Myanmar & COVID-19

Myanmar World Heritage Site Residents Demand Return of Visitors as COVID-19 Hits Economy

By Zue Zue 26 January 2021

Yangon — Bagan residents who are dependent on tourism have called for the site to be reopened to visitors with COVID-19 precautions.

They said they would ask the Mandalay regional government to reopen pagodas and temples in Bagan and allow tourist businesses to trade by February as they are struggling. They also sent a petition to Mandalay Region chief minister Dr. Zaw Myint Maung on Monday.

COVID-19 restrictions have hammered Bagan’s hotels, restaurants, horse-cart drivers and souvenir shops. Bagan has been closed since the first COVID-19 cases were reported in March last year and residents are struggling to make ends meet, said resident U Min Chan Oo, who operates a tuk-tuk and e-bike rental firm.

“It is important that business resumes. Other towns in Mandalay Region have already come back to life, doing business. Our town is dependent on tourism so it must reopen as soon as possible. Only then will we have breathing space,” said U Min Chan Oo.

Businesses, that have invested with loans in the hope that Bagan would attract more visitors as a Unesco World Heritage Site, are now also worried about loan repayments, he said.

“We are not asking for Bagan to be reopened to international travelers, just a relaxation for visitors from Myanmar who can follow coronavirus regulations,” he said.

In their petition, Bagan residents pledged that they would abide by COVID-19 instructions.

“There are many options, such as only allowing visitors who have tested negative, limiting the number of visitors at pagodas, only accepting visitors from townships without stay-at-home orders and only allowing day-trippers. Livelihoods must be restored,” said U Myint Naing, an executive of the Bagan Tour Guides Association.

Some cart drivers are reportedly being forced to sell their horses at any price as they can no longer afford to feed their animals.

Nyaung-U district administrator U Kyaw Kyaw Ohn said the regional authorities have made preparations following guidelines from the Central Committee for Prevention, Control and Treatment of COVID-19 and Ministry of Health and Sports at every pagoda to allow visits.

“It depends on the COVID-19 central committee. Pagodas will be opened when it gives permission,” he said.

Washbasins, hand sanitizer and thermal-imaging cameras have been installed at the pagodas and online booking will prevent overcrowding, he said. It will be difficult to control the pagodas if numerous visitors arrive at once. So they proposed a pilot project for day-trippers during the week and visitors from further away will be only allowed at the weekend.

“We have presented the pilot project to the minister for hotels and tourism. If we accept visitors from all over the country, it could cause problems,” said U Kyaw Kyaw Ohn.

The Directorate of Hotels and Tourism said Bagan received over 400,000 foreign tourists and 160,000 domestic visitors in 2019. The town has barely received any visitors since last March.

Myanmar reported 137,574 COVID-19 cases with 121,558 recoveries and 3,062 deaths on Monday since March 23. The number of daily new infections remains over 400, down from above 1,000 in late December.

Bagan, the major tourist draw in Myanmar, was added to the World Heritage List by the United Nations cultural agency, Unesco, in July 2019. Its more than 3,000 pagodas and temples date from between the ninth and 13th centuries, spanning the rule of about 50 Bagan dynasty kings.

Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko

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