Could tourism become a Pandora's box for Myanmar?
BAGAN, Myanmar (eTN) - Imagine a young and beautiful girl looking into a mirror for the first time and suddenly discovering how pretty she is. She has two choices: nurturing and enhancing her inner natural beauty, or using her power of seduction to attract anyone. Myanmar looks like this young girl in front of the mirror.
Over 50 years of isolation has preserved the genuine beauty of its people and its landscapes. With its will to open up to tourism, the country, however, acknowledges the risks it might take. “We can destroy our social fabric just for the sake of tourism development. We have to be very careful on our future strategies,” explained Ohn Thwin, Assistant Hotel Manager of the Aureum Palace Hotel in Bagan, the venue to Myanmar's first international tourism event, GMS Travel Leaders’ Symposium on Sustainable Tourism.
After three days of debates and workshops, there was unanimity among the 100 participants that Myanmar’s political and economic isolation has been a blessing in disguise. “With Myanmar, we are experiencing one of the most exciting events in Asian tourism today. Opening Myanmar is to let travelers discover one of the most fabulous destinations on the continent and still completely unspoilt. With its rich cultures, its amazing natural and historical heritage, its mountains or its coastline, Myanmar has all the ingredients to turn into a major world destination. Plus an unbeatable plus over some other countries: its authenticity,” told Mason Florence, Executive Director of the Mekong Tourism Coordinating Office, the driving force behind the event with Myanmar Ministry of Hotels and Tourism and the Myanmar Tourism Board.
Over the last two days, the symposium looked at examples of sustainable tourism in the Greater Mekong Sub-region, especially with the empowerment of communities in the development of tourism products. Over the last 12 to 15 years, community-based initiatives have blossomed not only in Thailand but also in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos with home-stay programs, agricultural or fishing tourism, as well as craft tourism. “It is one of the best ways to help alleviate poverty for local populations. Providing support and facilitating cooperation among stakeholders from grassroots to international levels can then be done in order to strengthen the capacity of communities to manage tourism sustainably,” explained Pradech Phayakvichien from the Thailand Community-Based Tourism Institute.
There is a serious concern for Myanmar to avoid mistakes done by some of its neighbors. “We realize that quick tourism growth goes often on pair with a dilution of our cultural heritage from a human or from a landscape point of view. We will go step by step, going from 300,000 air arrivals to 400,000 then to 500,000. Our government is conscious that will be the way to prevent an over-commercialization of our assets and the destruction of our social and cultural fabric,” said Htay Aung, Deputy Minister for Myanmar Ministry of Hotels and Tourism during the symposium.
Most participants could not agree more. They fully endorse the government's initiative to publish a tourism masterplan and to make sure that future developers will abide to the rules. “Zoning is a key to tourism. State governance is incredibly important to respect the fragile balance of eco-tourism and cultural tourism. It can also answer to a growing demand of travelers for sustainable tourism products,” highlighted Pradech Phayakvichien.
“The business community is the one who can invest into the country, but this is true that they will not regulate themselves. This is then [up] to the government to create the right balance to the benefits of all,” indicated PATA CEO Martin Craigs.
Myanmar hopes to also receive the support of international institutions. For more than two decades, the Asian Development Bank has accompanied the development of the Greater Mekong Sub-region and is likely to play a pro-active role as Myanmar tourism's quest, once political and economic sanctions are loosened up. According to Htay Aung, informal talks between the Myanmar Ministry of Culture and UNESCO are already set to take place by next month to see in which way the country could prevent a commercial and physical deterioration of its heritage. Another major issue will be he training of people to high-quality tourism standards.
“There is no institute for tourism so far. This is an urgent issue we must address quickly if we don’t want to be left along the way,” added Mr. Htay Aung.
Although the government is likely to simplify visa procedures in a near future and open up more cross-border points, Myanmar’s government seems to be conscious that there will be limits if they want to nurture the country’s authentic appeal.