The promises and perils in the tourism industry
Over the past two years, tourists have been landing on Myanmar’s shores, eager to catch a glimpse of the scenic and cultural wonders in a country, long under the pall of a military regime, now freer.
Take Myanmar’s Myiek Archipelago. This appears to offer tourist bonanza waiting to be tapped. There are about 800 islands, many of which are uninhabited and others home to ethnic Moken or Sea Gypsies. The islands have rock pinnacles, coral fringes and lush vegetation, seemingly postcard perfect. Dolphins drop by for a look and the diving is said to be superb. So, with a potential resource like this, should Myanmar be looking to Thailand as an example and thinking they can mimic the tourist draw of the Koh Phi Phi islands?
Myanmar would be wise to take care. The Thai island popularized in Alex Garland’s “The Beach” and the movie is now over-developed. The beaches are overcrowded and noisy, the water is polluted and the mistreated local monkeys do bite. While there are laws in Thailand to promote better development in popular tourist areas, influential locals or outside businesspeople can often circumvent them. So, the money rolls in but there are big costs to the environment and big questions about who benefits the most.
As the potential for tourism in Myanmar rises dramatically, and unless the country wants haphazard and possibly unsustainable tourism, now is the time to improve infrastructure and make sure doing that doesn’t destroy the very environment its meant to promote, nor the livelihoods and culture of the inhabitants in such areas.
It is not a moment too soon, as sources close to major tourism businesses already speak of an ongoing boom since late in 2010. Visitor arrival numbers are at around 1 million per year and rising. A large percentage of arrivals – despite their tourist visas – have actually come to do business or check out business opportunities. But the number of tourists are said to have doubled over the last year, and at times it is difficult to find a hotel room.
There is recognition that significant structural hurdles lie ahead. As Yan Win, vice chairman of the Myanmar Tourism Board is recorded as pointing out, since the tourist numbers picked up in 2011, there are limits in terms of hotels and vehicles for transportation, not enough tourist guides, and a lack of basic infrastructure to accommodate the growing influx of visitors being welcomed to the country.
Doing things right
Myanmar needs all that and more. Even if more hotels get built and more roads get paved, other sectors of the economy will have to be ungraded. For example, most tourists get a little anxious about carrying buckets of cash around, and the fact that these should be completely unblemished US $100 notes add an extra burden. Wider credit card acceptance, plus ATMs becoming more prevalent and accessible to overseas visitors, will help.
But planners will need to tap very seriously into what is called “responsible tourism” so that building the nfrastructure doesn’t run amok and benefit t he few.
The term received its current definition in the form of a declaration issued at a side event to the 2002 World Conference on Sustainable Development held in Cape Town, South Africa. The declaration held that the responsible tourism is that which:
“…minimizes negative economic, environmental, and social impacts; generates greater economic benefits for local people and enhances the well-being of host communities, improves working conditions and access to the industry; involves local people in decisions that affect their lives and life chances; makes positive contributions to the conservation of natural and cultural heritage, to the maintenance of the world’s diversity; provides more enjoyable experiences for tourists through more meaningful connections with local people, and a greater understanding of local cultural, social and environmental issues; provides access for physically challenged people; and is culturally sensitive, engenders respect between tourists and hosts, and builds local pride and confidence.”
Since the 2010 general elections and the ensuing political thaw, there are those in Myanmar across the political spectrum, and in other walks of life who have taken notice of the need to promote tourism responsibly.
Business and development conferences have grown popular, and tourism is one subject receiving attention. In September 2011, Dr. Andrea Valentin, a tourism expert and founder of Tourist Transparency, went to Myanmar and gave a series of gave a series of workshops on responsible tourism as well as on how to address both positive and
negative impacts in Burma. She spoke to representatives from the government’s Ministry of Tourism in Bagan, and gave a workshop to members of the National League for Democracy at their headquarters in Yangon.
Income and sustainability
This was followed by the First International Conference on Responsible Tourism in Myanmar, held at the International Convention Centre in Naypyitaw in February 2012. Two organizations sponsored the event. The first, Germany’s Hanns Seidel Foundation, emphasizes that its work in Myanmar involves activities that concentrate on capacity building in the context of a transition towards a social and ecological market economy, especially in the context of a development of a private sector. The other sponsor was the International Center for Responsible Tourism (ICRT), an NGO registered in the UK.
Workshops comprised the first two days. Twenty-two government ministries attended the one targeted at the public sector, while the Myanmar Tourist Board, a newly formed agency with offices in Yangon’s Trader’s Hotel, hosted a private sector workshop that brought together hotel owners, tour guides and other involved in the sector. Dr. Valentin and Harold Goodwin, Professor of Responsible Tourism Management at Leeds Metropolitan University in the UK and founder of the ICRT, were the keynote speakers. Other conferences have followed.
Exchange of ideas
Conferences of this nature are generally recognized as a good way to exchange ideas and offer solutions for the challenges facing Myanmar as it opens the doors to tourists, yet, at the same time, seeks to develop the sector sustainably.
Government players, such as Yan Win of the Myanmar Tourism Board, recognize the need for speed and the dearth of information when it comes to operating sustainably.
Win Oo Tan, the general manager of the Aureum Resort & Spa in Inle, recognizes that Myanmar had a lot of catching up to do. Many other countries in the world have been trying to implement the principles of responsible tourism for some time, he says, adding that Myanmar has a lot of catching up to do. He says that tourism development should provide equal opportunities and not just make people at the top prosperous.
Such high sounding words need translating down to the local level and they also need practical applications that, in essence, should maximize the benefits of increase tourism while minimizing the negative.
How this is handled is opened to debate. Khin Zaw, honorary advisor to the Union of Myanmar Travel Association has argued for a top-down approach, one in which the adverse impacts are minimized. He says this is the domain of the government, with the “The government will have to define ‘do’s and don’ts’,” he says. “This should not just involve the private sectors and small organizations but ministries also need to be involved.
Responsible tourism is not just for the rich. Local people need to borrow money so they can build guesthouses. I want them to obtain the benefits of expanded tourism. That’s why it is called responsible tourism.”
Smaller operators in the business have struggled at times to deal with an imperfect legal framework prone to corruption and abuses by the powerful. For example, in 2010 one guesthouse operator in Rakhine State complained of the need to pay excessive and repeated fees for licensing, especially for one that allowed him to receive foreign guests, the need to pay indirect bribes and also that the relatives of generals seemed to have little problem in building what kinds of hotels they wanted and where they wanted.
Emblematic of the failure to minimize negatives impacts, at many levels, were the choices made by the previous military government to “develop” the country’s premier attraction, the Bagan Archaeological Zone. Some 5,000 villagers were compelled to move away from the zone to an area with inadequate housing, so as to make the area more attractive to paying tourists. A golf course was opened in September 1995. Restoration work has been done poorly – the term ‘archaeological blitzkrieg has been voiced – using modern materials such as bathroom tiles and poured concrete. Amidst the pagodas the government constructed a 65-metre observation tower, severely impairing the visual integrity of the site according to UNESCO.
Need for planning
Critics complain about the military regime’s poor planning that favored friends of those in power. “Myanmar did not have effective tourism sector planning because our system was completely centralized in the past. So, both government officials and influential businessmen did as they liked,” says Dr. Nwai Aye Aye Wai, a director of Emerald Sea Resort in Ngwe Saung beach. He calls for cooperation between the government and the private sector to improve the situation.
Plans are underway to improve infrastructure and improve facilities, particularly with the SEA Games coming up at the end of the year, the country chairing ASEAN in 2014, and the general drive to bring in further democratic and economic reforms.
New roads, airports, hotels and the recent changes to visa policy will not guarantee, for example, that those islands in the Myeik Archipelago manage to keep their local environment and culture reasonably intact as the guesthouses go up and the banana pancake breakfasts get served.
Myanmar can learn from Koh Phi Phi or the degradation of Pattaya with its all too obvious sex trade. Despite Myanmar’s push for foreign currency, these examples of “Paradise Lost” should not serve as models to emulate.