Tourism Industry Works to Educate as Foreign Visitors to Burma Rise

Two giant Buddhist statues from the Win Sein Taw Ya Monastery in Mon State’s Mudon Township—an area that is still very much off the beaten track for visitors to Burma. (Lawi Weng / The Irrawaddy)

Tourism industry stakeholders say awareness is key if Burma is to handle an expected influx of tourists—and the environmental and social impacts that they will bring—in a way that preserves the country’s rich natural and cultural heritage.

According to data compiled by Burma’s Ministry of Hotels and Tourism, the number of tourists entering the country has risen from over 800,000 in 2011 to more than 900,000 last year. The ministry hopes to draw one million travelers to the country this year.

While upbeat about the added revenue the tourist influx will provide, local tour operators and tourism agencies say they do not want the country’s cultural heritage to be spoiled or subsumed by outside influences as the industry develops.

“As we experience the many cultures brought in by tourists from around the world, we are widely aware of the negative impacts of tourism. There will be environmental impacts and cultural impacts as well,” said Tin Htun Aung, who runs a tour company based in Rangoon.

“We don’t want our country to be like our neighboring countries. The impacts are the concern of every citizen,” he added, citing Thailand as an example of a tourism model in which rampant sex tourism and an international reputation for wild nightlife had spoiled the cultural values of the country’s younger generations.

Government officials say the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism is working to educate citizens about tourism’s darker side, but needs cooperation from civil society and local communities to get the message out.

“The Ministry of Hotels and Tourism has had a lot of workshops on this but I think that it is still on a small scale. We need active participation from civil society as well as from locals,” said Ye Htut, Burma’s deputy information minister. Ye Htut said educating Burmese society was vital to limit the growth of sex tourism, and child and human rights abuses, as well as to preserve traditional cultural mores.

“For the culture, in the age of globalization, we cannot force the people; we cannot enact laws like some countries do to restrict the people. Our approach must not [focus] on law enforcement but must take a social awareness approach. That is the best way [to preserve culture],” he said.

This year the government made foreigners’ access to Burma easier by allowing tourists to enter the country via overland border crossings with neighboring Thailand, China and India. The Ministry of Home Affairs also lifted a restriction on visits to the gemstone mining region of Mogok, Mandalay Division, in a move that has reportedly brought an increase in the number of gemstone traders and researchers to the area.

Data from the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism indicates that most tourists from China and Thailand visit Burma on pilgrimages to the country’s various sacred Buddhist sites, but cultural tourism is increasingly seen as a draw for Western adventurers. The country’s largely unspoiled nature has the government and tour operators eager to promote ecotourism as well.

“Our county has diverse culture and scenic beauty unlike many other countries. As we move forward to integrate with Asean countries, we believe ecotourism could provide many benefits, not only to the industry but also to the country,” said Tin Htun Aung.

Ecotourism operators believe Burma’s relatively intact rainforests and remote mountainous regions—in which the cultures and traditions of ethnic inhabitants have remained largely unaffected by the homogenizing effects of globalization—are a particularly promising sell.

“If we move on to eco-tours, there will be impacts on that unspoiled nature and culture,” Tin Htun Aung said. “We need help from the government to make sure and set standards and rules to preserve it and to monitor whether the responsible people are obeying the rules or not.”

The flip side of the coin when it comes to Burma’s underdeveloped tourism industry is in the many logistical challenges.

“For investing in ecotourism, there are many requirements, especially in financing, manpower and capacity building. Cooperation from the government and local communities is vital as well,” Tin Htun Aung said.

Tour operators say they are not expecting ecotourism to be a major attraction for the Asian market and are putting the bulk of their hopes on the Western crowd.

“For the Asian market, it will be only for pilgrimages, so we are not hoping much for ecotourism. But in investment, I believe there will be more Asian investors coming to the country. However, these are always dependent on country’s economy and policies,” he added.

Although the number of tourists entering the country is on the rise, a lack of available accommodation in Burma remains a major challenge for tour companies.

Currently, Singapore is the biggest investor in Burma’s hotel industry, follow by Thailand, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Britain.

With the hotel shortage and growing tourist arrivals to Burma, fellow Asean countries are eyeing investments in the sector.

“Since Myanmar has just opened to the international community, more tourists will come to the country. Unfortunately there’s not enough accommodation,” said Sebastianus Sumarsono, the Indonesian ambassador to Myanmar. “This is how Indonesian entrepreneurs can tap Myanmar’s tourism market.”

On the other hand, the push to fill the gap between supply and demand for hotels in Burma has some worried about the environmental repercussions of unchecked development.

Other concerns center on how to best manage the country’s architectural heritage. The decision by the government to rent or sell some historical structures, like Rangoon’s High Court and Secretariat buildings, have sparked debate among historians, politicians and average Burmese citizens.

“If we want to turn these places into museums, you have to spend a lot of money. Government cannot do it alone. There is no foreign organization that will invest to run this kind of building. That’s why we have to give them to private investors. But, as with the Secretariat building, we will turn it over [to private investors] to make into a museum,” said Ye Htut.

“If someone wants it to be a museum, we are happy to do that even if the Yangon Heritage Trust is not receiving enough funding from donors. But you need to submit very good and sound the proposals,” he added.

If not handled properly, the majority of Burma’s people risk losing out on the benefits of the anticipated tourism boom, according to Christoph Amthor, a project manager of Burma Center Prague, which is educating locals and foreign tourists about responsible tourism.

“The biggest challenges are currently market concentration,” he added. “Small vendors and family businesses are pushed away by companies that seem to be backed by authorities. I think the situation reflects a general problem in Burmese society, namely a deep-rooted inequality of opportunities and a lack of ways that disenfranchised people can efficiently defend their rights.”

5 Responses to Tourism Industry Works to Educate as Foreign Visitors to Burma Rise

  1. tourism is a terrible industry and one of the most ecologically destructive. As everywhere where mass mainstream tourism has taken off.. the dollar rules, a few cunning, greedy and unscrupulous individuals get rich, people begin to lie cheat and steal, the ecosystems and local community are destroyed.. and moronic western consumer society spreads its tentacles even further..hastening the destruction of the planet.

  2. Before we take in more tourists there are questions we must answer. Here are some of them.

    1) Are we able to produce healthy foods ourselves in adequate quantity and transport them to each and every citizens?

    In reality we depends on imports to feed our mouths. Our agriculture and food production is utterly insufficient. To be a healthy, fit, and productive workers we need a variety of healthy food intake. If we are unable to produce enough food then we must work hard collectively at first on rural technology, sustainable agriculture and other food production, transportation system, food guide and food proper handling of food, hygiene, etc. must be established.

    If we are unable to feed ourselves then we will become subordinates working under the foreign bosses in the field of food production and distribution.

    2) Do we have green spaces, community areas, lush forest and jungles with wildlife in our country?

    Our jungles have been reduced to almost non existence in most parts of the country.
    The healthy forests exist only in the places where travel and timber extraction are very difficult or unprofitable.

    With the decreasing amount of nature we are losing clean and healthy atmosphere, Oxygen, clean water. We are getting more of harmful climate change and that results in unhealthy generations of peoples.
    Our children also do not have proper place to play and increase their mental and physical health. It is a very dangerous outcome of our acts that effects all the new coming generations.

    Again if we are unable to reforest our land on our own efforts we have to depend on outside help and subordinate or submissive culture will follow.

    3) Are we able to think, design, build and maintain proper healthy human shelters that are environmentally friendly as well as architecturally and naturally beautiful? Do we have enough of them? Are we able to build and maintain from a to z on our own?

    Again we do not have enough. We are depending on investment and so more and more submissive culture under the superior peoples.

    4) Do we have rule of laws that guarantees fairly equal distribution of opportunities and rights of the citizens? Do our citizens have affordable ways of discovering their own country and associated knowledge and skills? Do our citizens know their own country and different ethnic peoples? Are we have healthy bonding and friendship among the different ethnic groups? Are our citizens have equal access and right to education, training, health care, doing good business, production of good products and services, etc?

    Again we do not have it yet!
    The divides between
    – small group of rich and large group of poor
    – small group of highly educated and large group lacking education
    – small group of smart citizens and large group of stupids
    – etc etc

    are huge and almost irreversible.
    We already have most expensive living cost in the world while the minimum pay of the most workers are the lowest in the world.

    To make jobs for the public we went for the short cuts and we bring in foreign investment in production and or distribution of alcoholic drinks, pepsi, coke, beer, cigarettes, cosmetics, instant noodle, other junk food, other unhealthy food stuff and environmentally harmful stuff. Then we are taking in more and more submissive culture plus attitude of making money without care for the others (irresponsibility).

    5) Are our citizens mentally and physically healthy and fit, and what about our level of education (thinking, philosophy, arts and science, openness, etc.) and life skills, productivity or efficiency, wealth and accomplishment?

    No! We are ones of the smallest peoples in the world. Our mental and physical health level is very low. We are the poorest in the world. Our education is also one of the worse. The consequences are diverse and they are not nice.

    Here is just one example of what is happening –
    We are having ever larger number of peoples with depression due to seeing ourselves in lower class compared to the arriving foreigners in terms of plenty of human qualifications including health and fitness, accomplishment, access and rights, wealth, etc.
    Money alone can not prevent the depression. All properties of human must be raised. Look at Japan, Singapore, etc. for their suicide rates (interestingly bigger percentage is male).
    If we are open enough, and if we are able to constructively talk and discuss without the barrier of taboo, shame factor and media bias we will be able to find the real sources of depression and other social problems.

    6) Do we have healthy, strong, peaceful and long lasting friendship and bonding among our peoples, among our various ethnic citizens?

    Again the answer is no.
    If we do not love each other, if many of citizens love foreigners more than their country peoples, if – – – – , then what kind of country we live in?
    We are basically a slave country. Without this love and peace we can not build a healthy country and our next generations will suffer – they will become world’s submissive class and they will take happiness in being submissive, being cheerers and admirers of others, being at the receiving ends, and so on. A good part of the public will be under constant (maybe unconscious) depression.

    7) What about sustainability?
    Do we have at least basic technology, know how, skills, discipline, productivity and efficiency, etc. to think, plan, produce and maintain our society on a level that is needed as a bottom line?

    if we do not have discipline at home, on the streets, in work, etc. and if most of our workers are just careless and unproductive then we are going down to slavery.
    If we are unable to produce at least most of the basic life needs ourselves, then we are at the receiving ends and living as subordinates and depressed.

    If we do not know how to manage a business, how to manage a clean healthy and green community, if we do not know how to design a environmentally friendly and safe transport system ourselves, if we do not know how to protect nature and wildlife, – – – then we are transferring the worse kind of life to our children.

    There are more to discuss.
    With these facts we must know what are the most important things, and what are the things that we should do only in slow and very careful way.

    Basically we want to answer yes to all the above questions to be able to build a proper place to live for our next generations.

    We can go slow but steady and want to see always improving in all these aspects.
    We do not want to be submissive. We do not want to have more depressed peoples. We do not want to be slave of any kinds because our skill level is low, because we do not know how to do, because we are unhealthy and smaller, because we are unable to control our exploding desires and greed, etc.

    And we do not want to see more damage in our environment, culture and unity.

  3. Many Burmese women are available in Thailand anyway. You can have as many Burmese women as you want in Thailand. At the same time, they are available everywhere in Burma too. So, picking on Thailand for sex tourism is hypocritical to me. Please go to your bathroom and look yourself in the mirror first you pick on others. There is no way near the Burmese people are more polite than the Thais. If cheating, stealing, robbing and rudeness are they things people can be proud of, the Burmese will be the proudest people. Because these are things which Burmese can do best.

  4. Look properly….
    The Tourist you see are returning Home….
    They have Buried their father and mother and their grave reads born in Burma
    Fifty Years!
    Second or Third Generation
    are coming home….
    What a Shame?
    Ne Win destroyed families and Burma…

  5. Ne Win not welcome in Hell

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