Burmese days

Buddhist temples, Bagan, Myanmar
Buddhist temples, Bagan, Myanmar
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Burma is back on the wish list for British travellers heading for the Far East, after freed pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi backed “responsible tourism”, according to tour operators.

Stella Blackwell at Explore says: “We put Burma back on sale in July, after a 16-year absence and our tours have sold out.

“Rich in colonial history, Burma has almost been left in a time warp. Largely untouched by tourism, it currently offers only 9,000 hotel beds. That’s why it appeals so much to our customers. Burma features highly on many people’s wish lists.”

Explore’s Highlights of Burma tour – 14-nights’ B&B from £1,922, with return flights – includes Rangoon (Yangon), the floating gardens of Inle Lake, Mandalay and the archaeological wonders of the Plain of Bagan. A three-night extension from £295 includes a stay beside the palm tree-lined white beaches of Ngapali.

Rival operators, including Exodus, Cox & Kings and Travelsphere, also confirm strong and growing demand for Burma.

At Responsible Travel, a website dedicated to eco-holidays which preserve local communities, culture and support wildlife conservation, managing director Justin Francis says: “The message from Aung San Suu Kyi is clear – she only wants tourism that helps the people of Burma and the conservation of the environment.”

At Ampersand Travel, another operator specialising in the Indian subcontinent and south-east Asia, founder and managing director James Jayasundera sees tourism returning to the country following the leader’s release in 2010.

He says: “We felt the time was right to restart our programme there. I genuinely feel you can visit the country and support hugely deserving individuals and private companies, while giving minimal support to the military regime.”

Although tour operators say they will work with local agents who don’t channel business to government- owned hotels, Andrew Appleyard at Exodus says this approach is a bit unrealistic.

“Although our guests will stay at privately-owned hotels and try to make sure that small village communities, like those around Inle Lake for example, benefit from rising visitor numbers, the fact is that a rapid growth of tourism will boost the government too.

“All hotels obviously pay licences to the government, and so will internal airlines which take people around. But the benefits of tourism will be spread fairly wide: many people are incredibly impoverished, literally struggling for their existence in very dispersed rural communities.”