Tourism Surge Tests Mandalay’s Endurance

By Nyein Nyein 7 June 2013

MANDALAY — Tourists have been flocking to Burma’s ancient former capital Mandalay. But so many have come that it is putting a strain on a local service sector not yet developed to cope with the influx.

During the last high season—from October to April—there were not enough tourist guides to meet demand as the city of kings saw the highest tourism figures on record, Sithu, secretary of the Mandalay Tour Guide Society, said on Thursday.

Sithu said tourist arrivals began to increase following US President Barack Obama’s visit to the country last year where he praised the changes happening in Burma.

“We had to struggle to survive in the early 2000s as we had fewer visitors and we had to wait our turn to work as a guide,” recalled Sithu. “But the situation has now changed.”

Mandalay is littered with cultural wonders: the Mahamuni Buddha image, U Bein Bridge in Amarapura, the Sagaing hills and the capital of the ancient kingdom of Ava to name a few.

But poor or non-existent conservation policies are worrying some locals, who fear the traditional culture of Mandalay will be lost in the tourist boom. Mandalay is unique in that enough sites of historical value remain intact that both young Burmese and visiting tourists can imagine how the old kings of Burma lived, said Hsu Hnget, a prominent writer and resident of Mandalay.

“It is a rare place where you can learn about Burmese architecture,” Hsu Hnget said. “But the uniqueness of Mandalay has been gradually eroded.” The writer recalled the gentrification of the downtown area in the 1980s, and the influx of Chinese money which built the modern district the visitor can see today.

Since then, beggars have become more visible, rubbish litters the streets and the smell of animal waste hangs in the air. A combination of rapid urbanization and a lack of knowledge about cultural preservation on the part of the authorities have contributed to the destruction of Mandalay’s archeological sites.

Taung Thaman Inn, a large lake spanned by U Bein Bridge, is a case in point, said Hsu Hnget. In the hot season, crops would sprout in the lake, followed by flooding in the rainy season and plentiful fishing during the winter months. But since the 1980s the lake has been constantly flooded, causing damage to the nearly 200-year-old bridge’s supports.

“It is because the coordination between the Archeological Department, Hotel and Tourism Department and the local authorities has been really weak,” Hsu Hgnet said.

Slum communities displaced during the modernization of downtown have settled near the lake, reshaping the scenery as they struggle to find new ways to live

“Begging is the immediate problem we need to solve,” Sithu argued. “I just got a call from one of our guides complaining that a young novice monk is asking for money from the foreigners.”

As well as being worried about catering to the growing numbers of tourists, locals also expressed concerns about a coming clash of cultures between locals and Chinese business owners. The wave of mainland Chinese entering the country in the 1990s has changed the relationship between locals and the Chinese community.

More than a million travelers visited Burma last year, compared with approximately 816,000 visitors in 2011, government figures released in January show. On Thursday Burma announced a US $500 million plan sponsored by the Norwegian government to boost tourism facilities to cope with the estimated 7.5 million tourists expected to come to Burma annually by 2020.