In order to help you prepare for your holiday to Myanmar we have compiled advice and updates over time, to help answer the question – Is it safe (and right) to travel to Myanmar now?
Given the current coronavirus situation, travel to Myanmar is not possible at this time. We have put in place mechanisms to confirm that once any of our destinations open to UK travellers, we at ETG can be confident that you will be safe and able to enjoy a fantastic holiday. You can find out more about this on our Book and Travel with Confidence page.
Beyond Coronavirus, you will have no doubt heard about the military-led coup with Aung San Suu Kyi and her fellow NLD (National League for Democracy) leaders put under arrest and the consequent demonstrations and violence across the country – a shocking, sad, yet not altogether unsurprising turn of events. Feel free to ask us any questions.
February 2021 update on the situation in Myanmar
I would like to address the elephant in our room (beyond Coronavirus) right now – which is what happened in Myanmar over the weekend. As you have probably read, there was a military-led coup with Aung San Suu Kyi and her fellow NLD (National League for Democracy) leaders put under arrest.
A shocking, yet not altogether unsurprising turn of events. It’s just very sad and unsettling and such a setback for the remarkable people of Myanmar, who have already weathered too many years of political unrest. Judging by the level of support the NLD received in the November 2020 elections, there is overwhelming support for a democratic process in the country.
Our in-country partners for Cambodia and Myanmar are an inspirational couple who built their sustainable and values-led business from scratch. They are understandably distraught; though living in Phnom Penh, they are deeply concerned about friends and family directly affected by the coup and now face more angst after nearly a year of no travel. Our thoughts and prayers are with them.
We will continue to monitor the situation and advise if travel is safe and worthwhile, both for the people of Myanmar and for you as travellers. For those who have travelled to Myanmar, I’m sure your thoughts are with the amazing people you met along the way.
October 2018 update on the situation in Myanmar
“I still don’t think you should be promoting holidays to Myanmar” was a comment made to me recently by a thoughtful correspondent. They weren’t a previous client, but they were readers of our newsletters and regularly interacted with our blogs. They had clearly cared about the issue and I felt they deserved a response. Here it is.
Firstly; a disclaimer. In a newsletter, I once encouraged our clients to visit a certain country soon after a natural disaster and my mother told me off: she said it sounded a little self-interested. She told me to recognise my self-interest next time. So, acknowledging that my mother is generally right, I’ll start by saying, that yes, I am partly motivated here by self-interest. Myanmar has been a key destination for Experience Travel Group since 2011 and we have suffered a little (I stress a little; in travel, one expects these issues and must allow for them) in a business sense from the precipitous drop in bookings since the Rohingya crisis made international headlines. I am also very proud of our offering within Myanmar: along with our local partners we have built, over the past 7 years, a fantastic team of guides, drivers and some really unique experiences and routes, both on and off the trodden tourist trail.
I am not here to defend the regime in Myanmar, nor even ‘The Lady’ Aung San Suu Kyi. For one thing, I am not qualified. I haven’t visited Myanmar within the past two years and even if I had, there is very little I would have seen from a political point of view. My contacts are overwhelmingly Burmese and though not pro-Government, they would bring only a limited perspective. I’ve read and seen what others have on the news in the UK. From what I’ve heard, it seems fairly indefensible.
So why then do I think that visitors should continue to visit Myanmar? Well, I don’t quite say that. I think that people should make up their own minds and follow their own conscience. I do think there are good reasons to consider Myanmar for a trip now though. Apart from self-interest, I was motivated to write this by one of our good friends and guides within Myanmar, Nyi Nyi, who recently emailed me. He told me that when asked why visitors should still come to Myanmar, he says: “because isolation doesn’t help humanity and travelling is the best to bind people together”. He added. “I just think that seeing is believing, so please give your clients a chance to experience the beauty of Myanmar and its people”.
The Experience Travel Group team of Guides have trained hard to get where they are, with the majority of them young people who have come of age after the worst of the junta years and were excited by the new possibilities opening up for them.
It’s not just guides of course; the nascent economy developed rapidly after the country opened up in 2011 and countless individuals have been able to build a successful career in the tourism industry. The hotel staff, of course, many of whom are taken on seasonally according to demand, the drivers and jobs associated with transportation, the operations team in the office in Yangon, the boat drivers, the temple workers and monks, the flower sellers and postcard vendors, the list goes on and on. All of whom saw a sharp improvement in living standards after the country opened up in 2011.
Worth noting here that we do not work with a government-owned local operator and never would. We also do our best to avoid military/government-owned or associated enterprises too (that this is not 100% possible). We do try and work with community-owned and funded initiatives that help young people, as we do across Asia. In our recent ‘Not-A-Brochure’ there was a fantastic interview with Khin Hnit Thit Oo, the owner of Linkage Café in Yangon, a restaurant that not only serves fantastic food (and is part of one of ‘Experience Travel Group’s ‘signature’ tours of Yangon) but also trains up young chefs from disadvantaged backgrounds. She had this to say:
“Each trained and successful young chef has the potential to create a butterfly effect in his or her community. One of my students returned to his hometown and became a top chef there. He is now training others and his salary helped his siblings finish high school. Many of the trainees end up supporting their families. When they see that they can create something beautiful in the kitchen and feed people, it leads to a fundamental shift in how they see themselves: they aren’t just a ‘street child’ anymore.”
It is tourism that supports this, both financially and in a sense by showing people that they have skills that are highly valued and can be developed.
I also asked Chris Kingsley, an American who knows Myanmar extremely well and who co-founded the incredible ‘Wa Ale Resort’ in the Mergui Archipelago, what his thoughts were. He told me that “Myanmar is a brand new democracy and mistakes will be made. Please do not hurt the nation of over 70 million people for the mistakes of a few. The country and people need the support and help of the international community. Isolating Myanmar again will be the opposite of what is needed in this struggling nation”.
I should stress that this was his point of view and that everyone should make up their own mind. I’m not sure I’d class the situation as ‘mistakes’ either – but I can understand his point. What does a decision to boycott a country gain anyone? I certainly don’t have any special political insight. I do however, have some insight into how travel, done the right way, with a positive spirit, can improve the lives of people it comes into contact with. It can have grave downsides too, of course, but that’s a blog for another occasion. Suffice to say, the sort of curious travellers that travel with Experience Travel Group are almost uniformly a great boon to the countries they visit. If you had ever considered Myanmar as a destination, don’t write it off now.
And one more thing: Personal Safety Is Not a Concern
Many potential travellers are put off visiting Myanmar at the moment by associated safety concerns. Please bear in mind that the Arakan Mountains separate Rakhine State, the place where the Rohingya population live, and the region which you might visit as a traveller. Myanmar is a massive country and the regions set up for tourism are relatively limited. There are no particular security concerns around Myanmar for the tourist regions at all at the moment.
December 2017 update on the situation in Myanmar:
We’ve been asked by many of our clients about the current situation in Myanmar with the Rohingya people in Rakhine State. They want to know whether it is safe to visit and/or appropriate to travel to the country right now given the situation there. We have seen a falling off in demand, though several clients have recently travelled. We wanted to give our own perspective so our clients can make up their own minds.
From a political point of view, so far as the reality of what is going on in Rakhine state is concerned, we only know what everyone else can see on the news. Clearly, many people don’t suddenly start moving away from their homes unless there is a very compelling reason to do so. There is a human tragedy of fairly epic proportions unfolding and the situation doesn’t seem to be improving. If anything, the journalists that are reaching the area report that the situation is deteriorating. So far, so grim. Along with everyone else, we’d implore the Government of Myanmar to do everything they can to bring the situation to a peaceful resolution. We cannot speak for Aung Suu Kyi of course, but the incumbent State Counsellor has less room for manoeuvre than some people might imagine. We hope she is doing whatever she can along with the rest of the Government. The military is still the ultimate power in Myanmar.
In so far as the safety aspects of the situation are concerned, we can be more categorical. Geographically, the Rakhine State is cut off by the Arakan mountain range which divides the Rakhine coastline from Central Burma Basin. Historically, this has been the great divide cutting off South East Asia from the Indian sub-continent. Given this enormous geographical barrier, there is absolutely no change at all in the security situation for tourists, and the principal tourist sites of Myanmar remain entirely safe to visit. Around the fringes of Myanmar, there are more than a few insurgent ethnic groups, active or dormant and there have been for the past 60 or so years. They do not pose a threat to tourists visiting the huge area from Yangon, through to Mandalay, Bagan and Inle – and down south towards the Mergui. The FCO website provides a fair summary on their site here.
In terms of the ethics of visiting a country where you are fundamentally at odds with the government, we believe everyone should make up their own mind. We do know that the people of Myanmar are desperate for tourists to visit and feel somewhat misunderstood by the outside world. Of course, our local partners, guides and general suppliers are as far from the political situation on the ground as we are and they are very keen for us to get the message out there that they depend on visitors for their livelihoods. We don’t believe that travel sanctions applied prior to 2011 against Myanmar were effective and we think that the opening up of the country meant an improvement in the lives of ordinary people throughout the country.
As mentioned, we have had a few clients travel in October and November and all of our clients who had already booked decided to go ahead with their travels. We asked them what they thought on their return and we had the following comments. Due to the sensitive nature of the subject matter, we have decided not to publish any names:
“From the very start, we felt at home. Yes we went with some trepidation as we’d read that food wasn’t very good and the hotels left much to be desired. Added to that the recent International press coverage of the events in Northern Rakhine – which we were aware of way before we even started to plan our trip but the timing and the highlighting of the problem led us to query our plans. However, food and hotels were good, but the people were lovely. How could we have not gone and missed all those happy, smiley faces? All those people who are worried that tourism has dropped and their livings depend upon it – no social security there. We are going to miss Mingalabar!”
HAVE ANY MORE QUESTIONS ABOUT THE SITUATION IN MYANMAR?
Please don’t hesitate to ask us – give us a call on 020 7924 7133.