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Children working on a ferryboat cool off in Kawthaung, Burma. (Bruce Kirby)
Children working on a ferryboat cool off in Kawthaung, Burma. (Bruce Kirby)

Ethical travel to Burma's lost Eden Add to ...

Seven years ago, I was invited to visit Burma (or Myanmar as it is now known) to report on a sea-kayaking company operating on the country's mysterious and forbidden southern coast. It was a tempting opportunity, but one that presented a serious moral quandary. Should one travel to a country ruled by an oppressive military junta? Complicating the decision further was fact that since 1995, the leader of the country's pro-democracy movement, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, had requested that tourists refrain from visiting.

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The tourism boycott was born in response to the military-endorsed "Visit Myanmar Year, 1996" and based on the premise that a substantial portion of tourist dollars found its way into the pockets of the ruling generals (who were in need of foreign cash). "Visiting now is tantamount to condoning the regime," Suu Kyi declared. "Burma will be here for many years, so tell your friends to visit us later."

For the past 16 years, Suu Kyi's position has had a far-reaching effect. Despite the burgeoning Southeast Asian tourism market, Burma manages to entice just 300,000 visitors a year. Compare this with neighbouring Thailand, where 14 million annual visitors add an estimated $40-billion to the economy.

The informal tourist embargo proved controversial from the start. Critics felt that small local operators - taxi drivers, guest houses, etc. - were paying the price. So split was opinion that the internationally ubiquitous Lonely Planet chose to publish a Burmese guidebook; its main competitor, Rough Guides, abstained. Even members of Suu Kyi's cabinet spoke against the boycott.

The Dalai Lama - another Nobel Peace Prize laureate - has endured a similarly cruel and repressive occupation of his homeland. Yet His Holiness takes the opposite tact, actively encouraging foreigners to visit Tibet and witness the oppression first-hand.

It was after heavy consideration, and with fluttering conscience, that I chose to enter Burma seven years ago. Despite the worries that clouded my mind before arrival, my first impression was of overwhelming lightness. I had slipped, unexpectedly, into a world of golden pagodas, great natural beauty and dizzyingly friendly people. So intense were my brief interactions with the Burmese people who inhabited the isolated fishing villages of the southern coast that, after all these years, and despite visiting more than 50 countries since, Burma remains embedded in my soul.

Lest you think I was blind or woefully ignorant, let me be clear: The army, and its imperious rule, was never far from sight. Our passports were checked incessantly; a hidden camera was discovered in our hotel room. After slipping away from the tightly herded group and heading out on the open blue sea in our own folding kayak, we were pursued, caught, held, berated and eventually kicked out of the country.

During our brief escape, my wife and I entered the Mergui Archipelago - 800 jungle-tufted islets lying off Burma's southern coast - where dolphins escorted our boats through clear turquoise waters and phosphorescent algae turned the sea lime green at night. Clouds of bats poured from hilltop caves - some with wingspans of nearly two metres - the swarms darkening the sky like storm clouds. Wild boars and troops of long-tailed macaques ran wild around our tent. Elephants roamed free and we spotted a reticulated python amid a bamboo grove. We glimpsed a lost Eden.

Returning home, I found myself faced with an excruciating dilemma: write about what I saw, and potentially lure developers or unscrupulous visitors to the area, or keep it secret.

There is a human instinct to save those things we love and adore for ourselves. Surfers call such a place "a secret spot;" skiers refer to "their stash." But nothing remains a secret for long, and I decided that leaving something off the radar invites ruthless exploitation away from the probing eyes of the world.

Rather, the salvation of special places - of great natural beauty and profound cultural heritage - lies in sharing them widely, not sequestering them.

And now suddenly, after five bleak decades, the winds of change may be blowing in Burma. It started with elections, the country's first in 20 years. Although universally regarded as a sham, they signify a possible crack in the junta's iron fist, widened if only slightly by Suu Kyi's release - a petite head rising briefly above the steel fence ringing her home, bathing in acclaim, tears, and applause. In the ensuing days, the one known throughout Burma as simply "The Lady" has shown herself to be one of the most powerful voices of our time. And akin to Nelson Mandela, she has emerged from incarceration more powerful than ever.

These two glimmers of optimism for Burma overshadowed a concurrent, unheralded event that could prove every bit as stark and dramatic: Win Tin, a senior National League for Democracy leader, recently allowed that independent travellers should consider visiting Burma to witness the suffering, marking an abrupt reversal to the party's long-standing opposition to all tourism. Though the pronouncement was made before Suu Kyi's release, and she has not yet commented on it, there is a buoyant sense that the 15-year-long informal embargo might be coming to an end.

Whether encouraged or discouraged, travel to Burma will continue to demand an informed, moral choice. There is no simple answer regarding the ethical issues of travel under a repressive regime. Hope lies in the very fact that we, as travellers, can - with our choices and actions - cast a vote and make a difference.

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