- The Washington Times - Friday, April 15, 2005


KATHA, Burma — If Katha had been located in neighboring Thailand, it would be overrun with tourists — especially devotees of British writer George Orwell, who worked here as a colonial police officer in the late 1920s and made it the setting of his first novel, ‘Burmese Days.’

But despite assertions of a spurt in tourism by Burma’s military rulers, not many tourists make it to this leafy northern town on the Irrawaddy River.

The regime in Rangoon says 656,910 tourists visited Burma last year, up about 12 percent from 2003. Tourism earnings rose by 17 percent to $135 million. The target for this year is 750,000 tourists, and Rangoon airport is being expanded to handle 2.3 million visitors by 2006.

But though unspoiled Burma is, in the words of a top tourism official, ‘a paradise waiting to be discovered,’ analysts remain skeptical about the government’s tourism statistics. Burma is by far the laggard in Southeast Asia, which attracted 50 million foreign visitors last year.

?Even official figures, rarely reliable, show that only 240,000 tourists came by air,? said a Rangoon diplomat. ?The rest were day-trippers or businessmen visiting overland from China.?

As Rangoon prepares to host a major South East Asian tourism conference next year, the news from the West is hardly encouraging.

Support for a tourism boycott aimed at Burma’s abysmal human rights record is growing, and even British Prime Minister Tony Blair signed up for the ?I’m Not Going? campaign begun last month by Burma Campaign-UK.

The boycott campaign though will not have much effect in Asia, especially on Buddhist pilgrims from Thailand, Taiwan, Japan and China. A survey at Rangoon airport two years ago showed that visitors from these four Asian nations led the tourist roster.

If Burma has any hope of meeting its tourism targets, it will have to rely on Asian visitors. Katha may have to wait some more for an influx of George Orwell fans from the West.

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