Jim Eagles: To go or stay, that's the issue

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To go or not to go - to some country run by a bunch of gangsters - that is the question.

It is the traveller's dilemma. Whether'tis nobler to show your disapproval by boycotting the regime, thereby worsening the plight of locals who depend on tourism, or by going to see for yourself, to risk seeming to give tacit approval to the regime as well as helping to line the pockets of its cronies.

Perhaps it's different for journalists. Some might say we always put pursuit of a good story well ahead of ethical considerations. We might prefer to think we have an obligation to dig out the facts and that is best done firsthand.

Either way, I've been to Zimbabwe and witnessed the results of Robert Mugabe's thuggish mismanagement, and I'm glad I did.

For one thing, what I saw and heard from locals - many of whom said they had once cheered for Mugabe - certainly convinced me that this sad old man is destroying the country he did so much to create rather than risk losing power.

For another, I don't know whether my visit bolstered Mugabe in some infinitesimal way, but it certainly helped a few families to buy a bit more food.

At the vast souvenir market in Harare, for instance, we were the only potential buyers in a sea of wretched stallholders and I noticed with some embarrassment the man I was haggling with over the price of a couple of Zimbabwe birds was actually shaking in desperation as we clinched the sale.

And for yet another, it was a fantastic, unforgettable trip, and extraordinarily cheap (indeed, you could make an argument that the best time to visit a country is when it is being avoided by the usual tourist hordes for one reason or another.)

I've also been to Myanmar, formerly Burma, and experienced the bizarre society created by half a century of misrule by ignorant, brutal generals.

That one was a little trickier, because imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize winner and National League for Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi has pleaded for foreigners to boycott Myanmar, and a great many people have respected her views.

A number of reputable travel companies no longer send tours there because they do not wish to be seen to tacitly support the regime.

But other equally reputable companies argue that travel is a powerful force for understanding and continue to send tours, though most take care to avoid using companies connected to the regime.

So what does the ethical traveller do? Darrell Wade, founder of Intrepid Travel, and Tony Wheeler, co-founder of Lonely Planet, both Australians, both strong on responsible travel and both frequent visitors to Myanmar, have wrestled with the issue long and come down marginally on different sides.

Intrepid has twice decided that on balance it was better to take tours to Myanmar and twice - most recently in May last year - pulled out again.

"It's a tough issue," says Wade. "Strange, really. As a destination it is tiny, and from a business point of view it makes no real difference if we go or don't. But as an ethical issue it is huge and troubles many of us at Intrepid."

Wade says the original decision to go into Myanmar was based on the view that by using services provided by ordinary people rather than the Government or large corporations, Intrepid "could make things a bit better for a few communities".

The flip side of that, of course, is that "by pulling out of Myanmar we unquestionably hurt those communities. We also supported a couple of very small aid initiatives in Myanmar that also have had aid-funding reduced as a result of pulling out."

The decision to pull out followed pressure from various NGOs - particularly Amnesty International "who we have great respect for" - that "we were sending a bad political message by sending trips there".

After considerable internal debate, Intrepid went along with the view that as a company which prided itself on responsible tourism principles it should "send a message to the Government of Myanmar that human rights are important and they needed to improve ... and the best way to send this message was through a tourism boycott".

But it's fairly clear that, having taken that stand, he remains unconvinced that it is necessarily the right one. In fact, he adds, "despite what some political lobbyists say there is no 'right' answer to the tourism-and-Burma issue".

Lonely Planet has been subjected to the same pressures and kicked around the same arguments but decided to continue publishing its Myanmar guide books.

In the foreword to the latest issue it explains this on the basis that "we believe that travel is one of the most powerful forces for tolerance, understanding and democracy the world has".

Wheeler takes the view that the decision whether to visit a place like Myanmar is a matter for the individual, though he does continue to go there.

"I'm very far from convinced that boycotts are a good thing," he says. "I believe that quite apart from the money-to-the-local population issue there are many other things visitors do.

"They're a contact with the outside world and they're a witness - would we have even heard about Tiananmen Square if it had happened during the Mao era?"

For its pains, Lonely Planet has been subject to a boycott and, though Wheeler says he hasn't noticed any great impact on sales, it is clear he hasn't enjoyed the experience.

"It has been very time-consuming, and I'm no politician, and I really don't like being called all sorts of names." Far from making him back down, the pressure seems to have only stiffened his resolve.

"The Burma Action Group is about to kick off a new round of protests. I had a letter last week from their organiser giving me a last chance to withdraw our Burma book or we'd be put on their dirty list. I told her to go ahead."

There's a certain irony in an organisation being boycotted for exercising its democratic right not to boycott a country for not being democratic.

Anyone interested in the arguments on both sides will find them spelled out in Lonely Planet's latest Myanmar guide book.

The book also offers tips to those who choose to go on ways to "maximise the positive effects of a visit among the general populace, while minimising support of the Government".

These include:

* Stay at small local guesthouses rather than Government hotels.

* Avoid tours organised by the state tourist agency.

* Also avoid state-owned transport companies such as Myanmar Airways or the Yangon-Mandalay Express trains.

* Buy handcrafts directly from artisans.

* Take popular - but not political - books and magazines to give to locals.

* Be aware that the Burmese are not free to discuss politics with foreigners.

* Write to the Myanmar Government expressing your views about human rights in their country.

Personally, I agree with Lonely Planet that travel is a powerful force for understanding.

Once we start shutting the door on countries that do things we find repugnant - in my case Iran, Syria, Egypt, Russia, China, France, United States, Cuba, Tonga ... - there may not be much of the world left to relate to.

I would certainly like to think that as a result of going to places such as Myanmar I have broadened my understanding of other countries and cultures and maybe in the process, spread a little understanding of my own.

And - quite apart from ethical considerations - Myanmar is probably the most marvellous, fascinating country I have been to, and I'd hate to have missed it.

- NZ Herald

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