Jared and Anne spent months looking for the Asia of their imagination. They biked through China, trekked across Cambodia and hiked around northern Thailand. But it wasn't until the young American graduate students reached the highlands of Burma that they found what they were looking for: unspoiled beauty. A smiling young Shan fisherman in a traditional skirt, or longyi, took them across the mist-shrouded Lake Inle in his wooden boat. They glided across the water, past Buddhist temples and floating vegetable gardens, before arriving at their lakeside retreat. The resort was virtually empty, so for three days Jared and Anne relaxed in their bungalow as more than a dozen attendants lavished them with food, drink and deep massages--all for less than $30 a day. "This is the most enchanting place on earth," Jared gushes. "But part of me still feels bad, you know?"
Burma is made for guilt-tripping. The country (renamed Myanmar by its current military rulers) has been largely isolated from the outside world for the past four decades--and that is part of its allure. Seemingly frozen in time, rural Burma is dotted with pagodas, ancient ruins and colorful locals living as they did decades ago, unfettered by development, mechanization--or busloads of tourists. Yet would-be visitors face difficult moral questions. Should they stay away from Burma, as opposition leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi urges, because their money helps sustain the repressive military regime? Or should they go, as the tourism industry suggests, because their cash and fresh perspectives could enrich an impoverished nation and help it open up to the world?
Traveling to Burma has never been easy. But it became even more vexing after the military gunned down hundreds of students in 1988 and then, two years later, prevented Suu Kyi and her party from taking power after their landslide election victory. When the isolated regime tried turning Burma into a tourist mecca--building golf courses, restoring the ancient temples of Pagan--Suu Kyi called for a tourism boycott. So far it's been largely heeded; barely 200,000 foreign visitors now arrive in Burma each year, far shy of the government's goal of 500,000 (and not even close to the 10 million who visit neighboring Thailand annually). But the generals are hooked on tourism as a source of hard currency. They own stakes in most major hotels, and require each arriving visitor to exchange $200 for local currency. In Burma, "there's no such thing as an ethical tourist," says Lara Marsh, spokesperson for Tourism Concern in Britain. "However much you try to give money to the locals, some money goes to the junta."
Two years ago, Tourism Concern and the Burma Campaign, another London-based activist group, launched a worldwide campaign against Lonely Planet for publishing a guide on "Myanmar." The boycott didn't affect Lonely Planet much--it sells only about 5,000 Burma guides a year--but the company has added a section on the 1988 massacre and the stolen 1990 elections, as well as a summary of the arguments for and against traveling to Burma. Ma Thanegi, a former aide to Suu Kyi who had a falling-out with her former mentor, even contributed a pro-tourism piece. "Myanmar has many problems, largely the result of 30 years of isolation," she writes. "More isolation won't fix the problems."
Many of Burma's 46 million people seem to crave contact with the outside world and don't understand the tourism boycott. "We only want more of you to come," says one English-language student in the capital, Rangoon. Many Burmese now believe the best way to help the people is to engage them, rather than leave them in isolation. And in a country where the average yearly income is just $300 per person, they say, even a little bit of extra money can help. "Who is suffering from the boycott?" asks one foreign health worker in Rangoon. "Do you think the generals play less golf because of it? Do they buy a lesser model of Mercedes? It doesn't affect them. It is the poor people who are hurt."
Nothing is quite that simple, however. Up in the highlands, not far from where Jared and Anne are staying on Lake Inle, a Buddhist monk confirms a disturbing rumor that has been circulating: the local Army commander recently required every family to give one laborer--child or adult--to help clear the roads and the area around the lake. The workers are not even paid the regular five-cents-an-hour wage. When Jared hears this, he shakes his head. "That's terrible," he says. "So what do you think: is it right for us to be here?" It's a question every tourist has to answer for himself.