Arakan State authorities are preventing foreign tourists from visiting Mrauk-U, a major heritage site, because of ongoing inter-communal tensions in the area, according to local business owners. State officials however, deny taking the measures
“The tourist season ends next month, in March. [But] we cannot do anything as tourism business is restricted,” said Hla Myint, the owner of “Mrauk-U Princess” hotel in Mrauk-U Township.
He said authorities were curbing tourism by turning back foreign visitors upon arrival at Sittwe airport, the capital of Arakan State in west Burma.
“As the tourists are restricted to come, the tourism business in the whole of Mrauk-U town has stopped,” said another hotel owner, adding that local businesses and families had suffered from a serious loss in income as a result.
“While there are about 400,000 tourists visiting Burma [in recent years], we have received only about 8,000 tourists in our area,” said an employee at an Mrauk-U travel agency.
There are six private hotels with several hundred employees in the town, while local transport services, tour guides and other businesses also rely on foreign visitors.
Mrauk-U heritage site, located in northern Arakan, is the former capital of a 16th-century Buddhist kingdom. Hundreds of historic temples remain scattered across the hilltops and the site is a major tourist destination.
Northern Arakan has also been the site of deadly clashes between Arakanese Buddhist and Muslim communities which began in June last year. During waves of religious communal violence that swept over the state scores of people were killed, villages were burned down and some 115,000 people fled their homes.
Tourist visits to Mrauk-U Township were banned after June, but were allowed again soon after on request of local businessmen.
Last October however, violence broke out again and the Muslim village of Yan Thei — located just south of Mrauk-U town — was completely burned down during bloody clashes between Buddhist Arakanese and Muslim Rohingya mobs, according to satellite images analyzed by Human Rights Watch.
Since then, authorities have restricted further tourist visits to Mrauk-U town.
Nu Nu Phyu said her company Khaing Pyi Soe Transport Services for Foreigners had arranged a tourist trip recently, but authorities at Sittwe airport stopped the foreign visitors. “We had to send back four tourists to Rangoon immediately on January 9,” she said.
State authorities have not officially announced the measures but have failed to respond to requests to lift the restrictions, according to local businessmen. The business owners claim that foreign tourists should be allowed to visit as Mrauk-U town itself is free from inter-communal unrest.
Arakan State officials denied however, that the restrictions were in place.
“As far as I can tell, we do not limit going to Mrauk-U or Sittwe. The foreigners working in NGOs are travelling [in the area] every day,” said Htay Win, who heads the Arakan State Tourism Team.
“Such restrictions or banning orders can only be made at the ministerial level,” he said, adding that other tourists spots like Ngapail beach in Thandwe Township in southern Arakan State, received about 800 tourists every day.
Staff answering the telephone at Burma Tourism Industry office in Mrauk-U Township said nonetheless, that they were under instructions from Arakan state officials to curb tourist visits.
“The township level staffs do not have power to restrict, but we act in accordance with the State Tourism Team leader’s instructions,” said an official, who spoke under condition of anonymity.