanmar is complicated.
Most of the countries that have closed their borders in the past two years have done so only to prevent the spread of Covid-19, but Myanmar is also facing the aftermath of a February 2021 coup during from which a military junta overthrew the democratically elected government of the country.
Visiting Myanmar, which has already spent decades under military rule, has always posed dilemmas for travelers wondering whether their trip will support what has been described in the past as an oppressive regime, or help locals in need of lifebuoys. outdoor rescue.
The question now is, with Covid still a problem in the region and in the wider travel world, as well as the turmoil currently plaguing the country, will anyone come?
Officials have already set up a website, anticipating interest from tourists, but have made it clear that any opening will be subject to successful Covid mitigation in place.
“We plan to reopen tourism for vaccinated tourists if plans are well prepared for safe and convenient travel,” Zeyar Htun, deputy director of the public relations and information department at the military ministry of the United Kingdom, told CNN Travel. ‘Hospitality and Tourism. .
Meanwhile, some international travelers are being warned by their own governments to stay away, due to both Covid concerns and instability following the coup.
The US State Department currently has two level four “do not visit” alerts for Burma, as it refers to Myanmar, one for its high number of coronavirus cases and one for the current political situation.
In a separate opinion, he notes that “Burma is facing a serious political, economic, human rights and humanitarian crisis due to brutal repression by a powerful army which acts with impunity”.
Details on plans to reopen on Myanmar’s official tourism website are slim at the moment, but reports suggest the government will target visitors from Southeast Asia first.
Beyond international vacationers, there are other travelers who will want to enter Myanmar as soon as possible.
There are people of Burmese descent who want to reconnect with their families, Buddhists keen to see some of the country’s sacred temples, and businessmen who need to check out factories and other projects.
“There has always been a relationship, especially in this part of the Buddhist world, with Thailand, Laos and parts of Cambodia, where there are religious capitals that are important in the religious calendar,” says Tyler Dillon, a high-end tour operator. Trufflepig company and long-time leader of tourist circuits in the region.
The Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, for example, is Myanmar’s most important Buddhist site. The 100-foot-tall shiny gold structure houses several sacred Buddhist relics, including eight strands of hair believed to have originated from the head of the Buddha. As a result, it is a popular place for Buddhist pilgrims from all over the world.
Myanmar’s military junta will be particularly eager to see the return of wealthy visitors from China, its most important ally and investor.
China has long had ties with Myanmar even as other countries have imposed sanctions. The country is a strategic part of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road initiative aimed at developing regional trade and expanding China’s global influence.
Breakdowns and shutdowns
When Myanmar’s doors open, travelers returning to the country will notice major changes since their last visit.
According to CNN sources on the ground, infrastructure has been severely weakened, many businesses have closed due to economic pressure or owners who have left the country, and the tourism industry is now run by military generals.
Dillon says his contacts in Myanmar tell him about intermittent blackouts and occasional internet shutdowns, which can make it difficult to stay in touch with people outside the country.
International brands are among those affected. The Kempinski Hotel Nay Pyi Taw Myanmar, a luxury five-star property in the country’s capital, is, according to its website, closed for “the foreseeable future” from mid-October. He did not specify why it was closing.
Pandaw, a Southeast Asian river cruise line specializing in Mekong tours, has announced that it is permanently shutting down operations in Myanmar and the wider region after more than 25 years in business, blaming it on both Covid and “the critical political situation in Myanmar”.
International travelers who decide to visit Myanmar should make sure they’re prepared for the unexpected, says Todd Handcock, who, as Asia-Pacific president of Collinson International, advises corporate clients on travel to Myanmar. full safety and risk management.
“Unfortunately Myanmar is now considered a higher risk area,” he said.
Any company considering sending staff to Myanmar should have a “robust travel risk management program in place,” he says. Employees need to be fully informed of what they need to know and how to react when problems arise.
He also stresses that it is important for those in any country experiencing problems to send assurances to their homes to make it clear that they are safe when bad news is reported.
“I continually send (to my family) pictures of what was going on around me,” he says. “If you have loved ones who are worried, go the extra mile as a traveler to make sure they know.”
As in the past, when Myanmar was under the control of a military junta, calls were made inside and outside the country to boycott anything that would benefit the military, including the many installations. tourism and destinations controlled by its generals.
Andrea Valentin, a former responsible tourism advisor in Myanmar, says the issue is complicated.
“It is a bit frivolous to discuss tourism in Myanmar at the moment, despite all the muffled attempts by the Ministry of Hospitality and Tourism to pretend otherwise,” she said. “It’s not just black and white anymore. It’s not North Korea yet.
Valentin says it’s still possible to travel in a way that doesn’t help fund the military regime, although it’s difficult and most businesses are in more rural areas.
“Yes, it is still possible to travel responsibly in Myanmar today. There are quite a few places that are still quite safe and ethical now. Before the coup, staying in non-military accommodation was quite possible.
“There are some incredible initiatives – which we have meticulously helped to put in place over the past few years – and these deserve our support. “
She adds: “We don’t believe in boycotting tourism.
While travel planner Dillon is not leading any trips to Myanmar for the foreseeable future, he also refuses to cancel the country altogether.
“Tourism is backdoor diplomacy,” he says. “There is still a lot of hope for people on the ground that things can change.”
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Top image: Famous for its 11th-century temples, Bagan is a popular destination in Myanmar. Credit: Getty Images.