-- A decade after Burmese opposition leader and Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi urged foreign tourists to stay away from her scenic, culturally rich Southeast Asian country, its repressive military dictatorship remains entrenched.
And so does a prickly debate over an ongoing travel boycott of Burma (also called Myanmar). According to the World Tourism Organization, 264,000 foreigners visited last year, a 13.5% increase from 2005 (when, according to the latest nationality breakdown available, 16,598 Americans visited) .
In one camp is veteran travel writer Arthur Frommer, who recently chastised U.S. tour companies for continuing to offer Burma trips in the wake of pro-democracy demonstrations led by Buddhist monks. The latest demonstrations began Aug. 19 after the government hiked fuel prices and were followed by a violent military crackdown and renewed international pressure for sanctions against the insular regime —including some calls for a boycott of next year's Olympic Games in China, a key Burmese trading partner.
"There is never a totally consistent policy for boycotting tourism," writes Frommer, who has championed previous boycotts of the Cayman Islands and Kanab, Utah, for what he calls homophobic stances.
In some instances, "tourism keeps a country more open, assists its dissidents, is promoted by all elements of that country. In the case of Myanmar, the people of that country have made it crystal clear that tourism simply aids the junta and helps keep them in power."
Tony Wheeler, co-founder of Lonely Planet publishers, disagrees.
Lonely Planet is itself the focus of a boycott by London-based The Burma Campaign UK, which lists famous people such as ex-prime minister Tony Blair who have pledged to avoid Burma. The group's website includes Lonely Planet on a "dirty list" of businesses accused of supporting the Burma government because its Myanmar guidebook "promotes tourism."
"Excuse me, who is it that's phoning back and e-mailing the stories from within the country?" Wheeler argues in a post to an Australian newsletter. "Who is sending back the images of what the military, urged on by the medal-dripping goons who run the place, is up to? Would we be hearing about this if it wasn't for travelers to Burma?
"Yes, some of the money a visitor spends in Burma will indeed end up in the junta's grubby pockets, " Wheeler adds. "Most of it can end up directly in everyday people's hands, and that's something we tell you how to do in our book. Visitors are an incredibly important contact with the outside world. Go to Burma, travel around, talk to people and I guarantee you that what you will hear is 'come,' not 'stay away.' "
Also on The Burma Campaign UK's "dirty list" is Oak Brook, Ill.-based tour operator Abercrombie & Kent, which has offered Burma trips since 1995. Though spokeswoman Pamela Lassers says the firm has suspended tours "until the situation resolves itself," it plans to resume operations as soon as possible. (On Sept. 26, the U.S. State Department advised deferment of non-essential travel to Burma.)
"The nature of Burma as an off-the-beaten-track destination means guests are experienced travelers, well aware of the current political situation," Lassers says. "They see travel as a way to change lives and attitudes, and build bridges between people."