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.”