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Myanmar opens doors in pursuit of tourist cash

While the ruling junta has said it is easing visa restrictions to improve its image, others fear the money will go towards buying arms.

YANGON / BAGAN // As ever more travellers seek trips off the beaten track, the Myanmar military government is encouraging tourists to come to the country - still subject to a tourism boycott campaign - by easing visa restrictions. The introduction of visas on arrival for all nationalities, made in a surprise announcement by the government at the end of last month, is an unprecendented opening of the country to outsiders.

Visits by foreigners have been banned or limited to seven days for selected periods since military rule was established in 1962. Today, apart from a couple of one-day visit exceptions, land borders are officially sealed to tourists who must fly in and out of Yangon or Mandalay. Myanmar tour operators are already reporting increased inquiries and visits from tourists. Previously tourists would have to apply for a visa at one of the few Myanmar embassies abroad.

"We had one group of tourists who rebooked a trip they had cancelled because of the difficulties of getting a visa," said Kerstin Jung, the general manager of Gracious Myanmar, an agency based in Yangon. Sources close to the government have said the regime wants to increase tourism and improve its image. But Myanmar analysts believe the new system does not signal a fundamental change in the junta's closed regime. The reasons for the new system are increased revenues for the ruling junta, they say - directly linking tourism to support of the regime.

"This is not about Burma [Myanmar] opening up," said Mark Farmaner, the director of Burma Campaign UK, a pro-democracy group which advises against tourism to Myanmar. "There have been clear signals that in the run up to the elections [due later this year] that foreigners will not be allowed in, and development workers may even be told to leave." The revenues in US dollars, achieved through foreign investment and tourism, are needed by the junta for its foreign exchange reserves.

"The junta need the money for buying arms and other foreign goods," said one Myanmar analyst who asked to remain anonymous. More than a decade ago the regime identified tourism as a key potential source of income and sought to encourage tourists with "Visit Myanmar Year" in 1996. It was widely reported that forced labour was used to build tourist infrastructure and more than a million people were displaced to make way for faciltiies such as in Bagan, a vast Buddhist temple site dating to the 12th century.

A successful tourism boycott was launched in several countries in response to calls from Myanmar's democracy movement, causing several companies and airlines to stop running trips to the country. Almost 15 years later the boycott is less publicised, but continues to be the position of pro-democracy campaigners and interest groups who say they will campaign again if the new visa policy shows signs of success.

Myanmar's regime claims it earns US$100 million (Dh367m) a year from tourism - or more than $1 billion since it came to power in 1988. It spends over 40 per cent of its budget on the military. For critics of the Myanmar junta - which is unlikely to relinquish rule despite elections - tourism is directly linked to the junta's brutal crackdowns on ethnic groups. "There is no good in going on holiday to Burma," Mr Farmaner said. "For the ethnic people there is a direct link between tourism and increasing crimes against humanity against them. When tourism increased in the nineties, the army doubled, and people suffered more."

But the visa on arrival has been welcomed by travel agents and local people involved in the tourism industry. "We need more tourists or we have no way of making a living," said Hisham, a rickshaw driver in Mandalay. "Without foreigners I can make only one US dollar a day." For some, the push is good for raising foreigners' awareness of the situation in Myanmar. "Tell people to come, to see, and to tell other people," said Lu Maw, one of the three Moustache Brothers, a comedy and vaudeville troupe clampded down on by the regime for links to the pro-democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi and criticism of the junta.

The effect of the new visa policy remains to be seen. Tourist arrivals to Myanmar have risen gradually over the last decade but remain extremely low. According to United Nations figures, tourist arrivals - mainly from Asia - rose from 208,000 in 2000 to 248,000 in 2008. "The visa will help but people will still be put off by international sanctions on Myanmar and tour operators in some countries are told not to do any business here," said Kyaw Swar Phyo, the director of Myathiri Travel and Tours.

"I have met travellers from Italy, Spain and Germany where the boycott wasn't pushed who didn't even know there was a dictatorship in Myanmar," Mr Farmaner said. "It is these travellers who are likely to be attracted by the visa on arrival." foreign.desk@thenational.ae

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