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Burma/Myanmar 2012 – the World’s New Hot Destination. What Does it All Mean for tourism?

We’ve seen amazing things happening in 2012 so far in Burma/Myanmar.

As every person who has any interest in the country knows, it is generally accepted that free and fair elections took place in the past week. The opposition won 43 out of 46 contested seats and the  government has acknowledged this.  Aung San Suu Kyi will have a seat in parliament and for all one knows, may even be offered a cabinet post. While these elections were very limited in scope (more like by-elections than national elections), they do show that the government seemingly does want to reform the political landscape. How far this will go is anybody’s guess – it seems inconceivable that these could be the first baby steps towards full civilian rule in Burma again,  but then strange things have happened in my own lifetime, living through the handing over of power in South Africa from the white Nationalist Party to the African National Congress and Nelson Mandela – something that looked totally impossible only a few years before.

The reaction from the rest of the world to the current events in Burma has been very promising. The United States has appointed its first ambassador in a decade and other nations are looking at upping diplomatic ties and reducing or cancelling economic sanctions. It seems very likely that the current pace of events, Burma will very soon lose its pariah status completely.

Now what does this all mean for tourism?

Quite a lot actually.

Firstly, Burma is no longer undiscovered. For now it will still appeal to more adventurous travelers, but this will change rapidly as it becomes absorbed into the “regular” South East Asian tourist circuit. It is likely that within a few years it will be where Laos is, and will eventually catch up to Vietnam and Cambodia.  In Burma they are targeting 1 million tourists for 2012, up from only 300,000 in 2011.

As economic sanctions fall away, it will become much easier to travel in Burma. Credit cards are likely to be accepted soon, and the days of having to travel with wads of perfect US dollar bills will be behind us.

The country is already becoming more expensive. Never particularly cheap compared with its neighbors, hotel prices are now sing very rapidly, and soon this will be mirrored by the other tourist services – guides, transport, food and more. Prepare to have to spend a lot more.

With luck more of the country will soon open up to foreigners. At the moment vast areas are closed to foreigners and one has to apply for special permits which are regularly denied (depending on the current state of internal affairs).

There is already a lack of hotel rooms in Myanmar. Soon we will see Western hotel chains at the major sites. At the moment hotels are either locally owned, or owned by large Asian companies.

In all likelihood we will see a rush of new travel guides enter the market. Lonely Planet has been publishing a guide to Myanmar for years, but Rough Guides and all the other major publishers are likely to jump on the bandwagon soon.

So, at this early stage, the following seems clear – we will see a vast increase in tourism to Burma and the growth of tourism services. Prices will go up. It will be easier to travel.  I am concerned though that what I find to be the most endearing trait of the Burmese people might eventually be lost, and that is their absolute, no holds-barred friendliness – they are certainly the most genuine people I have come across on my travels – happy to help with no expectation of monetary reward. Unfortunately in so many other places in the world we have seen the local people adapt very quickly to the arrival of mass foreign travelers and their money – people simply join in the global chase after the tourist dollar – and that authentic and genuine attitude sometimes falls to the wayside. I hope it doesn’t happen in Burma.

I am convinced that the time to go is now. Some of the innocence will be lost before long.

It’ll never be too late – but go now if you can.