/ Travel & Leisure

Has Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit tempted you to explore Burma?

My passport has got more than a few stamps from oppressive countries; Cuba, Libya, Mali, and pre-revolutionary Egypt. Burma isn’t one of them, but Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit to the UK might change that.

When I asked the Which? Travel team which oppressed countries they had visited, the list got longer. China, Fiji, Jordan, Malaysia, Mali, Oman, Russia, Thailand, Tunisia, and Turkey were all cited as examples of countries ruled by oppressive regimes that had provided enjoyable visits.

None of us has a stamp from Burma or Tibet, both of which are in the news as the first country opens up to tourism and the second is closed off.

Would you visit Burma or Tibet?

Tibet’s spiritual leader the Dalai Lama is visiting Manchester, London, and Edinburgh this week, while Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is in the UK addressing Oxford University Union and both houses of parliament, after being freed from 24 years under house arrest.

Suu Kyi’s visit to the UK comes as more tour operators start selling holidays to Burma after her party, the National League for Democracy, lifted its request for a boycott on tourism in 2010. Exodus and Wendy Wu Tours are both offering Burma holidays for the first time this year.

Previously tour operators which did go to Burma, like Audley Travel and Cox and Kings, were severely criticised by groups such as Tourism Concern because it was almost impossible to visit the country without contributing to the government, meaning visitors were indirectly supporting the military rulers.

The counter argument was that bringing tourists to Burma would provide some income to local people, allowing them to have contact with Westerners, and letting Westerners see conditions in the country for themselves.

While it may be more acceptable to visit Burma, the Dalai Lama’s visit marks a time when it’s more difficult for Westerners to see what is happening in Tibet for themselves.

China has effectively closed Tibet to foreign tourists, after months of protests against rule by Beijing, and British tour operators are cancelling visits planned for this year. So the Tibetans’ protests will not be seen first-hand by Westerners, if at all.

Holidaying in troubled countries

So should you take a chance and visit places with oppressive governments and bear witness to the struggles? Or stay away to avoid supporting the rulers, no matter how indirectly?

And where do you draw the line? I felt uncomfortable being in Libya, where the signs of a totalitarian state were all around, but not in Tunisia.

But a few years later one young man set himself alight in protest at Tunisian oppression – as Tibetans are doing in protest at Chinese rule – and started the Arab Spring.

The balance has tipped in Burma and now Tourism Concern says the question is not whether to go, but how to behave when you do go. Its answer is to make every effort possible to ensure none of your money goes to the government – including checking who owns the accommodation you will be using and if they are linked to the regime.

But you can’t force every visitor to behave ethically or even think about the issues. To my shame I didn’t think too much about Cuba’s political prisoners when I was on the beach or drinking Mojitos, and how many British tourists on the beaches of Turkey think much about its human rights record?

So can we be a force for good when we visit troubled countries? Or do most of us just ignore the problems and line the pockets of the oppressive regimes?

If you would like to visit Burma or another troubled region or country please check the advice issued by the Foreign Office.


I’m not sure we can be a force for good as it is a point of view.

eg. I’d take China’s answer to policing nightclubs over ours any day of the week. In England there are big burly doormen, normally part of a cartel, who love to get involved with the fights, sell drugs etc. In Shanghai, there was an armed national guard just standing quietly in the corner all night and no-one dared get out of line. Even the drunken woman who climbed the steps to dance on the bar and subsequently fell off did not even raise an eyebrow. I felt more safe than in any UK nightclub.

I believe that most foreign countries problems are way too overblown by the media. Look at the scare stories before the South African world cup, the racism stories before this world cup, sensationalism sells and we have to be mindful of this. In the same way we hear about shootings, stabbings and murder in our own cities but we never see any of them.

I don’t deny that there are issues, but they should never stop you visiting a country, unless it’s at war with someone else! 🙂

“Euros” even

I don’t know why, but to me there is something not quite right about Aung San Suu Kyi. The more I see of her and hear her speak, the more uneasy I get. I, despite all she has been through sense there is a different agenda here to the one we are being told. Anyone else get this or is it just me?

I have never even thought about visiting Burma, and the recent changes have not tempted me. On visiting countries with oppressive regimes, no I have never given a thought to political prisoners whilst visiting, or being too fussed about where my money went.
But then I never gave a thought to our political prisoners we held for years in Irish jails, or about the export of torture equipment, support of totalitarian regimes and illegal wars that our government uses our taxes for.
Maybe we should look closer at what we are doing here, before shooting of for a quick gawk at other nations issues.

I have never been anywhere on holiday, but my work has led me to a few places. Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, South Africa, Nigeria, Papua New Guinea, Saudi Arabia. Now, ask me where I felt most threatened and genuinely frightened (from humans) then I have to say London. Colchester comes a good second.

As Dean implies, there is something re-assuring about a man with a gun who is not shackled with protocols before using it. Yes, there are certainly big issues, but I would rather take my chances with gun toating authority than a gang of knife wielding thugs.