Pick up the latest issue of any travel magazine and there is one destination on everyone’s lips for 2012: Burma. National Geographic Traveller credits this forgotten corner of Asia for “creating some of the biggest buzz for this year”, with its “heady blend of exotic landscapes and rich colonial history”; it’s the stand-out winner of Wanderlust’s Emerging Destinations feature and top of Condé Nast Traveller’s Destinations to Watch list.
Adventure travel providers and bloggers have also caught the Burma bug, with companies like Journeys of Distinction, Explore, Wild Frontiers and Regent Holidays beginning to package and promote tours. The release of the film “The Lady” on 30 December about the life of Nobel Peace Prize-winner Aung San Suu Kyi has also whet people’s interest in this intrepid country, with its “mist-covered lakes and hills, to its golden Buddhas and diamond-studded pagodas” (Condé Nast Traveller).
Unlike Thailand, Laos and Malaysia, Burma has not enjoyed the same expansion and benefits of the tourism industry. Fewer than 750,000 tourists enter the country annually, compared to Thailand’s 19.1 million. Primarily this is due to an unofficial tourism boycott called 15 years ago by the National League for Democracy (NLD) in protest of its leader, Ms Suu Kyi’s house arrest. Her release in November 2010 and the subsequent reforms by president Thein Sein (lifting the ban on trade unions and the gradual release of political prisoners) seems to have marked a turning point in Burma’s approach and her relationship with the outside world. Ms Suu Kyi has since confirmed that she will run for office in April’s by-elections, the Association of South-Eastern Asian Nations (Asean) members have approved Burma's bid for Asean chair in 2014, and Hillary Clinton became the first US secretary of state to visit the country in more than 50 years, when she met President Sein last November.
For tourists, a move to a more open and democratic Burma is beneficial, but public and political opinion remains polarised about visiting. In particular, there are still concerns that larger tourism bodies and official tours may continue to support and finance the military junta, who took over the country in 1962. Human rights activists also point to the thousand or so political prisoners who are still held in the country in spite of the recent releases.
But tourism can have benefits to a country starting to uncurl to the world -- as Senior NLD leader U Win Tin has expressed: “We want people to come to Burma, not to help the junta, but to help the people by understanding the situation: political, economic, moral, everything” -- providing of course that the local people and local economy benefits. If you have concerns, ask your tour operator about what is included in the package.
This is Burma’s year for so many reasons. Wanderlust sums it up well as “a country that, in the past six months, has gone from being the world’s most controversial travel destination to, potentially, its most exciting”. We would have to agree.
Whether Burma’s top of your 2012 Hit List or not, check out our Adventure page for more inspiring ideas.