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The Strand/Yangon/50% government ownership?!!!

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The cover feature of this Sunday's NYT Travel Section is about the ethical complications of traveling in Burma/Myanmar these days. It seems to be a reasonably well-researched article by Joshua Hammer who has travelled to Myanmar 3 times over the past 30 years. The main thrust of the article is to point out the ambiguities Burma presents to tourists who want to avoid contributing to the government treasure--or to any of those who played a large role in sacking the country and human rights violations . Many of these, supposedly, have turned a new leaf and no longer participate in "gangster activities" and h.r. violations, and the opposition is now encouraging tourists not to hold grudges.

Most Fodorites, I believe, prefer not to stay in hotels associated with the government. Therefore, it was quite disturbing to see The Strand singled out as a hotel to avoid. It, apparently, is a joint venture by the Myanmar government and a Singapore company. In early March we booked The Strand for our November/December Yangon dates. I'm not very hopeful that at this date, we'll be able to switch to a decent hotel free of the government affiliation, but I'm going to ask Santa Maria to look into The Savoy or another hotel a friend has referred. I'm not very optimistic about the possibilities.

Thought others now planning a trip to Burma would be interested in this information.

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    I also read the NYT article. I don't know for sure what to believe about the Strand, as when I researched it thoroughly for our 2009 trip, there was no sign of government ownership. The NYT article is full of inaccuracies, so I don't know if this is one or not. You might ask Santa Maria about the current ownership and see what they know.

    The writer of the article seemed truly clueless about Burma. And he didn't talk about any of the well-known "good guys" ownership, like the guy who owns the Princess (was elected on the NLD ticket when ASSK won and therefore was imprisoned along with all the other winning NLD candidates) or the woman who owns the Inle Lakeview.

    Also, he "named names." I do hope he did not use real names of those referring to Tay Za as a gangster, for instance. Also, his use of the receptionist at the Aureum Palace as his source for the idea that no one cares who owns the places is silly, at best. My source tells me that tourists aren't interested in visiting Tay Za's awful tower at the hotel.

    So I would say, do your own research. I would not trust the accuracy of this article.

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    A few more thoughts... The management of the Strand had changed when we were there in Nov/Dec 2011. They were not as attentive to service as in 2009, and the menu was not as interesting nor was the food as good. More damning, though, was the fact that the usual crowd of ex-pats did not materialize in the Strand Bar on Friday evening. So may be it true.

    Do remember that in going to Burma some of your money will go to the government no matter how hard you try to avoid it - taxes on rooms and airline tickets, entry fees, etc all go to the government. All of the airlines have some government ownership (or are owned outright by Tay Za). In these times, getting good hotel rooms isn't easy as you know. So you will have to decide what makes sense for you. The author's comments about the Savoy seemed to indicate that the ownership there was opaque - does that mean that he thinks there is there is government ownership? And calling the Savoy faux-colonial is silly. It IS an old hotel, yes, from the colonial days.

    There is no black and white in visiting Burma. It's all far more complex than any of us outsiders can comprehend.

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    I wouldn't walk away so fast. The Strand is a beautiful, iconic property. It is is managed by GHM, a multi-national, multicultural group which manages upscale hotels throughout Asia, and increasingly worldwide, and has affiliations with the Aman, Alila and Chedi properties.

    Unraveling the tangle of ownership is complicated because hotels and resorts in Asia are often owned by one party and managed by another. Foreign ownership of land and sometimes real estate is not allowed in many Asian countries. Also, organizations in developing economies often don't have the experience or infrastructure to manage international luxury hotels.

    Thus you get strange bedfellows which commonly include multinational hotel management groups, governments and wealthy oligarchs. But, ultimately tourist dollars trickle down and common people benefit. This is true all over Asia -- Indonesia, China, Vietnam, Laos, The Philippines, Cambodia. Why single out Burma?

    Burma is slated to hold the top position in ASEAN in 2014, and much of the recent reform and transparency has been driven by that transforming event. Reconciliation is the only answer to move Burma and its 55 million desperately poor people into the 21st Century. To me, hardliners on both sides are impeding reconciliation, and this kind of sanctimonious bad/good black/white travel advice is harmful and counterproductive.

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    Kathie and Marmot, thanks. I did do further "research" today, and had found that GHM is the owner and saw some of the other properties they've invested in or have partnerships with. I also realized it would be very difficult to find out exactly what the web of ownership is and that in developing companies, especially one with Burma's history, it would be very likely that the government had required a percentage of foreign property investments. I also am very aware that the gov't gets a percentage (in varying degrees) of one's tourist spending in hotels, airlines, etc.

    I also checked out Joshua Hammer's credentials,which are good, but he may have had a specific mandate for what the Times Travel section wanted. One also doesn't know how much of his article was cut and whether there were interviews with several/many other sources, but the editor chose the receptionist at the Aureum Palace rather than another.

    For the most part, I didn't find the article sanctimonious, nor particularly black and white. I think the writer's point was that things are changing; the opposition is now encouraging tourism where they had been opposed to it before, but that many are still reserved in their judgment as to how things will shake out. (MM at Santa Maria said much the same as did the director of the recent documentary, "They Call It Myanmar" and some of the articles I've read in international periodicals.) Perhaps, as the floodgates of tourism open, the writer's intent is to add a word of caution to visitors that it's still worth trying to choose venues that appear to be freer of government involvement than others. I'm not rushing to change our reservations, although I continue to have second thoughts about the rate The Strand is charging.

    It's becoming ever more clear to me that Burma is still an unknown, and the forces controlling it are unlikely to be understood by outsiders.

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    Don't be fooled by the GHM or LHW affiliation of the Strand. It is nowhere near the level of service, cleanliness and upkeep of the other hotels in that category around the world. I didn't go into great detail in my recent trip report but there are other reasons to avoid the hotel as well as the possible ownership issues.

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    Well, our first two stays at the Strand in 2009, the service was as close to perfect as possible. In Nov/Dec 2011, the service was very good, but not up to the previous standard. Hotels (and restaurants) in developing countries are simply not as consistent as those in developed countries. And Burma is very early on in its development, having been cut off from most of the world for decades.

    I don't know what kinds of cleanliness issues you had there, From DC, but did you call any issues to their attention? And as a hypothetical question, what hotel in Yangon would you recommend for 520?

    520, your research turned up what mine did when I researched for our 2009 trip. While ownership in Burma is remarkably opaque, and our research doesn't guarantee that the government doesn't own some portion of the Strand, given the info we have, I'd say the NYT article overreached their info.

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    I stayed at the Strand in 1986 so my experience (hopefully)wouldn't be relevant. We showed up without a reservation --and with a baby. They were completely full so after much agonizing they gave us two "servant's rooms." At two in the morning a delegation from housekeeping arrived and assembled an intricate teak crib. After a couple of days we moved to a regular guestroom which was larger than our New York apartment.

    GHM properties in Bali are very well run -- and clean -- but I haven't had experience with them in other countries. DC, I'm sure they'd like to hear your comments.

    Agree, ownership and relationships in Asia are complex and often opaque. You peel away layers of information, rumor and implication like artichoke leaves, except you may never get to the heart.

    OK, sanctimonious may have been too severe for Mr. Hammer, but I think he should follow the dictum of First, do no harm. On balance, I believe tourism will be good for Burma and the Burmese.

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    May try to see if there are any openings at The Governor's Residence ( big smile) or The Savoy or the Kangawi (sp.?) Palace for the two nights in mid-December that we're in Yangon after the Pandaw cruise. Have been pretty much buried in work and haven't had a chance to do much more than check out reviews of the three on TA--all, except for GR, are very are those for The Strand.

    From DC, I remember from your trip report how displeased you were with The Strand. The poor report on cleanliness is disturbing--but only GR of the three others gets sterling reports on that, and it was fully booked for all the dates we tried. But I can ask SM to check again--nothing to lose.

    Marmot, Writing a large feature article for any travel periodical is usually intended to inform and encourage tourism. But I think that ground has been covered. Your experience at The Strand sounds very special, indeed. Visiting Burma in 1986 also must have been quite a special experience. Lucky you!

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    I thought it was a provocative piece which brought up issues not usually found in mainstream travel sections. The reporter painted an enticing picture of a magical, frozen-in-time place, while pointing out the complexities of traveling in the developing world. And he probably got many readers to think about who owns their luxury hotel.

    The photos were fantastic, and the headline, "It's Complicated," summed up an age-old traveler's dilemma.

    Check out the many comments on the NYT's site: One reader wrote, "....Time continues to move on and I find that my own wanderlust sometimes outweighs my social conscience and political affinities."

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    crosscheck, I'm glad you enjoyed the article. Certainly he raised some issues anyone traveling to Burma should consider.

    But I expect better from the NYT - more accuracy, for instance and more sensitivity to culture and religion. The author calling Shwedagon a "Buddhist Disneyland" was really offensive. And using the names of people he spoke with who referred to Tay Za as a "gangster" could well have gotten them picked up by the police and perhaps thrown into prison. Anyone traveling to Burma should know to be very careful in talking politics and should surely know not to name names.

    It is unclear whether there is any truth to the author's assertion that the government is now half-owner of the Strand. He would have done more good by suggesting that people research the ownership of hotels they consider, and giving them some resources. Yes, the ownership of places can be opaque, but there is lots of good info out there as well. The Lonely Planet has a lot of info on hotel ownership, for instance.

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