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Burma's Tourist Industry Booms

Danielle Bernstein

Burma's political reforms have drawn international attention and sparked a boom in its still fledging tourism industry. Hotels and tour operators are scrambling to meet the growing demand from visitors eager to witness a country in the midst of transformation.

This week in Rangoon 20 contestants competed for the title of Miss Tourism Myanmar 2012, a beauty pageant organized by the tourism board to appeal to foreign visitors.

Tourism Board Secretary Kyaw Htun says Aung San Suu Kyi's endorsement of "responsible tourism" last year has been a vital boost in Burma, also known as Myanmar.

"Before 2010 the Lady [Suu Kyi] didn't support visitors to come to Myanmar, but after 2010 she was encouraging visitors to come see Myanmar," noted Htun.

Since Aung San Suu Kyi's release from house arrest in 2010, tourism has more than doubled, and is projected to keep increasing at a rate of 30 percent per year.

Burma's political isolation has long kept it off the typical itinerary of holiday travelers. Now, it is that isolation and ongoing political reforms that are drawing newcomers - some of whom are still anxious about visiting.

"The reason I'm here in Myanmar, I'm interested in the political situation," said Mari Nakogawa, a tourist from Japan.  "Like Aung San Suu Kyi, I cannot say it here, it's kind of scary. Most of Japanese newspapers say Myanmar is dangerous."

Hotels in Burma are now booked several months in advance, doubling room prices in some cases.

But it's not only tourists who are eager to visit. Alex Ruther is the manager of the upscale Savoy Hotel.

"Because the country's opening up, the foreign investment laws are changing as well, so a lot of foreigners can come in and invest. Foreign companies [are] coming in so it definitely puts the country on the global map," said Ruther.

For Burma's visitors, such as these visiting the famed Shwedagon Pagoda, both the old attractions and the new changes are an enticing draw.

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