Tourism to Burma: What is in it for the Rulers?
Tourism to Burma is booming. Ethical concerns that previously persuaded some travelers not to set foot on Burmese soil have largely been pushed aside, pointing to the Burmese opposition’s NLD welcoming tourists, as long as they travel responsibly. While a possible complicity in human rights violations previously triggered a categorical “No” from conscious travelers, these same people have now started weighing the benefits against the possible damage caused by their travels, with any possible results.
I will here try to summarize the advantages of inbound tourism in Burma that usually underlie discussions on whether to go or not to go. I will focus mainly on how the Burmese government and its cronies is affected by each of the advantages and what its position seems to be.
Tourist dollars may to some extent trickle down to larger parts of the Burmese population, or they might benefit only a small group of privileged people. It must be assumed that the incoming cash flow is one of the main reasons why the Burmese government encourages tourism in the first place. We can expect that it will try to channel it towards its cronies, keeping the main amount circulating inside a limited upper class of Burmese society and foreigners who are involved in the industry.
It is possible, however, that Burmese decision makers are not prepared for a major leakage of revenue to other countries. Or perhaps they don’t care as long as their own profit still justifies dealing with foreign experts who are indispensable to boosting tourism.
2) Opening Through Outflow of Information
Among hardliners in the government and the army in particular this point is likely to cause headaches. Ongoing information politics shows clearly that the rulers don’t want all news from Burma to go public unfiltered. Maybe they simply overestimate their ability to divert foreigners’ attention from certain issues and to direct tourists towards the unproblematic parts of the country. To some extent they certainly also count on tourists’ naivety and their inclination to suppress negative experiences when on holiday.
An outgoing flow of information is certainly perceived as an unavoidable drawback which, it is hoped, will be offset by the benefits.
3) Opening Through Inflow of Information
Inbound tourism is said to, among other things, bring information into the country and thus raise locals’ awareness. This, too, must be seen as problematic by a regime that has traditionally hindered the empowerment of its ordinary people, particularly in predominantly rural and ethnic areas.
4) Symbolic Recognition
In terms of global recognition (of its policies in particular and its legitimacy overall), the government’s position might not be too far away from that of the Burmese population. It has often been reported that the Burmese are fed up with their country’s image of being underdeveloped, uncivilized, and a “pariah”. Only the ethnic groups of Burma might rather identify with different entities than the country they live in.
Tourism in Burma: Empowering the Poor or Entrenching Inequalities?
Not only in the field of tourism can you observe that the government of Burma makes a distinction between upper class people (benefiting from education, health care, investments, and tourism, and enjoying similar freedoms as Westerners) and lower class people (serving both as “work horses” and as a part of the commodity offered to tourists). I believe this is key to understanding the recent developments that often seem surprising and inconsistent: The government and affiliated cronies apparently feel very confident in enforcing and upholding a division of the Burmese population, where one small part will be increasingly connected and adapted to the West and to better-off parts of Southeast Asia, while the biggest part will remain underprivileged.
The underprivileged group therefor plays a particularly important role in tourism, because they have to remain underdeveloped in order for tourism to work. This is for the simple reason that the Burmese “backwardness”, as perceived by many tourists, forms an integral feature of Burma as a touristic commodity. If tourism facilitated broad development of the locals, Burma would immediately lose a considerable part of its attractiveness. Tourism is therefore accepted – if not even planned – by the ruling circles as an intrinsically non-empowering force. Or, more precisely, a very selectively empowering and liberating force used to entrench present inequalities and to raise the living standards and freedoms of the privileged.
The separation is partly enforced on a spatial level by restricting travel to some areas, and also capitalizing on the rule of thumb that is typical for Burma – that the more problems are present in a region, the more cumbersome it is to travel there. Moreover, following an intrinsic logic, the disadvantaged have fewer language skills to communicate with foreigners (affecting the argument that tourism promotes the incoming flow of information) and less access to education, diminishing their opportunities to benefit from tourism. Remember the countless testimonies brought home by travelers, when locals reportedly encouraged unconditional tourism to Burma – but few notice that these locals are those who earn their money from tourism, and who speak English.
Only time will tell if unexpected dynamics in society and economy or if internal fractions inside the ruling cliques are able to break this imbalance. Otherwise, we are likely to see tourism increasingly contributing to making Burma one of those countries where the coexistence of the “First” and the “Third World” will soon be regarded something natural, or even unavoidable.