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Burma: Far from perfect, but the country is on the way back

What a week for Burma. On Monday night, as it became clear that the National League for Democracy (NLD) was heading for victory in the country’s general election, a friend in Rangoon emailed saying that the joy of the street celebrations was palpable. Democracy, last properly experienced in Burma in 1960 – when the NLD’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, was 15 – really does appear to have been allowed to return. (Perhaps we could even start calling the country Myanmar, as it was officially renamed back in 1989 – a change that many Western governments ignored because of human-rights issues.)

Granted, many of the circumstances of Sunday’s elections were far from ideal. Some minority communities, including the Muslim Rohingyas, were denied a vote. Meantime the military, by bizarre self-awarded statutory right, retains a quarter of the seats in parliament. It also controls the police and justice, and has a veto over constitutional reform. In addition, the army has manoeuvred matters so as to disqualify Aung San Suu Kyi as a future president. Yet all being well, the NLD will dextrously dance around these hurdles. Things are looking positive for a brave new beginning.

So, what does this mean for visitors and for the travel industry? Between 1996 and 2010 the NLD asked visitors to stay away from Burma because of human-rights abuses. The party’s last international statement on tourism was in 2011, when it seemed ambivalent, acknowledging the benefits of tourism yet concerned about potential damage to the environment and communities. Since then, beautiful Inle Lake has come under threat from rapid tourist development and pollution. And worries have been expressed about the spread of sex tourism.

Be aware, too, that this is still a country with unresolved ethnic issues. It will take much negotiation, and probably many years, before travel to areas such as remote parts of Kachin state and the Wa territory is safe for tourists.

Yet for all that, the future for visitors to this magical country looks bright. It expects 2015 tourist arrivals to hit 4.5 million, up 25 per cent on last year. The boost in bookings underlines the shortage of hotels – although there’s a new Novotel in Rangoon and a Sheraton taking shape.

Burma is a pricey destination, mainly visited through packages arranged overseas. But thanks to operations such as Go-Myanmar .com, a new information website and booking agency, it is now possible to arrange a trip within the country entirely locally and, in doing so, to have scope to tap into the growing middle market of guest houses. Expect more of this. And, in the longer term, expect improvements in infrastructure, too, making for much easier transport by road and rail.

I’m planning hard. The next year should be a great time to travel to Burma and enjoy the excitement of its new dawn. But tread lightly and with care.

Harriet O’Brien is a travel writer who grew up in Burma in the 1970s.

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