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“Now’s the time to visit Burma – because soon it will have changed.” Such has been the sentiment so often expressed since Burma opened its doors to the outside world in 2010. But how true is it?
How has Burma changed in the past five years, and what are we to expect in the years to come? Should we really all drop everything and rush to the airport? What impact will this sudden influx of visitors have on this unstable and undeveloped country?
As most people know, right now Burma is at a crossroads. After 20 years of almost total isolation from the outside world, visitors have now been allowed into the country for coming up to five years. Last year the government introduced e-visas for travellers arriving in Yangon, while at the beginning of this year these were extended to include arrivals in Mandalay – encompassing the vast majority of arrivals by plane into Burma. This, coupled with improved border crossings from Thailand for overland travellers, means that getting into Burma is easier now than it has ever been.
Lots of new investment means that hotels and businesses are springing up thick and fast to cater to new demand, which in turn means that prices for travellers (which were initially rather steep) are beginning to fall, whilst standards continue to rise.
Meanwhile, though an influx of tourism in recent years has, of course, caused some things to change; Burma is still early enough in its development that it has been relatively unspoilt by globalisation – still (thankfully) lacking in Starbucks and McDonalds, and still markedly more traditional than either its Southeast Asian or its South Asian neighbours. This combination of ease of travel and a relative lack of development makes Burma a very attractive destination for travel today.
Burma is not, however, a nation pickled in aspic. It is very easy (and many have done so) to overstate the country’s lack of development and paint a picture of a land untouched by time. In reality, Burma is currently at a point of great change – its cities are growing and shifting, full of energy and dynamism – and this in itself is something to behold. The downside of such development is clear – but not all change is bad.
Burma is still one of the poorest nations in Asia and there is still a very long way to go before it can really be considered free of oppression and corrupt military control, but already the abolition of media censorship, access to the internet and the opening up of international relations has meant leaps and bounds in personal and political freedom. Visitors must continue to exercise caution with regards to politically sensitive topics when speaking to locals, but many subjects that were once taboo are now back on the menu.
As is always the case, the prosperity brought by expanding tourism comes at a certain cost, and it seems inevitable that certain areas of Burma will eventually be “spoilt” – becoming well-trodden haunts for Western backpackers as has already happened in Thailand and even in certain parts of Vietnam.
In the face of impending globalisation it is tempting to take the romantic view and to wish that Burma had never opened its doors to visitors – but in reality, Burma sorely needs this change. Nobody can pretend that Burma was better off beneath the grip of its military dictatorship, and sustainable, responsible travel will help to invigorate local communities and support small businesses in very real need of a boost.
Don’t visit Burma expecting to find a time capsule – visit to see a country in the midst of dramatic and exciting change. Educate yourself about the country’s culture political situation and use your tourist dollars to bring life local businesses. Regardless of what happens in the next few years – Burma is, and always will be, a unique and fascinating country distinct in style and character from its neighbours, so yes – now is very much the time to visit.