by Bob Burton
(IPS) CANBERRA --
world's largest publisher of travel guides, the Melbourne-headquartered Lonely Planet Publications, has now replaced British American Tobacco (BAT) at the top of a 'dirty' list of companies doing business in Burma.
Last week, BAT bowed to public pressure and announced it was selling its Rothmans of Pall Mall Myanmar (RPPM) Pte. Ltd. subsidiary -- which is in a joint venture to manufacture cigarettes with the Burmese military regime -- to a Singapore-based investment company, Distinction Investment Holdings Pte Ltd (DIH).
The London-based Burma Campaign UK, which spearheaded a 12-month long campaign to persuade BAT to withdraw from Burma and developed the 'dirty' list, will now concentrate its attention on Lonely Planet.
Burma Campaign director John Jackson believes that Lonely Planet looks set to repeat the mistakes of BAT's failed strategy. "Lonely Planet has chosen the same strategy as BAT -- try and stand firm, wait for the damage to really take its toll and then do a U-turn if necessary. In that sense both companies are surprisingly similar," he said.
Lonely Planet, which publishes 650 guidebooks around the world and is reported to turn over approximately $40 million, has ignored calls from pro-democracy activists to withdraw from sale its travel guide for Burma.
The secretary of the Human Rights Department of the Federation of Trade Unions Burma (FTUB), Saw Min Lwin, who is currently in Australia, backs a boycott on tourism. "I know that the country is beautiful and the people are so good but I would like to say, 'please wait for a while and stay away while there is no democracy in Burma," he said.
"We propose a boycott of Lonely Planet because even though they give opinions from our side and the other side in their guide, in visiting Burma tourists have to give money to the generals pockets -- every tourist has to give $200, and most of the accommodations, restaurants and even things like road transportation for tourists are operated by the drug dealers and military," he said.
In Australia, the Australian union movement's overseas aid organization -- Union Aid Abroad/Apheda -- also has Lonely Planet as the prime focus of its campaign.
"The production of a Lonely Planet guide to Burma is entirely inappropriate at this time. The guide also neglects to mention or plays down the severity of the pervasive human rights abuses in the country," Apheda argues on its website.
Official government statistics indicate approximately 160,000 tourists travelled to Burma in 2001-02 with 60 percent from Asia and almost a third from Western Europe.
In its 30-year history, Lonely Planet has grown from a home-based business run by the company's owners and founders, Maureen and Tony Wheeler, to a company with offices in Australia, Britain, France and the United States.
While Lonely Plant prides itself on promoting 'responsible' travel, its refusal to withdraw its Burma guide -- with only a few thousand copies sold each year -- has dented its standing. A year ago, the largest European online travel agent, ebookers.com, withdrew its use of Lonely Planet's guide to Burma.
On July 2 this year, the British Foreign Office minister Mike O'Brien announced that he would be writing to all companies in Britain with an involvement in tourism in Burma to "ask them not to allow, encourage or participate in tourism in Burma." It is a position shared by the European Union.
Lonely Planet is also increasingly isolated within the Australian travel industry. In March this year, another Melbourne-based company, Intrepid Travel, announced that it is reversing its earlier support for a tourism boycott and was recommencing tours to Burma.
However, in the aftermath of the May 30 attack on the convoy of Aung San Suu Kyi by pro-government militias -- in which up to 100 people were believed to be killed -- Intrepid once more changed it mind and announced it would stay out of the country.
Since BAT announced its withdrawal, Lonely Planet has remained quiet and did not respond to requests for an interview on its inclusion on the 'dirty' list of the Burma Campaign.
However, in mid-October, company spokeswoman Anna Bolger told 'The Australian' newspaper: "We leave it up to the traveller to make an informed decision whether to go. There is a question of whether an informed tourist helps or hinders moves toward democracy."
It is an argument that Jackson does not buy. "If Lonely Planet produces a guide to Burma facilitating travel in that country, and its founders continue to argue that tourism to Burma is a good thing, then they play into the regime's hands. Our boycott call is about consumer choice working against totalitarianism, not promoting it," he said.
The campaign urging travellers not to buy Lonely Planet guides comes at a time that the company is feeling vulnerable.
Sales of travel guides to Asia slumped in the wake of the outbreak of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome outbreak earlier this year, while the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the United States and the Iraq war has seen demand slide for titles to North America and the Middle East.
Jackson has a warning for the BAT's purchaser, Distinction Investment Holdings, too. "Sooner or later they will have their fingers burned in the same way that previous investors have. Businesses have been flooding out of Burma, and only those who take no time to analyze the risks of working in Burma make the mistake of going in," he said.
November 17, 2003 (http://www.albionmonitor.net) All Rights Reserved. Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.
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