Myanmar

Myanmar genocide leaves tourism industry looking for strategy

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Tourism, the world’s largest industry, should take a leadership role on Myanmar, publicly condemning ethnic cleansing and showing the country’s military junta that tourism revenue is not unconditional if it supports crimes against humanity.

— Dan Peltier, Shift

Authoritarian governments abound. But military ethnic cleansing against ethnic minorities is a notch above the usual filth, and as the dire scenario plays out in Myanmar, travel brands are weighing how to respond.

Travel agents and other tour companies always assess the security situation in any country in which they operate. Many have sweeping policies on when violence of any kind breaks out, while others assess local conditions on a case-by-case basis.

In Buddhist-majority Myanmar, the country’s one million Rohingya Muslims have become victims of what many NGOs and human rights groups believe is a genocide by the Myanmar military. More than a million people have fled the country for neighboring Bangladesh in recent months.

This is not the first time that Myanmar’s Muslim population has suffered and died in military action, and the tourism industry has a history of speaking out against the country’s military junta. Racial tensions have plagued the country for decades.

After decades-long sanctions were imposed on the country a few years ago, travel agencies and other travel brands began to re-enter the country. But calls for a boycott have resumed, even as Myanmar’s military campaign against Muslims – which began in earnest in 2012 – has fueled racial and religious divisions and has won popular support across the country.

Years ago, the government revoked the citizenship of the Rohingya, and militants began fighting the authorities. Buddhist groups more loyal to the government were offended. Many Buddhists in the country view the Rohingya as outsiders, despite having lived in Myanmar for generations.

The U.S. State Department has not issued any travel alerts or warnings for Myanmar since the violence resurfaced over the summer. But the U.S. State Department’s Myanmar page states: “Recent violence in Rakhine State has displaced thousands and caused civilian casualties. The U.S. Embassy in Yangon is currently advising against travel to the towns of Maungdaw and Buthitaung.”

The U.S. government is also debating whether to impose sanctions on Myanmar’s government after the Trump administration said it was considering action against the country if the violence continued.

The UK government’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which issues travel alerts and warnings, has taken a tougher stance. In its latest update in September, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs wrote, “In late August and early September 2017, security operations in northern Rakhine State involved the clearing of villages and mass displacement of the population. Burning and looting of property also occurred; There is a high risk of inter-community violence in Kaibang, and international NGOs could also be targeted hostilely.”

The foreign ministry also advised against traveling unless necessary to parts of Myanmar’s Rakhine, Shan and Kachin states, where violence has concentrated.

Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s state counselor and de facto head of government, called for a travel boycott during repeated periods of house arrest from 1989 to 2010, but has been criticized for failing to resolve the current crisis.

Last week Aung San Suu Kyi visited Rakhine state for the first time since the violence began, but it remains to be seen whether she plans to take action to end the crisis.

Meanwhile, Myanmar Tourism Marketing, the country’s national tourism agency, does not appear to be dealing with the violence, instead busy promoting the country’s balloon festival this month.

Mixed response from tour operators

Cambridge, Mass.-based Go Ahead Tours, part of EF Education International, has been running tours of Myanmar but recently canceled all planned departures for 2018 and 2019, said Heidi Derfflinger, president of the tour company ( Heidi Durflinger said.

“We can easily and quickly travel to another destination,” Durflinger said. “In the past, our practice has been to cancel trips in similar circumstances, but for Go Ahead, this is an isolated case.”

Cornell University spokesman Ben Rand (Ben Rand) said that although Cornell University is not a travel agency, it planned to take a group of alumni on a nine-day trip to Myanmar in January, but decided to cancel due to low registration.

Melbourne, Australia-based Intrepid Travel, part of the Intrepid Group, on the other hand, is still pushing ahead with its Myanmar tours, for example, with eight departures scheduled for November.

Leigh Barnes, Intrepid’s regional director for North America, said that Intrepid believes that travelers should be allowed to decide whether a place is suitable for them to travel to.

The company is monitoring Myanmar to see if its travels could be affected by the conflict, but so far there have been no disruptions, Barnes said. “What’s going on in Myanmar is obviously terrible, but we’re not calling for a boycott because we don’t see how it’s going to help the local population,” Barnes said. “We thought it was going to hurt people in the communities we were visiting. But I remember we did see hotel prices triple in the three months after the country reopened to tourists six years ago, and so far we’ve seen There is a steady demand.”

California-based luxury tour operator Classic Journeys is also continuing its Myanmar tours, announcing in September that it will launch a Thailand/Myanmar tour in January.

Edward Piegza, founder and president of Classic Journeys, said Classic Journeys tours would not go to the devastated areas of Myanmar. “Because locals in Myanmar are cut off from the media, we couldn’t get any additional information from local guides,” he said. “We are still conducting our trips to Myanmar because the areas we are venturing to are safe to travel to.”

The murky history of Myanmar tourism

But many travel agencies remain concerned about the violence because two particularly popular tourist spots, Ngapali Beach and the ancient ruins of the Miao U Kingdom, are in Rakhine State, said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for the Human Rights Watch Division.

“The impact is also likely to be more widespread than in other cases, as many overseas tourists and tour operators do not know much about Myanmar, and when they hear about the atrocities committed by the military in Rakhine State, this can negatively impact their decision on whether to go to Myanmar in the first place. Myanmar,” Robertson said.

According to Robertson, sanctions against the Burmese military in the 1990s and 2000s effectively spurred the establishment of democracy — albeit with tepid progress.

“At the time, there was a lot of debate about whether tourists should boycott Myanmar, and the boycott argument prevailed — partly because at the time, a lot of the basic tourist infrastructure was owned by the government or the military, and tourism money went straight into the military’s pockets,” Robertson said .

“The rough Visit Myanmar Year campaign in 1996 epitomized the Myanmar military’s attempts to profit off tourists,” he added.

Human Rights Watch is now focused on imposing targeted sanctions against key military commanders involved in ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity against the Rohingya, Robertson said.

“The plan this time around is to focus on things like global Magnitsky sanctions that would punish specific wrongdoers,” he said. “But if that doesn’t work, then we’re going to have to re-plan and look at other sanctions that might be more effective. We’re going to stick with it for the long haul, just like we did many years ago when Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest and asked for our help. “

Responsible Travel, a UK-based booking site that offers travel around the world and educates travelers on how their actions affect local culture and the environment, has boycotted Myanmar in the past – the only country the company has boycotted, CEO Justin Francis said.

But this time, the company hasn’t stopped so far, Francis said. “The reason we boycotted Myanmar before was that most of the tourism infrastructure, including most of the accommodation, was owned and controlled by the military government,” he said.

Aung San Suu Kyi used to advise international tourists to stay away, Francis said, but much of the government’s control over tourism has shifted and private enterprise has grown. “We can sell Myanmar now with more confidence than before that responsible tourism can improve the lives of local communities,” Francis said.

This time around, Francis said Responsible Travel was considering whether reviving the boycott would hurt local communities dependent on tourism, rather than the government.

“Our current view is that if we can continue to benefit the local community and help the international community see Myanmar through tourism, then we will continue to sell it,” Francis said. “However, we feel strongly that tourists must be informed about the persecution of the Rohingya community.”

Resist by example

Travel agents continue to bring tourists to Myanmar because many are unaware that a genocide is taking place, said Pauline Frommer, editorial director of Frommer’s, a publisher with 60 years of experience in providing travelers with travel advice, including destination safety .

Frommer said the crisis has not been widely reported. “It’s probably because we’re living in a very worrying time, and even when genocide happens it’s hard to get attention,” she said. “It happens every day.”

Frommer’s considered researching and publishing a guide to Myanmar last year, but canceled plans after more violence erupted earlier this year. “There are human rights problems in many countries, but there are currently almost half a million people displaced,” Frommer said.

“When something like this happens, it’s very different from other places where human rights are violated, and the only response is that we won’t support this government. I think that approach works in South Africa, for example,” she said.

Publishers are not afraid to take a stand and become political when the need arises, Frommer said. “We have a huge box in Walt Disney World’s book about SeaWorld that addresses many people’s concerns about how the company is treating orcas and other animals unethically,” she said.

Frommer’s is also focused on providing travelers with statistics to help them make travel decisions. “Take Paris as an example, and the attacks that have occurred in recent years — our guide’s introduction says ‘Paris no longer seems to be the center of the news cycle, but it’s still a leader in the global discussion,'” she said.

But unlike Intrepid, Frommer doesn’t think traveling to Myanmar will help end the violence. “We don’t call for a boycott on our blog, but if someone asked me to comment on that, I would say that the UN human rights chief has called what’s happening in Myanmar a textbook case of ethnic cleansing,” Frommer said. “Tourism revenue still has a lot of ramifications. I don’t want my tourism revenue to support this unbelievably tragic situation.”

Frommer’s and other travel media are certainly different from tour operators and companies, which rely on keeping tourists engaged with their tours, and have more to lose if they close their operations in a particular destination.

The tourism industry has unequivocally condemned the violence in Myanmar and understands the gravity of what is happening. But when it comes to canceling trips in the country or scaling back operations or speaking out publicly, companies see things differently, with many waiting to see how their customers react to the headlines before making a decision.

PHOTO CREDIT: In this Nov. 2, 2017 file photo, Muhammad Yunus, a 28-year-old Rohingya Muslim man who has not eaten for the past three days, joins others at the border as he waits to be cleared to travel to refugees Grimacing in pain at the camp near Palonghali, Bangladesh. More than 600,000 Rohingya from northern Rakhine state have fled to Bangladesh since August 25, when Myanmar security forces began a scorched-earth campaign against Rohingya villages. Bernat Armangue/AP

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