Friday, October 12, 2007

Tourism: Crackdown crushes tourism

Travel industry analysts say that along with economic sanctions and diplomatic condemnation, the political unrest in Burma has brought an end to what might have been a record year for tourism spending. As Chad Bouchard reports from Bangkok, travelers in Southeast Asia have taken Burma off their itineraries following the recent events there.

Travel experts say 2007 was shaping up as a record year for Burmese tourism. Arrivals through August this year were up 18 percent over the same period last year.

But the military government's brutal crackdown against pro-democracy protests in September brought the tourism boom in Burma - or Myanmar as it is also known - to an abrupt halt.

At the Hualamphong train station in Bangkok, a transportation hub for backpackers in Southeast Asia, travelers like Els and Walter van Beeks of Belgium are among those revising their plans.

"After our trip, we wanted to go to Myanmar," he explained. "But now, yeah, you can't go anymore so it's too dangerous, so it's - yeah, no, no, we didn't try but we heard about it in the news when we were at home (Else) So we decided not to take a chance. We weren't sure we were going to make it to Myanmar but, yeah. It would have been great. Too bad."

Travel agents say hotels in Rangoon have slashed their rates by as much as 80 percent.

But travel restrictions and curfews since late September have kept even the most adventurous from exploring the country's world-famous Buddhist sites and pristine landscapes.

German retiree Axel Poy, who is passing through Southeast Asia, says his daughter traveled in Burma last year and encouraged him to discover the country on his own.

"She was there and enjoyed it very much, and said go there, but we are of a certain age so we - it would be too much stress at the moment to go there," he said.

John Koldowski is director of the Strategic Intelligence Center at the Bangkok-based Pacific Area Travel Association. He says Burma will take a huge loss this year. But he says the country has proved resilient in the past.

"Generally speaking, the industry has experienced shock after shock after shock, and we have bounced back," he noted. "How quickly will depend obviously on the political situation. But people will certainly look to their governments' advice as they do now with travel advisories, but they'll also look to people who are actually on the ground now or have been there or are going there."

Burma's opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has called for tourists to boycott the country so as not to bolster the military government. But fear of violence seems to be the primary factor.

Western countries such as the United States, New Zealand and Great Britain have issued travel advisories against visiting Burma because of the danger.

Travel companies here in Bangkok have advised customers to avoid Burma through the end of October.

Burmese tourism has always been limited by tight travel restrictions. More than 250,000 tourists visited the country last year, but that was only a fraction, for example, of the estimated 17 million who visited Thailand.

Published with the permission of Voice of America
By Chad Bouchard Bangkok