Just over a decade ago Lonely Planet was being accused of supporting Burma's corrupt military regime for publishing a guidebook to the country.
Boy, have times changed.
Come 2012 and Burma is on travel hot lists across the board. Outside magazine named it the "Best New Frontier of 2012," exclaiming "Men still wear traditional skirt-like lungis, horse carts trot dirt roads and golden stupas and Buddhas are preserved as if in a time warp." The New York Times ranked it number three on the top "45 Places to Go in 2012" and the UK Telegraph also listed Burma on its 2012 hot list, romanticizing it as "Asia as it once was."
But let's not forget why Burma seems to be preserved in time: Because it is. Or, was. The country closed its door to the modern world when the military junta took power in 1962. Human rights violations ensued, and the West enforced sanctions. Then Burma began to reopen its door last year by releasing anti-regime/pro-democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest after 15 years. Once released, Suu Kyi announced the end of her tourism boycott command, appearing to reverse Burma's longstanding anti-tourist sentiments -- very exciting, especially to intrepid travelers like me.
In an interview with Lonely Planet a few months after her release, Suu Kyi clarifies what she means by ending her tourism boycott: She "doesn't mind individual tourists," but, until a democracy is in place, she opposes them in droves. She also specifies that if people want to visit Burma, they should be conscious about avoiding hotels tied to the military and opt for family-owned places instead.
But the media took Suu Kyi's cautionary "go ahead" as a formal invitation and a slew of big-name outlets crowned Burma as this year's hot spot, doting on its exotic frozen-in-time appeal. (Note that its preservation is due to the sanctions placed on Burma as a result of the junta's human rights violations and abuse of its people. Let's not make this another case of tourism poverty porn.) The number of tourists funneling through Burma has risen exponentially, and more than a dozen new guide services are planning to debut trips this year.
But what exactly does this mean for the fragile country when, just as it's testing the waters of the modern world, a tsunami of tourists comes flooding in, griping about the lack of ATMs and first world services? As The Independent reported last week, tour firms are overwhelmed by the demand, and there are shortages of guides and hotel rooms in popular places like Rangoon. Burma's transportation infrastructure is still rudimentary, requiring time -- not to mention money, organization and ambition -- to implement efficient services. Considering their political situation, they've got bigger fish to fry first.
Burma's new receptivity to tourists is coming at one of the country's most crucial -- and sensitive -- points in its history. And just as the West is testing the country's political willingness to further democratic progress. In January, the EU lifted a long-time travel ban on Burma's president, Thein Sein. The UN has said they may continue to lift sanctions as soon as next month if the April 1 elections demonstrate a commitment to political, economic and social reform on part of the current regime -- mainly meaning if they don't interfere with Suu Kyi's campaign for a seat in parliament. (When her party, the National League for Democracy, won in a landslide victory in 1990, the junta prevented them from governing.) This will be a big test, especially after Suu Kyi's March 14 speech declaration to re-draft the country's constitution, on state television -- a bold statement for someone who was released from house arrest enforced by that regime, just over a year ago.
While this window presents an opportune time to see Burma before tour buses and 7-11s take over (presuming that window stays open long enough for that to happen), travelers should be cautious of the country's long tumultuous past and current sensitivity. Let's not forget the regime that killed 3,000 civilians in 1988 and dozens of monks in 2007 for pro-democracy uprisings is still the party in power. This could be a big turning point for the country, and while the progress that's been made should be celebrated, the trying times are not over and tourists flooding the country could have a profound impact on what happens next. That's not to say don't visit Burma, but let's not be the bull in the China shop.