Is Myanmar Safe? And Should You Go?

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The Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon.
Photo: Getty

Is it okay to vacation in a country where ethnic cleansing is happening right now?

Mass atrocities Reporters sentenced to prison Hundreds of thousands homeless. And you’re supposed to go there for a good time?

Less than a decade ago, most travelers avoided Myanmar on the advice of then-political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi. But after the country began a halting transition to democracy in 2010—and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited in 2011—the destination quickly became a must-visit darling of intrepid travelers as well as the media: “Burma, whose official name is Myanmar, may finally be emerging from half a century of isolation and brutal misrule,”Brook Larmer wrote for Condé Nast Traveler back in 2012. “I have always had qualms about taking a holiday in Burma,” Larmer wrote, adding that with the country “relaxing politically, travelers are flooding in—and I am joining them, eager to see the country as a traveler would.” In November 2015, the influential Virtuoso network of travel agents named Myanmar one of the hottest emerging destinations, behind only Cuba, Iceland, and Croatia.

Less than three years later, the morality of visiting has become cloudy once again. Should we visit a nation where the military has committed genocide against the Muslim minority Rohingya, according to many observers, forcing more than half a million people to flee for refugee camps in Bangladesh or beyond, as the U.N. reports? (The U.N. goes so far as to call it a “example of ethnic cleansing.”) Should we vacation in a place where hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people are living in similar camps in Kachin and Shan states, in Myanmar’s north? Many of our readers are asking. “My friend and I were supposed to visit end of November to December, but we canceled our bookings when the news about the Rohingya came out,” one user wrote  in Condé Nast Traveler’s 524 Women Who Travel Facebook group. “I refuse to visit any countries that oppress people with such brutality,” wrote another.

Others, meanwhile, don’t see a problem with going. Myanmar is “definitely a place to go before tourism hits,” one user wrote on January 24. Another asked for a “guest house or overall recommendations? Looking for the whole country!” adding that hers was “(not a political post),” an apparent acknowledgement that even researching a Myanmar trip can be fraught. Even those within the travel industry—whose livelihood depends on sending people to Myanmar—are grappling with the issue.

“This has been keeping me up at nights for sure,” says Tyler Dillon, a travel specialist with Trufflepig who’s been planning trips to Myanmar for more than 15 years, in an email. “I’m trying to figure out what I can do through travel to help.” Others shared the sentiment. “Under no circumstances can one condone murder, rape, or ethnic cleansing,” says Antonia Neubauer 535 of the travel company Myths and Mountains, in an email. “Visiting a country, however, is not condoning these acts.” In fact, Neubauer says, “if a trip is done well, tourists really contribute to the local economies, something that is very much needed. One of the things we incorporate into our programs is several days specifically dedicating to meeting the locals, like a man who’s the only one in the country to make shoes for the disabled, a woman entrepreneur, monks, a man who started a small library. These people are what the country is about, and they are the ones who lose out most when tourists don’t come.”

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