Responsible Tourism

Now that the calls for a tourism boycott Burma have largely been quieted (thankfully), the question turns to how to travel responsibly. The first question is whether one should even care about “responsible tourism.” Many people maintain the attitude that when they travel they are on vacation and shouldn’t have to be bothered with ethical or moral dilemmas while enjoying a holiday. Plus, the term “responsible tourism” sounds like it was hatched by a bunch of people sitting in a coffee house in Berkeley while gazing lovingly at a picture of Al Gore. For me, responsible tourism merely means taking a few minutes to learn and think about the differences between the value systems at your home and those in the country you are going to visit. If you are, say, a European visiting America, or an Australian visiting the UK, that process will take very little time. If, however, you want to take your holiday in a country like Burma, it may take a little longer. If this is not something that a person is willing to do, I respectfully suggest that you limit your travel to places that are culturally similar to your home, or travel to those pockets of other countries that have been already overtaken by tourists (There are plenty of lovely hotels on Khao San Road).

Once you’ve done some initial research, I largely think the decision of how to behave when traveling abroad must be left to the individual. Having been to Burma several times, other visitors often ask me how to behave in a given situation. For example, a young American was recently approached by a student standing outside a school on a Sunday afternoon. The student asked him for a pencil. When he obliged, a group of 30 more students appeared and also requested pencils. The American went to a nearby store and bought several packs of pencils to supply all the students. While sitting over drinks back at the guesthouse he asked me if he did the right thing. The next day I was approached by another traveler. He had been treated to lunch by a very poor family who clearly did not have the means to feed themselves well, much less treat guests to restaurant lunches. While this might seem odd, one sees this kind of hospitality all over Burma. Those with next to nothing will share whatever they have with guests before taking care themselves or even their children. The tourist told me that he was going to go back to see the family the next day to bring them some money. What did I think? Would they find it insulting? Is it the right thing to do?

These kind of issues come up again in again, not just in Burma, but all over the developing world. For example, you spend the day with a wonderful tour guide and you want to give him a tip. Do you give him a small amount, reflecting the economy of the region? Or do you tip him commensurate with what you would tip at home, under the reasoning that his services were equally valuable to you, if not more so, than the service you get at home, so why should he receive less just because he lives in a poor country? I have seen people sitting and debating these issues, but I no longer give my opinions in such discussions. The important thing here is to have the debate, however brief, with oneself, and come to a thought-out decision that you feel comfortable with. There are no right answers.

The key to traveling responsibly in the developing world, or to any culture other than your own, is to inform yourself. As guests in another country we have a responsibility to inform ourselves as to the culture and economic situation of the land we are visiting. The only tourists that I judge are the ones who come without any information or who make decisions based solely on the way things are done at home, without taking into account local conditions.

How Not to Make Things Worse

When I am in Yangon, I stay in the most popular budget guesthouse in town (that will soon change as their prices increased 60% in the last year). When I first began staying here, the guests were not your usual Southeast Asia tourists, but were mostly people who came to Burma to get outside the box. While not everyone could recite the full history of the country, at least many were aware that they were visiting a military dictatorship and were not expecting Yangon to be Bangkok. The change began with the introduction of visa on arrival last year. The floodgates opened and the guesthouse was full every night with all kinds of people. Although visa on arrival was suspended as the election approached, the tourists have still come in larger numbers than before, many of them unaware that Burma is an entirely different animal than most of their other vacation destinations.

Even if they are aware of the situation in Burma many people wonder what possible difference they can make. They are certainly not going to install a democratic government while on a 2 week vacation, and would be advised not to even utter the word “democracy” too loudly in a public place. They are not going to solve the country’s economic problems while on holiday, though they can certainly do a small part by patronizing privately owned hotels, avoiding government tours and buying products from local shops rather than supermarkets owned by conglomerates. Most importantly, a tourist can help by understanding the basic power structure at work in Burma and do his/her part to not participate in the inequities built into the current Burmese system. This involves simply keeping your eyes and mind open and understanding that value system we apply at home does not necessarily apply in Burma.

Yesterday, I asked one of the staff at my guesthouse to make me a list of the names of all the employees. The list has over 40 names, many of whom I have never met, in spite of the fact that I have spent about 6 months in this guesthouse over the last 2 years. The guesthouse is able to employ such a large staff because the pay is very low – many of the staff members make about $30 per month. While this does include room and board, staff members work 7 days per week, and many of them work 17+ hours per day. Aside from their routine duties, staffers can be seen washing the boss’ car, and carrying his golf clubs around. Many are not permitted to leave the hotel for any reason. In spite of this life, the staff members here are helpful, and eager to do whatever is asked of them, always with a smile. Many of the lower ranking staff members are recruited from Kayin State, and many from the Irrawaddy delta region. Many speak Kayin as a first language, are largely uneducated and are living in a city for the first time, far from home. Many come from an area that was devastated by Nargis and several lost family members. One lost his father in the cyclone.

God forbid one of the staff members make a mistake. I have seen them get yelled at by the boss in full view of guests and other staff and I have watched them reach into their own pockets, forced to pay for a beer or meal that some guest forgot about on their way out. Just this week, a waiter who has worked here for a year was fired because he was watching a movie one night instead of studying, as the boss had instructed him to do. The boss’ own brother-in-law was fired for not living up to the demanding standards. The boss can afford to be quite indiscriminate because he knows that he can always make a call to a broker in the delta region and get a new crop of workers shipped to Yangon quickly. As unpleasant as working conditions are here, it is preferable to working in rice fields or living in a region that is still feeling the after-effects of a cyclone. Families must choose which children they can afford to educate and the rest are sent to earn money to support themselves and the family.

I give this background not to generate sympathy, but merely to lay out the facts of the situation that one is walking into when they check into this guesthouse, fresh off the plane from Bangkok. A few nights ago, I was standing in the lobby of my guesthouse, when a guest walked up to pay a bill for some drinks. This was at about 10:30 pm, where the only staff manning reception was a 17 year old kid who can barely speak English. He has no decision-making authority and is assigned overnight duty because he is a low man on the totem pole. This kid will sleep on a cot in the lobby, kept awake by the drinking and conversation outside the hotel until the early hours of the morning. He will then be up by 4:30 to wake up the guests leaving on a flight the next day. The kid takes money from the guest and sees that there are not sufficient small bills in the drawer to make change. The choices then are for the guest to take a little less change and return the next morning and collect what he is owed or for the guest to demand a larger bill and then return to pay the difference. The difference either way amounted to about 20 cents. The man began to raise his voice and demand to be given the larger bill, exclaiming that this shortage of small change had happened to him before. The kid behind the counter clearly did not understand what the man was saying, and even if he did, the kid has no control over which bills appear in the change drawer. I explained to the man that, even if the kid put a note in the man’s file, as the man suggested, the kid would likely be reprimanded for being short. I explained that if the man forgot to pay the 20 cents that he owed, the kid would be held personally responsible and have to pay out of his own pocket. The man insisted that this shortage had happened before and he simply wouldn’t let it happen again. He said that if the kid didn’t like it, he should tell his boss to have more change in the drawer. The man then took his extra money and walked away, admittedly fully planning on returning the overage to the front desk the next day.

This incident illustrates the most fundamental notion of irresponsible tourism. The man at the counter brought with him to Burma his ideas of good service from his home country and culture. In my country, I may have had a similar reaction to the man. But the man didn’t know or refused to take into account the power relationships at work. The hotel manager will not care that the lack of change in the drawer was the source of the shortage of cash, as he might in the West. Rather, the manager will, however irrationally, blame the kid at the front desk. The kid will have no choice but to reimburse the hotel owner. The kid, who has been uprooted from his home and shipped off to work in Yangon, does not have the option of finding a new job where he might be treated more fairly. He’s not allowed to leave the hotel premises, much less go on a job search. So, while the principle of having to cough up an extra 20 cents might properly lead to taking a stand at home, here, such principles have very real consequences for a real person who is at the short end of a power inequity. The man at the counter may feel good about the fact that he stood up for himself, but the result of his good feelings may very well be the loss of hard earned money for the kid. Its not right, but its the way things are in Burma. And, as far as I am concerned, if you are not willing to take this kind of difference into account, there are plenty of places to take a holiday where values from home will transfer seamlessly into the local situation.

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