Myanmar’s tourism dreams pierced by Ro­hingya cri­sis

Global Times - Weekend - - TRAVEL -

Only a few years ago Bey­once and Jay-Z were pos­ing for photos among Myanmar’s famed tem­ples, herald­ing the former junta-run coun­try’s rise as one of the hottest new tourist des­ti­na­tions on the map.

But that dream is crack­ing as images of burnt vil­lages and Mus­lim Ro­hingya flee­ing army-led vi­o­lence in western Rakhine shock the globe, spark­ing out­rage over a stag­ger­ing scale of hu­man suf­fer­ing that has fes­tered along the bor­der.

Ever since the blood­shed broke out in late Au­gust, tourism op­er­a­tors have wit­nessed a cas­cade of can­cel­la­tions, rip­pling fear through a nascent in­dus­try that was gear­ing up for its high sea­son in Oc­to­ber.

“Al­most all the trips sched­uled for Oc­to­ber and Novem­ber have been can­celled due to in­sta­bil­ity in the coun­try, be­cause of the sit­u­a­tion in Rakhine State,” said Tun Tun Naing from New Fan­tas­tic Asia Trav­els and Tour, an agency that leads trips to the pris­tine beaches and mist-shrouded lakes that dot the lush coun­try.

“Most groups in Ja­pan, Aus­tralia and other Asian coun­tries cited se­cu­rity rea­sons and some Euro­peans have clearly said they boy­cotted be­cause of the hu­man­i­tar­ian sit­u­a­tion,” he told AFP.

In Yangon, a bustling city known for its crum­bling colo­nial ar­chi­tec­ture, some for­eign tourists could still be seen cir­cling the gilded Sh­wedagon Pagoda that looms over the former cap­i­tal.

But they ad­mit­ted that the on­go­ing cri­sis is an awk­ward back­drop for their hol­i­day.

“It’s very sad to see what the coun­try is be­com­ing, our guide told us that Mus­lims were dan­ger­ous and that they were not Burmese [Myan­mese],” said French tourist Chris­tine, who de­clined to give her sur­name, of a cri­sis that has spiked re­li­gious ten­sions in the Bud­dhist ma­jor­ity coun­try.

Some dis­tin­guished guests are also keep­ing their dis­tance, with Prince Charles, heir to the Bri­tish throne, and his wife Camilla de­cid­ing to skip a stop in the former colony dur­ing an au­tumn tour of Asia.

There are fears the refugee cri­sis could throw Myanmar’s fledg­ling tourism sec­tor back to the dark days un­der mil­i­tary rule, when many trav­ellers passed over the pariah state to avoid lin­ing the pock­ets of gen­er­als who bru­tally sup­pressed hu­man rights.

All that had started to change af­ter the army ini­ti­ated a tran­si­tion to par­tial democ­racy in 2011.

The move saw Western sanc­tions lifted as for­eign tourists flocked to land­scapes un­spoiled by the crowds and travel in­fra­struc­ture that has mush­roomed else­where in the re­gion.

The first half of 2017 kicked off well with a 22 per­cent in­crease in vis­i­tors com­pared to the pre­vi­ous year, ac­cord­ing to fig­ures from the Min­istry of Tourism, which hopes to double the num­ber of an­nual ar­rivals to 7.5 mil­lion by 2020.

But at the end of Au­gust, western Rakhine was in flames. Raids by mobs of poorly-armed Ro­hingya mil­i­tants prompted a mil­i­tary back­lash so bru­tal the UN says it likely amounts to eth­nic cleans­ing of the Mus­lim mi­nor­ity.

More than half a mil­lion Ro­hingya have fled to neigh­bor­ing Bangladesh in two months, car­ry­ing tes­ti­mony of killings, rape and ar­son at the hands of sol­diers and Bud­dhist mobs.

A few hours south of the con­flict zone in Rakhine state lies Mrauk-U, an an­cient cap­i­tal and hal­lowed ar­chae­o­log­i­cal site. Two months into the cri­sis, lo­cals say the site is empty of the tourists nor­mally buzzing around its ru­ins.

“All peo­ple who live on tourism are out of work now,” guide Aung Soe Myint told AFP.

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