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Myanmar is planning to reopen to tourism in early 2022. But who will go?


By Lilit Marcus, CNN

As multiple Southeast Asia countries begin to ease travel restrictions, Myanmar, which boasts some of the region’s most spectacular destinations, has announced that it hopes to begin welcoming international tourists in early 2022.

While this might seem like great news for travelers planning their post-lockdown trips, in Myanmar, it’s complicated.

Most nations that closed their borders over the past two years did so solely to prevent the spread of Covid-19, but Myanmar is also still dealing with the aftereffects of a February 2021 coup in which a military junta overthrew the country’s democratically elected government.

Visiting Myanmar, which has previously spent decades under military rule, has always presented dilemmas for travelers weighing up whether their trip will support what has in the past been labeled an oppressive regime, or will help locals who need outside lifelines.

The question is now, with Covid still an issue across the region and the wider world of travel, plus the turmoil currently gripping the country, will anyone come?

Officials have already set up a website, anticipating tourist interest, but have made it clear that any opening will be subject to successful Covid mitigation being in place.

“We are planning to reopen tourism for vaccinated tourists if plans are well-prepared for safe and convenient travel,” Zeyar Htun, deputy director of the Public Relations and Information Department at the military-run Ministry of Hotels & Tourism, confirmed to CNN Travel.

Meanwhile, some international travelers are being warned by their own governments to stay away, due to both Covid concerns and instability in the wake of the coup.

The US State Department currently has two level four “do not visit” alerts for Burma, as it refers to Myanmar, one for its high number of coronavirus cases, and one for the ongoing political situation.

In a separate advisory, it notes “Burma is facing a grave political, economic, human rights and humanitarian crisis due to a brutal crackdown by a powerful military that acts with impunity.”

Religious significance

Details on reopening plans on Myanmar’s official tourism website are thin at the moment, but reports have suggested the government will initially target visitors from Southeast Asia.

Beyond international vacationers, there are other travelers who will be keen to enter Myanmar as soon as it’s feasible to do so.

There are people of Burmese heritage who want to reconnect with family, Buddhists eager to see some of the country’s sacred temples and businesspeople who need to check on factories and other projects.

“There’s always been a relationship, especially in that part of the Buddhist world, with Thailand, Laos and parts of Cambodia, where there are religious capitals that are important in the religious calendar,” explains Tyler Dillon, a travel planner for high-end company Trufflepig and a longtime leader of tours in the region.

The Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, for instance, is the most important Buddhist site in Myanmar. The bright gold, 100-foot-tall structure is home to several sacred Buddhist relics, including eight strands of hair said to be from Buddha’s head. As a result, it’s a popular spot for Buddhist pilgrims from around the world.

Myanmar’s military junta will be particularly eager to see the return of wealthy visitors from China, it’s most important ally and investor.

China has long nurtured ties with Myanmar even while other countries have imposed sanctions. The country is a strategic part of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “Belt and Road” initiative aimed at building regional trade and expanding China’s global influence.

Blackouts and closures

When Myanmar’s doors do open, travelers returning to the country will notice major changes since their last visit.

According to CNN sources on the ground, infrastructure has been significantly weakened, many businesses have closed due to economic pressure or owners leaving the country, and the tourism industry is now being run by military generals.

Dillon says his contacts in Myanmar tell him of intermittent blackouts and occasional internet shutdowns, which can make it difficult to stay in touch with people outside of the country.

International brands are among those affected. The Kempinski Hotel Nay Pyi Taw Myanmar, a luxury five-star facility in the country’s capital is, according to its website, closed for “the foreseeable future” from mid-October. It didn’t specify why it was shuttering.

Pandaw, a Southeast Asia river cruising company specializing in Mekong River tours, announced it was permanently closing operations in Myanmar and the wider region after more than 25 years of operation, blaming both Covid and “the critical political situation in Myanmar.”

Risk factor

International travelers who do decide to visit Myanmar should make sure they are prepared for contingencies, says Todd Handcock, who as Asia Pacific president of Collinson International advises corporate clients on traveling safely and managing risk.

“Unfortunately, Myanmar is now considered to be a higher risk zone,” he says.

Any company thinking of sending staff to Myanmar should have a “robust travel risk management program” in place, he says. Employees should be fully briefed on what they need to know and how to react when trouble rears its head.

He also stresses that it’s important for those in any country beset by trouble to send reassurances home to make it clear they’re safe when bad news is being reported.

“I continuously send (my family) photos of what was going on around me,” he says. “If you’ve got loved ones that are concerned, then do take that extra step as the traveler to make sure that they’re aware.”

‘Backdoor diplomacy’

As in the past when Myanmar has been in the control of a military junta, there have been calls both from within and without the country to boycott anything that would profit the military — including the many tourism facilities and destinations its generals control.

Andrea Valentin, a former adviser on responsible tourism in Myanmar, says the issue is complicated.

“It’s a bit frivolous to discuss tourism in Myanmar right now, despite all tone deaf attempts of the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism to pretend otherwise,” she says. “It is not simple black and white anymore. It’s not North Korea yet.”

Valentin says that it is still possible to travel in a way that doesn’t help fund the military regime, although it’s difficult and most businesses are in more rural areas.

“Yes, it is still possible to travel responsibly in Myanmar at the minute. There are quite a few places that are even now quite safe and ethical. Before the coup, staying in accommodation that’s not owned by the military was definitely possible.

“There are a few amazing initiatives — which we painstakingly helped build over the last years — and those deserve our support.”

She adds: “We don’t believe in a tourism boycott.”

Though travel planner Dillon isn’t leading any Myanmar trips for the foreseeable future, he refuses to write the country off entirely either.

“Tourism is backdoor diplomacy,” he says. “There’s still a lot of hope for people on the ground there that things can change.”

™ & © 2021 Cable News Network, Inc., a WarnerMedia Company. All rights reserved.

Top image: Famed for its 11th-century temples, Bagan is a popular Myanmar destination. Credit: Getty Images.

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