A Tale of Two Struggling Countries, Does Tourism Help or Hurt?
Liz Biscevic—Moral Compass
Myanmar and Venezuela have recently made headlines due to their volatile politics and economic troubles. In Myanmar, ongoing violence against Muslims in the northeast has seriously concerned travelers eager to explore what had seemed like a country ready to shed its decades-long regime of oppression. Meanwhile, in Venezuela, as the currency spirals, the U.S. dollar has never been more powerful, and the government hopes to attract budget travelers despite food and medical supply shortages, political riots, and danger.
While it’s a good idea to do your research before you travel anywhere, when visiting countries with economic or political unrest, there’s much more to think about.
Problems between the Buddhist government and the Rohingya Muslim minority have been prevalent in Myanmar since the 1970s. But over the last two years, these troubles have driven hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children from their homes in Myanmar and into bordering refugee camps. United Nations human rights chief, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, has called the crisis a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
One of the biggest concerns of anyone traveling to Myanmar is whether their tourist dollars could be funding military operations against the Rohingya and, though it hasn’t been officially named, genocide.
Myanmar had been ruled by the military as a quasi-socialist dictatorship since the 1960s. In 1990, they held their first multi-party election and the National League for Democracy won by a landslide. In spite of their victory, however, the elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi was given several strict restrictions, including house arrest, and she was unable to exercise authority over the rogue military. During that time, Aung San Suu Kyi asked tourists to not visit the country, as the bulk of their dollars were going to the pockets of corrupt generals and supporting the junta. Many tour organizations, including ethical tour operator Responsible Travel, began to boycott Myanmar and outside travel to the country was rare.
But in 2010, after the release of Nobel Peace Prize Winner and current president Aung San Suu Kyi, change seemed on the horizon for a country long oppressed. Responsible Travel lifted its ban, with CEO Justin Francis stating that, “Our view, for now, is that if we can continue to benefit local communities and help keep Myanmar visible to the international community through tourism, then we’ll continue to sell [holidays there].”
Liddy Pleasants, managing director of Stubborn Mule Travel, agrees that travel to Myanmar should not be discouraged. In a letter published on Stubborn Mule’s website, Pleasants writes, “The vast majority of hotels and restaurants are now privately owned, and employ local people. Guides are self-employed or work for privately owned tourist enterprises … Taxi drivers, porters, waiters, souvenir sellers, ticket vendors, hawkers, craftsmen and many more derive all of their income from tourists and would find their livelihood very adversely affected if the tourists stop coming. It is our opinion that avoiding travel to Myanmar will have little impact on the government and the military but a more profound impact on local people.”
Casey Hynes, a journalist with experience covering human rights in Asia, visited Myanmar in 2014, said that, even now, "It's hard to say how much of your money is going to end up benefiting military and governments who may use it to commit atrocities. It's worth considering that before traveling there.” But even still, there is an opportunity for travelers visiting the country to cause more good than harm. Hynes told me, “Because tourism is still relatively new, people are eager to talk to Americans ... People were very open about the repression that had happened in the country.”
Hynes thinks the opportunity to engage with people and hear about their experiences can spark empathy and understanding in a place where both are sorely needed. “I think there's a lot of value in going to places like Myanmar or other places in southeast Asia where you might read things in Western media that doesn't always give the full context of the situation,” she said.
That cuts both ways in Myanmar, where media was severely censored for decades. The limited access to information coupled with the United States’ ongoing War on Terror has led many Myanmar citizens to assume the rising nationalist, anti-Muslim sentiment is one favored around the world. Before you go, consider donating to an international NGO aiding Rohingya refugees, like MuslimAid, and be comfortable talking about your views to locals who befriend you—your perspective may be their first exposure to that sort of tolerance.
Venezuela is undergoing the biggest economic crisis in its history. Due to a floundering oil industry, the country has experienced a 1,300 percent inflation in the last year, leading many locals to take to the street in protest. Because the government has not adjusted price caps, shortages are common for food, healthcare, housing, and basic services. For the vast majority of Venezuelans, bartering on the black market is all that’s possible.
The crisis has made foreign exchange rates for Venezuela’s currency (the bolivar) extremely volatile, but the dollar’s rate remains particularly high on the tacitly sanctioned black market. For this reason, some travelers think now is the time to visit the country on the cheap. But the economic chaos doesn’t mean finding bargains is easy. To keep up with the inflation rate, restaurants and hotels are forced to either increase their prices regularly or, if they need more business, drop rates to practically nothing. For foreign visitors, this means there’s no real way to anticipate costs in advance, and your trip could end costing much more than you’d expect for a lower quality.
In spite of this, the country is eager to attract tourism to stimulate the economy. The nation’s tourism minister, Marleny Contereas, recently announced, “Tourism is the oil that never runs out.” The rest of the world is less enthusiastic.
Last July, the U.S. government issued a warning against travel to Venezuela due to social unrest, violent crime, and pervasive food and medical shortages. Political rallies and protests have turned violent, and travelers have been arrested and held for long periods of time merely for being close to a protest. Once a popular destination, Caracas is now considered one of the most violent cities in the world.
The Nomad Capitalist recently interviewed three local Venezuelans about the state of their country and each one agreed that travel should be discouraged. One of those interviewed, Joisber, said, “Venezuela is not safe for anyone in this moment … We are on the verge of a civil war, and coming to Venezuela for tourism right now is just suicide.” Another, Jessica, noted that tourists are easy marks for desperate economic crimes and said, “Unfortunately the government has not even tried to maintain or take care of the tourist places, so everything is just full of trash and the hotels don’t meet the minimum conditions.” Because of the scarcity of basic goods, tourism-based businesses like hotels have had to increase prices while lowering quality. Some hotels have even begun to ration toilet paper or ask tourists to bring their own.
Because of shortages, simple supplies like aspirin and bandages are difficult to find, even for tourists willing to pay for them. And if you can locate such items, be aware that you’re taking these resources from the local people.
If you’re still dead set on getting to Venezuela in the near future, recognize that you can’t be too careful. Due to violence and desperation amongst citizens, you shouldn't wander the streets with your backpack, or walk from one from hotel to another, looking for accommodations. Don’t take unmarked taxis, pack light, and avoid carrying expensive cameras and gear. If you can, focus on visiting holiday destinations like Los Roques, Margarita Island, or the mountain village Merida. These places, though still heavily affected by the economic and political crisis, have seen fewer protests and violence and may be easier for foreign travelers to navigate. Have your return ticket planned and paid for, book tours, hotels, and day trips at least a few days in advance, always carry cash, and trust your instincts.
As an ethical traveler, not only do you want to keep yourself safe, you want your tourist dollars to help, not hurt, local citizens within the place you’re visiting. In these cases, it means doing research before you go, and considering the repercussions of your travel both for yourself and others. Only then can you make the decision on whether to travel there at all.