RANGOON — Clear blue water, white sand beaches and a quiet atmosphere have put Arakan State’s Ngapali beach on local and international holidaymakers’ itineraries for generations.
Located in Thandwe Township, where the Bay of Bengal ends on Arakan State’s shores, Ngapali is considered the crown jewel of seaside resorts in Burma. It even once served as Burmese ex-dictator Ne Win’s favorite locale for retreats, during the decades in which he ruled the country with an iron fist.
But the famed Ngapali beach is now perceived to be under threat by proposed three- to five-story low-rise construction requests from local businessmen trying to cope with an influx of local and international tourists. People are worried that the building projects could damage the beauty of the shoreline, and spoil Ngapali’s famed views.
‘Everybody Wants More Stories’
In recent years, the beach has seen a large number of local tourists due to a rising interest in travel, as well as an increase in international visitors since 2012 when Burma became more accessible to the outside world.
A member of Ngapali Beach Supervisory Committee and current Thandwe Township administrator U Than Zaw Han said nearly 43,000 international tourists visited the beach in 2016, while 2015 saw more than 38,000 visitors.
“If you add the number of local visitors to the beach, it would be surely higher,” he speculated, but pointed out that the number of local arrivals had not been separately documented.
With 20 hotels, three motels and 26 guesthouses in operation, the committee says that tourists outnumber the accommodation available on the beach.
Guesthouses, with more affordable room rates than hotels, typically cater to local visitors. At the rate they are filling up, some owners are looking to expand room numbers to accommodate more tourists. But with land prices near the beachfront running as high as 3 billion kyats per acre, according to local lawmakers, many guesthouse owners are thinking about adding more stories to existing buildings rather than constructing new ones.
The move, however, goes against the coastal beach guidelines published by the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism in 2004, which prohibits buildings in hotel zones from exceeding two stories in height.
“Everybody here wants to have more stories but they [the authorities] do not allow us to do that,” said Daw Zarni Sann, who runs a guesthouse in a prime location between the road to Thandwe airport and the beach. She is thinking about adding more stories to her existing two-story building to accommodate more visitors.
Since the National League for Democracy (NLD) government came to power last year, local guesthouse owners have approached lawmakers to ask in Parliament for permission to construct taller buildings in the Ngapali hotel zone as well as in nearby villages.
According to U Kyaw Aye Thein, regional minister for finance, taxation, planning and economics, the government already ordered six guesthouses to demolish a third floor which reached beyond the guidelines.
On Wednesday, an NLD Lower House lawmaker from Thandwe Township submitted a question to Parliament inquiring whether the requested heights for hotels and guesthouses at Ngapali, Ngwe Saung and Chaung Tha beaches would be permitted.
The Union Minister of Hotels and Tourism U Ohn Maung replied that the ministry could not allow any hotels or guesthouses taller than 10 meters, as is stated in the 2004 Coastal Beach Directive, a set of guidelines prepared by the ministry.
The minister added that the restrictions could be amended in the future, but only after a thorough review. It would need to be based on the development of costal tourism, the impact on environmental conservation and on the beauty of the beaches, the livelihoods of people surrounding the beaches and visitors’ convenience in finding accommodation.
In their recent online survey targeted at visitors to Ngapali, the Myanmar Center for Responsible Business (MCRB) asked whether the government should lift current height restrictions at Ngapali beach or stick with “existing tallest palm tree” limit in the 2004 tourism ministry guidelines.
The survey, which was conducted following lobbying by some businesses of the Ministry, found that more than 95 percent of more than 400 respondents favored keeping the 10-meter height limit, and commented that they would go elsewhere if Ngapali changed its appearance; less than five percent supported permitting taller buildings.
MCRB, which has been made aware that some buildings in Ngapali, including some hotels, have already breached the two-story height limit, sais their organization believes that local planning limits need to apply to all types of structures, as part of wider destination management, and that they part of an informed and transparent debate at the local level about the impacts. MCRB also emphasizes that decisions should not be left to business lobbying of local government or the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism, which introduced the current height restriction.
Vicky Bowman, the director of MCRB, told The Irrawaddy that allowing more visible high rise development in Ngapali will change the nature of the market and deter its current high-end tourists, who are looking for a unique “unspoilt” white sand beach without extensive development. Instead Ngapali will be forced to compete with popular destinations elsewhere in Asia, such as Phuket in Thailand and Bali in Indonesia. If it successfully repositions itself in that mass market, the increase in lower-paying tourists could increase the negative environmental, social and cultural impacts, Bowman said.
“The risk is that the market for tourism in Ngapali—if it lifts current height limit and mass market—could collapse entirely,” she explained. This is particularly true since “the mass market is very fickle and vulnerable to political risk, such as Embassy security warnings about Rakhine [State].”
“Existing visitors will search out other quiet ‘pristine’ luxury beach destinations in Myanmar or Asia, while Ngapali fails to build up the necessary transport and water and waste infrastructure to allow it to compete with mass tourism. So that would be lose-lose for Ngapali,” Bowman said.
Daw Sabe Aung, the managing director of Nature Dream Tour, pointed out that changing height limits in the villages would not be pragmatic, and would just address the tourist influx in summer. She suggested that instead of allowing new hotels and guesthouses near the beach, the construction of hotels and guesthouses in the nearby hills nearby would be more appropriate.
“The government should also adopt a new policy on beach land management for the investors, she said, as a strategy to cope with the changing situation in Ngapali.
MCRB’s director Vicky Bowman suggested that the government form a transparent destination management organization which involves government departments, police, business people who live there, as well as women and children.
The organization could pursue agreements between the government and the private sector and locals, including those regarding land management, zoning and planning as well sustainable tourism.
Destination management, Bowman said, is also about creating a “new product.” For example, “there are villages where tourists can travel and go walking, bicycling and can stay overnight, those kinds of things,” she explained.
Thandwe native Ma Myat Mon, who is now operating a travel agency for Ngapali and the surrounding areas, said the government should stick to its current height restrictions for the sake of “maintaining Ngapali’s natural beauty as much as possible.”
She also suggested that rather than changing height limits mostly proposed by guesthouse owners near beachfront, the government should introduce homestay programs in surrounding villages to ease the accommodation crisis as there are many traditional wooden houses which could potentially host visitors.
But first, “the government should provide [locals] with necessary trainings, as people here are not familiar with that kind of tourism business,” Ma Myat Mon said.