BAGAN, Myanmar (Reuters) - It may be awash with cultural splendors, topped off by the 1,000-year-old temples of Bagan, but a reviled military government has ensured Myanmar has never been flooded with foreign tourists.
Six months after September’s bloody crackdown on monk-led protests, that trickle of visitors — 350,000 in 2006 compared to 13 million in neighboring Thailand — has all but dried up.
The former Burma’s rigidly controlled domestic newspapers admit tourism almost halved in the three months after the crackdown, in which the United Nations says at least 31 people were killed.
But in Bagan, a mystical plain studded with more than 4,000 temples and stupas on the banks of the mighty Irrawaddy River, hotel and restaurant operators say occupancy rates and takings are just 20-30 percent of the same time last year.
Given that the unrest, and the shocking images of soldiers attacking monks and unarmed demonstrators, fell on the eve of the “cool season” — the traditional peak time for tourism — the decline is threatening many with ruin.
“There are so few visitors at the moment,” said tour guide Aung Myint with a shake of the head. “Many people are wondering how they will support their families during the low season. Now is when we’re meant to be making all our money.”
Although it only took a few days for the junta to crush the biggest democracy protests in 19 years, pictures, including the shooting of a Japanese journalist, reinforced the image of the former British colony as an unstable, hostile place.
Besides a growing number of Russian tour groups, the only visitors who appear to have shrugged off scruples or the perception of risk are German.
“I don’t know why but most of the tourists now are Germans,” said Aung Thein Myint, owner of a swish open-air restaurant on the banks of the Irrawaddy, where takings in October and November were down by 80 percent.
“They seem to think that until they start shooting Germans, it’s still safe to visit,” he said.
In typically uncompromising tone, the junta — the latest face of 46 years of unbroken military rule — blames the decline on the foreign media and dissidents who smuggled out pictures and reports of atrocities on the Internet.
“Some foreigners attempted to tarnish the image of Myanmar by posting in the Web sites the photos of the protest walks,” Deputy Tourism Minister Aye Myint Kyu, a brigadier-general, wrote in state-run papers in January under a widely known pseudonym.
However, in one sense he is right: coverage of the crisis put the oft-forgotten southeast Asian nation firmly in the world spotlight and bolstered the cries of many anti-government organizations telling potential visitors to stay away.
Under the slogan “The cost of a holiday could be someone’s life,” groups such as the Burma Campaign UK argue that every tourist dollar props up a regime that uses forced labor, child soldiers and systematic rape of ethnic minority women — allegations the junta denies.
Boycott campaigners also say that the jobs of people working in tourism are an unfortunate but unavoidable consequence of the wider effort to overthrow the generals.
“The tourism industry in Burma is tiny. The vast majority of people will never see a tourist in their life,” said Anna Roberts of the Burma Campaign UK.
Even though the call for a boycott came from detained Nobel peace laureate and democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, it is not without its critics.
In particular, detractors argue it is an empty gesture since the cash gleaned directly and indirectly from tourism is a tiny fraction of that from gems and natural gas, which made the generals more than $2 billion in sales to Thailand alone in 2007.
They also say it pushes them further into the isolation on which they appear to thrive.
“The boycott is totally pointless,” said Ton Schoonderwoerd, an independent Dutch tourist watching the sun rise above Bagan’s temples, the product of 230 years of building by Buddhist kings that came to an abrupt end with a Mongol invasion in 1287.
“It may seem good to politicians in the U.S. and Europe, but out here it just means that people struggle even more to make ends meet,” he said.
Rather than coming down on either side of what is a passionate debate, backpacker bible Lonely Planet chooses simply to outline the pros and cons of visiting, and urges those who do to avoid government-run hotels and airlines.
Editing by Michael Battye and Megan Goldin