The position of tourism in the economies and societies of mainland Southeast Asia has been a common theme since we started New Mandala in June 2006. Back in November, I instigated a discussion on the Burma tourism “boycott” debate. This debate touches on a raft of related topics that I feel are worth much further reflection. Of course, academic analysis of tourism requires, at all times, a significant amount of self-reflection. In many cases, the line between the “tourist” and those who see themselves as professional “scholars”, “activists” or “adventurers” blurs. This is inevitable. We do, of course, need to remain aware of the resulting ambiguities.

On the topic of tourism to Burma, New Mandala readers may be keen to check out Voices for Burma‘s provocative material. The policy of Voices for Burma is that:

Tourists to Burma, if they are not extremely careful, can end up funding and supporting one of the world’s most repugnant and genocidal regimes, and providing yet another reason for the government to abuse, murder and torture its people. Don’t want this on your conscience? Think before you go!

It is possible, however, for tourists in their own small way, to make a real and positive difference. To achieve this, visitors must be aware of the current situation and mindful of their own actions. Make sure your money goes to the people, not international chains or the regime. Keep your eyes open, and report any abuses when you leave. Listen, learn and enjoy. Consider ways in which you can help when you get back.

For anybody with a deeper interest, the rest of Voices for Burma is well worth browsing.

More generally, tourism in Southeast Asia is a political issue and one on which many people have strong opinions. Even the terms of any debate – about boycotts, carbon offsetting or anything else – are widely contested. This is healthy. As I see it, arguments about the ethics and practicalities of tourism need to be given a much wider airing.

Today, the Sydney Morning Herald features a long article on specialised tours to Burma’s northwest, to Naga country. This article contains material and anecdote that may help to fuel debate about tourism in the Burmese context. The article is based on a tour to January’s Naga New Year festival.

It is peppered with interesting tour operator opinion:

Truly remote locales like the Naga villages in Burma attract only a trickle of tourists, said Win Tin, managing director of the Journey Nature and Culture Exploration travel agency in Yangon.

His agency provides a trip from Yangon for about $US1300 ($A1686) to join the festival, including the journey by plane, boat and jeep to the ceremonial site.

The price tag is expensive because transportation and communication is so difficult, Win Tin said. Some of the money goes directly to the Nagas, which has helped them make small improvements in their living standards, he adds.

“If we look overall, the Naga new year festival is not only good for their tribe, but also good as a source of business,” he says.

“Their lifestyle has changed a little as more visitors go there. In the past they didn’t wear clothes and they had little sanitation. Now they have more awareness of their health.

“But I don’t want this festival to become part of mass tourism, because I don’t want it to have any negative impact on their tribe, nature and culture,” he adds.

Any travel in military-controlled Burma is controversial because democracy activists fear the tourist money will end up in the hands of the ruling generals.

The full article contains other useful anecdotes on this tourism “frontier”. More than most parts of the country, Burma’s northwest is politically sensitive and, certainly, remote. I have, on occasion, found myself in places not too far from those mentioned in this article. For lots of reasons, I probably wouldn’t recommend the area as a destination – tourist or otherwise – to my family or friends.

That judgment is, however, missing the real point. There are obviously people willing to pay top dollar to be chaperoned around the most “exotic” and most remote destinations in the world. Any of these “frontier” destinations is potentially controversial on environmental, social or political grounds. Burma’s farthest corners are no exception.

Issues of culture, politics, economics and prestige are all tied up in these tours to Burma’s wild west. They are but a small part of a never-ending quest for “authentic” exotica. Regardless of how misguided one might consider such a quest, it seems certain that these kinds of tours will continue regardless of mainstream boycotts. The market for a “frontier experience” shows no signs of being extinguished by extraneous factors.

There are no easy answers to any of the issues that are posed by tourism and, in particular, by tourism to places like Burma’s northwest borderlands.

As I see it, tourism is one of the world’s most dynamic and profitable businesses. All its aspects need to be further debated – no matter how unpalatable the conversation becomes or how controversial the issues may seem. As I noted earlier, scholarly expeditions and fieldwork should be drawn into any such debate. “Professional” travel also throws up its own special issues. Importantly, these cannot always be neatly divorced from the issues posed by tourism.

New Mandala reader thoughts on this ethical and practical jumble are strongly encouraged.