Tourism in Burma
- The beginnings of modern tourism in Burma can perhaps be traced to the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, which dramatically cut seaborne travel time between Europe and Asia, or to the opening of the Strand Hotel on the waterfront of Rangoon (Yangon) in 1901, providing the colonial capital with its first international class hotel. After World War I, steamships remained the most important means of getting to Burma from Europe, but Rangoon was also linked with Europe and South Asia by air, principally by British carrier Imperial Airways, and the Strand had several competitors. The unwillingness of Western tourists to take off their shoes and stockings upon entering the compounds of pagodas, the "Shoe Question," became a major political controversy following World War I. Travelers wanted to see the famous Shwe Dagon Pagoda up close, but their qualms about going shoeless were interpreted by Burmese activists as disrespect to the Buddhist religion. World War II and insurgency following Burma's achievement of independence from British colonial rule in 1948 hampered development of the tourism sector, but before Ne Win established the Revolutionary Council in March 1962, Rangoon was well-equipped with tourism facilities compared with many other Asian capitals, including one of the region's more modern airports in Mingaladon Township. The Ne Win regime (1962-1988) adopted a policy of isolationism, which included the banning of foreign tourists (travelers could only lay over in Rangoon for 24 hours), although seven-day visas were introduced in 1970 to generate foreign exchange. Facilities, including the now-decrepit Strand Hotel, were minimal, and travelers found the dual currency system (use of U.S. dollars in some places and kyats in others) confusing and inconvenient. But Union of Burma Airways, the national carrier, took the more intrepid foreign tourists to Inle Lake in Shan State, Mandalay, and Pagan (Bagan), places that remain the top three tourist destinations outside of Rangoon in the early 21st century. From Mandalay, tourists customarily have visited nearby sites, such as the old royal capitals Ava (Inwa), Amarapura, and Sagaing, and the colonial-era hill station Maymyo (Pyin Oo Lwin).After 1988, the State Law and Order Restoration Council made development of the tourism sector a top priority, hoping to emulate neighboring Thailand, where tourism generates billions of U.S. dollars in revenue annually. Tourist visas were extended from 7 to 28 days. But the SLORC faced opposition from Aung San Suu Kyi and her international supporters, who urged foreigners not to visit because tourism dollars allegedly helped keep the military regime in power. In preparation for "Visit MyanmarYear" in 1996-1997, new luxury hotels were constructed in Rangoon, Mandalay, and elsewhere; private airlines were set up as joint ventures with foreign companies; and tourist sites were upgraded (including the moat around Mandalay Palace, which was allegedly renovated using forced labor). The impact of tourism on the environment has been controversial; a 60-meter concrete tower was opened at Pagan in 2005 for the benefit of tourists who wanted a view of the plain, dotted with pagodas and temples, but the structure has been criticized for being too large and poorly designed. Formerly inaccessible parts of the country, such as the Mergui (Myeik) Archipelago, have been opened for tourism exploitation, but this has often had negative impacts on local people, such as the Mokens ("Sea Gypsies"), who live among the islands. Because of poor infrastructure and the continuing international boycott movement, it is unlikely that Burma will rival Thailand as a tourism destination in the near future, but its hospitable people and historic, often beautiful landscapes promise travelers a taste of an "unspoiled" Asia.
Historical Dictionary of Burma (Myanmar). Donald M. Seekins . 2014.
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