Blogging back the tourists

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Tourists take photos of sunset over the temples of Bagan.
Photo: Thiri Lu / The Myanmar Times

ASEAN journalists and bloggers are called in to repair Myanmar tourism’s tarnished image 

The New York Times, arguably the world’s most famous newspaper, this week published an article calling Yangon one of the world’s most unsafe cities. Despite the dubious metric used by the author to arrive at that conclusion, it’s little wonder the question “is Myanmar safe?” sits heavy in the minds of would-be visitors to the golden land. 

But as Myanmar’s image suffers under scrutiny from international media and foreign governments in the wake of the Rakhine crisis, ethical concerns and questions over safety aren’t limited simply to backpackers and elderly tour groups.

“Nine out of ten people ask. Even [travel writers] that travel a lot, so think about the perceptions of other people who don’t travel a lot,” said May Zune Win, a travel blogger and founder of local tour company ET Tours.

In Feburary, she helped organise Myanmar’s First ASEAN Travel Media & Bloggers Trip (FAM), a weeklong tour of Myanmar for travel journalists and bloggers based in the region, as part of efforts to repair the country’s tarnished image abroad. 

“The main important thing was not to show how beautiful Myanmar is but to show how safe Myanmar is,” she said.  

In total, 28 journalists and bloggers from all ten ASEAN countries participated. Despite the group not straying from the well-trodden tourist trail, visiting Yangon, Bagan and Inle lake, organisers had a tough time assuring the cohort that they were nowhere near conflict zones on the border of Rakhine state and Bangladesh. 

“I had to point out on a map how far Rakhine state is away from Yangon,” said May Zune Win. “We always missed dinners because we would have to answer journalist’s questions like ‘what is my opinion on the Rakhine issue’.”

Last August, deadly attacks on police border posts by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army prompted brutal clearance operations by the Tatmadaw that resulted in more than 700,000 minority Muslims from northern Rakhine fleeing across the border to Bangladesh.  

The emergence of reports of atrocities committed by soldiers and armed civilian mobs during the operations has resulted in widespread international condemnation of Myanmar’s civilian and military leaders. 

While the government has said the effect on tourism of international condemnation over the treatment of the Muslim minority was negligible, tourist arrivals didn’t reach the government target last year. 

Tourist arrivals from Europe and the US fell by 20 percent last year compared with the previous year.

Natural disaster and H1N1 were to blame, Myint htwe, deputy director  general of Myanmar’s Ministry of Hotels and Tourism, told Bloomberg last month. 

The downturn might not worry the government but it’s causing the tourism industry to change tack. It plans to lure more tourists from Asia over the next two years and it needs the help of foreign media.

“I didn’t think Myanmar is unsafe but I have questions about the convenience for a Muslim to travel around Myanmar,” said Ali Imran, a journalist at Malaysian National News Agency, who partook in FAM.

Malaysia, Myanmar’s predominantly Muslim neighbor, has been outspoken about the treatment of Myanmar’s Muslim minority.

 In 2016, Malaysia made up 3.45pc of all tourist arrivals, according to government statistics.  

“It’s because in a country with a Buddhist majority I am not sure if [Muslims] can find halal food, suitable toilets or fight the perception about Muslims.”

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