INLE LAKE, Myanmar — The boatman turns off the engine and lets his long boat glide along Myanmar's Inle Lake, as foreign tourists soak in the stunning scenery of villages built on stilts dotting the shorelines of the massive freshwater lake ringed with picturesque mountain ranges.
Ngae Ni, 35, graduated as a chemist more than a decade ago but he became a boatman because he could not get a better job in Southeast Asia's only military-ruled nation and one of its poorest. He earns up to $250 a month ferrying foreigners around the lake.
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"I hope that ... more tourists will come here. They should really see the poverty in our country with their own eyes," he said during a recent trip, flashing a smile with his betel nut-stained teeth.
He may get his wish. The release of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest in November appears to be opening the way for more tourists by easing concerns that visiting the country is a signal of support for Myanmar's military dictatorship.
Suu Kyi herself, in an interview with The Associated Press shortly after her release, said large group tourism wasn't encouraged, but "individuals coming in to see, to study the situation in the country might be a good idea."
International activist groups, which have long called for a tourism boycott, have followed Suu Kyi's lead and softened their stance, now only asking that tourists snub package tours and cruise ships, which are often operated by government cronies.
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Colorado-based Asia Transpacific Journeys, which specializes in custom journeys and small group trips to Asia, said bookings to Myanmar have surged 150 percent since November compared to a year ago, as more travelers now feel more comfortable visiting the country.
Even before Suu Kyi's release, the tourism issue long divided activists both inside and outside Myanmar.
Supporters of a boycott believed tourism dollars sent the wrong signal and helped fund a government that still holds some 2,000 political prisoners. But others argued that tourism gave the isolated Myanmarese a rare opportunity to connect with the outside world, and that visitors give moral and sometimes even financial support to communities in need.
Also, the government is less involved in tourism than in the past, with many state-owned hotels and other tourism assets sold to private investors in the past decade.
Myanmar, however, remains a relatively remote destination for most, and no one expects an overnight tourism boom.
Suu Kyi's release isn't likely to draw Americans in large numbers, partly because Asia isn't high on their travel list and many consider the country dangerous following the military's violent crackdown on in 2007, said Douglas Shachnow, head of the Florida chapter of the Pacific-Asia Travel Association.
"The release is just not a big issue," he said. "There are other more long-standing factors that will ... (limit tourism to) all but the most interested, inquisitive, open-minded travelers with the financial wherewithal."
Still, tourism has been growing for several years, if from a small base.
Arrivals to Myanmar surged 34 percent to 212,500 in the first nine months of last year and may hit a record of 300,000 for all of 2010, according to the Bangkok-based Pacific-Asia Travel Association. Asians make up about two-thirds of the arrivals, Europeans 22 percent and Americans only 8 percent.
The total is a far cry from the 14 million who visit neighboring Thailand every year, the 4 million who go to nearby Vietnam, and the 2 million each to Cambodia and Laos.
Myanmar tourism revenue hit $196 million in 2009, almost double what it was in 2002, the Pacific travel association said. Tourism isn't a main revenue earner for the government, compared to the billions the junta makes from natural resources such as timber, jewels, oil and natural gas.
Some of the country's tour operators are hoping for a bumper year with new hotels set to open this year. Myanmar also joined with Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos last year in a campaign to encourage tours combining their countries.
The sector is hampered by a string of issues including poor infrastructure, limited tourism facilities and difficulty in getting visas. Many areas, especially along the country's border, are closed to tourists. The Internet is unreliable and credit cards are useless due to international sanctions, making it a hard-cash country.
In December, travel operators preparing for the busiest time of the year were dealt a blow when the government suspended the operations of private airline Yangon Airways in a move seen as politically motivated. The carrier's owner is linked to a fractious ethnic minority group.
Despite the impediments, Myanmar appeals to travelers with its spectacular landscape and wide offerings from ancient Buddhist monuments to jungle trekking, bucolic villages and beach holidays.
One of its key attraction is Bagan, one of the world's most remarkable archaeological sites where more than 2,000 ancient Buddhist temples and stupas dot the vast dusty plain. Others include Inle Lake, home to Ngae Ni's Intha tribe, famed for their unique one-leg rowing technique and floating vegetable gardens.
Bernard Dufour, 62, from Reunion Island off the coast of Madagascar, said he had skipped Myanmar in the past but decided to visit in November with his wife on friends' recommendations. He said he made sure to support local residents and avoid state-run facilities.
"It's a beautiful country. I don't feel it's wrong to visit as long as I am not supporting the government," he said as he sat cross-legged on the dusty floor of a small meditation cave nestled in a hillock near Inle Lake during a jungle trek.
According to government data, there are some 6,000 licensed tour guides and companies as well as more than 600 hotels and accommodation across the country. But in a country where a third of the population lives below the poverty line, many villagers are increasingly depending on tourism to supplement their income.
Many young people learn English and other foreign languages to become part-time tourist guides. Children as young as 6 are often seen at major tourist spots, hawking souvenirs to foreigners.
Jan Zalewski, analyst with London-based research house IHS Global Insight, said Myanmar is much more open today than it was two decades ago, suggesting that further engagement — including investment in tourism — could lead to a further opening-up.
"By supporting private ventures such as small guesthouses, as well as a fair degree of exposure to the Burmese people, such tourism could indeed contribute to the development of a population which might be able to provide stronger checks and balances to the policies of the government," Zalewski said.
Foreign travelers have engaged and touched many poor communities along the way.
A new one-story school block opened in a village nearby the meditation cave in late 2009, sponsored by a Japanese couple. Some 100 tribal children now no longer need to trek for an hour to school.
In their former school, teachers appeal for donation. The names "Mama Oo and Mama Judy from Australia" were scrawled on a small new whiteboard that contrasted with the bare crumbling facilities, reminding the children to thank their benefactors who had donated books, pencils and rice.
About two dozen children, ages 6 to 10, dutifully perform a medley of English nursery rhymes and local songs for foreign visitors, swaying their hips and clapping their hands as they dance while standing on old wooden chairs.
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