The Irrawaddy‘s William Boot has recently penned an article on the Western tourism boycott of Burma and the junta’s continuing battle to attract foreign travellers. It prompted me to ask some questions.

The tourism boycott is one of those simmering, emotive, activist causes that appear simple to comprehend but – no matter what position an individual deigns to take – a lot of questions remain unanswered. After years of encouraging Westerners to “take the pledge” and boycott tourism to Burma (as even Tony Blair has done) we still know very little about the impact of these efforts.

In a small attempt to clarify the boycott’s impact, searching for “Burma Travel” (an innocuous and common enough search query) in a popular search engine brings up a pro-boycott website as the 30th link – way down on the third page. This is respectable but, after maintaining a big Internet pro-boycott presence for years, it still isn’t exactly high exposure! Potential tourists will wade through a sea of tourism sites before the boycott advocates get a chance to get their message out. Of course, the real questions aren’t about search engine optimisation and Internet visibility. The real questions are about the impact of the tourism boycott on the situation inside Burma.

Some very informative material, produced by the Burma Campaign UK, attempts to answer some of the most pressing questions about the tourism boycott. But their literature, as compelling as it is, only prompts me to ask more questions and probe further into the murky depths of Burma’s tourist economy. I thought that The Burma Campaign’s thoroughly researched “Dirty list” might be a good place to start. It highlights travel companies, and other enterprises, that do business in Burma. As an example of their style, they describe one “dirty” travel company in the following terms:

Insight Guides is an independent publishing company that produce holiday guides, including a guide to Burma that promotes tourism to the country. Aung San Suu Kyi has asked tourists not to visit Burma because it helps fund the regime and gives it legitimacy. Forced and child labour was used to develop many tourist facilities.

This type of description – while it no doubt appeals to activists and their natural allies – probably doesn’t convince too many other people.

To probe issues that I feel are not adequately explored, I have some questions that I think are worth asking about the tourism boycott. If you have questions of your own, feel free to jump in and post them as comments. If, on New Mandala, we can assemble a selection of probing questions, then I would be keen to write to boycott advocates and ask for their responses. It would be great to hear what they have to say. For everybody’s benefit, it would also be great to get more discussion going on this important, lightening rod issue.

Some initial questions immediately spring to mind:

  • Can we quantify the impact that the boycott has had on the Burmese tourist industry or the Burmese junta? How many people who are actually serious about a trip to Burma have been detered by the tourism boycott? I think the number, to be fair, is probably pretty high. Over the years many hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of potential travelers have probably avoided the country, even if they have never formally signed a “pledge” to do so. But that’s only my hunch. Is there a good way of quantifying this? Some interesting hypothesis testing could be done. It’s in everybody’s interest (whether Burmese or engaged outsider) to have better information about the impact of the boycott.
  • How well do we actually understand the structure of Burma’s tourist industry? Who are the owners and what do the profits eventually fund? Where do “average” tourists spend their money? How much really money goes to the government? These are tough questions and opinions tend to dominate in this sphere. Are we in the potentially problematic situation where it is the Lonely Planet guide titled Myanmar (Burma) (9th edition – page 25), with its guesstimates on this issue, is the best study of individual tourist spending on the Burmese economy?
  • Who does the tourism boycott actually hurt? To rephrase this question – did Thandar Shwe’s wedding attire miss an extra diamond accessory because of the Burma tourism boycott?
  • How does the Western tourist boycott (and the efforts that have gone in to encouraging it) shape up compared to the other commercial activities in Burma that go on unhindered by boycotts? Is a boycott that can’t bring Thai, Chinese or Indian consumers (or celebrities) on board a waste of effort? Western-focussed campaigns only target a small fraction of the people who are potential travelers to Burma. I can see that back in the mid-1990s, back when Burma boycotts really started to take off, that regional economic dynamics were different. But now, with more border crossings from neighbouring countries and with wealthier tourists from across Asia travelling to Burma, should the focus of boycotts shift to discouraging these Asian travelers? Is this feasible? Who could craft such a pan-regional message and fund it so that the impact of any boycott in Burma would be profound?
  • And so what about encouraging boycotts within Asia? What about a Thai-language anti-tourism campaign? Would anybody have the courage, or conviction, to, say, run a sustained Thai language campaign in Mae Sai against crossing the river to Burma? Would it be worth it, just to deter the Thai middle class from shopping for bootleg DVDs and knockoff handbags on the Burmese side? If high principles are at stake, and I think that many people feel that there are, then a campaign from the Thai side of the border seems like a logical way forward. Has this been tried? I hope so. Why haven’t I ever seen tourism boycott material in Thai in Mae Sai?

Answering some of these questions, and putting the answers in the context of today’s regional economic and political interactions, would be a tough task. However, it would be great if somebody took on this challenge. Any report on the boycott that actually got some answers to some of these issues would be well worth reading. Properly researched and written with flair, it could probably also generate a great deal of interest around the world.

That Aung San Suu Kyi has repeatedly asked tourists to boycott the country will still be good enough for many. It will encourage them to stay away, and make them feel like they are making a contribution through “avoided tourism”. But is this much the same as the “avoided deforestation” schemes that I questioned earlier in the week? Is it just as hard to quantify and police? Is it just as hard to identify the winners and the losers? Is it just as easy to get swept up in partisan judgments?

This is an issue that is crying out for some rigorous, non-partisan research. I am sure that many potential tourists may actually want to see some evidence that, after long years of effort, the tourism boycott is actually having an impact. Some people will want to know that avoiding travel to Burma actually matters beyond just making them feel warm and fuzzy. Some people will want to know that the there is an impact, and that the boycott is worthwhile.

People will also want to know that the alternatives – one of which is opening the country to large-scale tourism – are worse options. To convince the skeptics, lots of questions still need to be answered.