RANGOON — Damage to almost 200 historic pagodas and temples in Bagan, after a 6.8 magnitude earthquake struck central Burma on Wednesday evening, has not dampened tourist interest in the ruins of the ancient Burmese capital.
Quite the opposite: Burmese tour operators say inquiries about Bagan tours have shot up since the earthquake, and fears of mass cancellations have not materialized, despite government orders to restrict entry to some of Bagan’s most iconic sites, due to damage.
The earthquake struck at 5:04 p.m. on Wednesday, 25 kilometers west of Chauk in Magwe Division, at a depth of 84 kilometers. It was felt across Burma, and in neighboring countries. The Bagan Archaeological Department has cited damage to 187 pagodas and temples, including iconic favorites Sulamani, Ananda, Htilominlo, Myazedi, Shwesandaw, Lawkananda and Dhamma Yazaka, and the murals at Ananda Oakkyaung.
“After the earthquake, we were worried about the old temples in Bagan, and concerned about the impact on tourism—but, amazingly, we’ve received many inquiries from tourists about Bagan tours,” said Aung Myat Kyaw, vice chairman of the Myanmar Tourism Federation.
“We can promote voluntary tourism in Bagan later, since many tourists are interested in visiting damaged areas,” he said.
The temples of Bagan, dating from between the 9th and 13th centuries—when the Kingdom of Pagan ruled over much of lowland Burma—and numbering several thousand, are considered Burma’s biggest tourist draw. Some 80 percent of foreign tourists in Burma visit Bagan, industry observers have said.
Daw Sabei Aung, managing director of the Nature Dreams tour company, said they had received many inquiries from tour-seekers who had learned of the damaged temples.
“I don’t worry for the tourism industry after the earthquake. Bagan is even more popular right now, and there have been no cancellations of bookings from clients,” she said.
She said that tour agencies could arrange alternate tour plans for Bagan, to account for the restricted access to some of Bagan’s most famous temples.
“We won’t get inside the compounds of the damaged temples, but we have opportunities for photo stops outside, alongside other sightseeing approaches,” she said.
On Thursday, State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi sent notice to officials in the Bagan archaeological zone not to “rush” the restoration of the damaged pagodas, and to seek technical assistance from Unesco. A team from Unesco is currently doing a damage survey, and has expressed concern over premature efforts to clear debris.
A state run newspaper on Friday quoted Culture and Religious Affairs Minister U Aung Ko saying that restoring Bagan’s most iconic temples was the government’s “top priority.”
“It is a great source of merit to have the chance to repair and renovate Burma’s cultural heritage damaged by the earthquake,” the minister said.
Figures from the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism put tourist arrivals in Burma at 4.68 million in 2015, with 5.5 million expected over 2016. However, these figures count all international arrivals as “tourists,” and count day-crossings of land borders without overnight stays as “arrivals,” in contravention of international norms.