Myanmar tourism after the boycott

The touristification of Myanmar has  begun. The Ministry of Hotels and Tourism declared tourism the country’s ‘national priority sector’ in its Responsible Tourism Policy (RTP), released in September. In the same month, the Ministry had signed the Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam Tourism Cooperation (CLMV), which aims to welcome 25 million visitors in the region, with four million ‘exchange visitors’ in each country, over the period 2013-2015. Myanmar’s tourism infrastructure was already strained by half a million tourists in the first half of 2012, compared to almost 400,000 in 2011. Myanmar’s membership of CLMV is not only un-legislated and un-democratic but it also ignores ‘value over volume’ advice by the UNWTO. As the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party is widely expected to be voted out in the 2015 elections, the CLMV is seen as the former generals’ unscrupulous attempt to make hay while the sun shines.

For Harold Goodwin at the International Centre for Responsible Tourism, responsible tourism is ‘about taking responsibility for achieving sustainable development through tourism (…) it is about identifying economic, social and environmental issues which matter locally and tackling them.’ It is understood that responsible tourism benefits local communities in the countries which have a certain standard of human rights governance and sound tourism infrastructure. The Myanmar RTP will undermine the aspirations of responsible tourism, if it favours the current Myanmar economic dynamics dominated by crony capitalism at the expense of political, ecological and cultural sustainabilities. It is doomed to fail from the start if the tourism-related Ministries continue in graft and use RTP as a cash cow.

Crony capitalism and human rights violations have been rationales behind the global boycott against tourism in Myanmar. In the 1990s few cronies were interested in tourism. This situation is rapidly changing as Myanmar braces itself for mass tourism and the 27th Southeast Asian Games. As Michael Hitchcock notes, the most striking feature of tourism has been ‘how quickly the industry was introduced once the area was pacified.’ As cronies develop more hotel zones, land issue is likely to become a major issue. Even the Ministries do not agree over the ownership of land in Myanmar. The Ministry of Hotel and Tourism had been negotiating with the Ministry of Culture over the building of hotels on a cultural heritage site in Tuyin hotel zone in Bangan.

Some cronies are seriously getting into hotels and tourism. Ahlon Tin Win, the owner of Tin Win Tun Company in Monywa, a trade centre about 100 km north of Mandalay, specializes in timber extraction in Sagaing Division and Kachin State. He has been at loggerheads with local farmers for land grabbing. At least one peasant was sent to jail during the dispute. He is also the owner of Win Unity Hotel, the biggest hotel in Monywa, built on a reclaimed land, formerly a lake and a public space. He is not an isolated case. Today, from private banks to telecommunication companies, from ‘elite’ highway bus services to almost every toll way in Myanmar, including roadside petrol stations and highway stopover restaurant franchises, are crony creations.

Smaller enterprises lack the knack and the means to meet health and safety standards of responsible tourism. The challenge therefore will be how tourism can address Myanmar’s structural poverty, apart from seasonal employment opportunities in the tourist industry. In the near future, if tourists want to avoid putting their money into crony pockets, their choices will be increasingly limited. An accurate stock taking of cronies’ stake in Myanmar tourism infrastructure projects is due for responsible tourism.

Since 2011, package tour sales have dropped despite the dramatic rise in the number of arrivals in Myanmar, indicating that the country is set to become a top destination for Foreign Independent Travellers (FITs). However the existing number of small-scale hotels cannot keep up with the influx of FITs. There is a myriad of smaller enterprises and guesthouses in Myanmar but most of them are not certified to lodge foreign tourists. The system continues to give an upper hand to larger hotels. On the long run, smaller establishments, if they fail to keep up with the standards for foreign guests set by the authorities, will perish or be taken over by foreign or crony-owned businesses.

Nicole Haeusler, Myanmar Responsible Tourism Policy team, recommends that ‘a specific credit be implemented by the banks for SMEs in hospitality and tourism.’ Even if such a scheme to encourage low-end hotels works, the arrivals of backpacker armies are no good news. Locations in Thailand and Nepal have been run over by backpackers. In Laos, formerly exotic Vang Vieng has been turned into a ‘hedonistic backpackers’ paradise.’ In Spain, in the mid-1980s, the authorities had to shut down low-end hotels at the tourist resort of Majorca to protect the area from becoming a backpacker colony.

Ecotourism is a major tourism product of Myanmar. Over the past two decades, even the protected areas, where signs in Burmese that warn the locals ‘Felling a Tree Costs Three Years in Jail.’ have fallen pray to illegal logging and poaching. Locals in nearby villages are bitterly aware that wildlife sanctuary Alaungtaw Kathapa National Park, a top destination for ecotourism in Myanmar, is being cut down for wood and its inhabitants, bears for bile and peacocks for feather, hunted down by the Chinese traffickers who have paid off the local authorities.

In heritage tourism, locals in Bagan dissent against hotel projects in the 42 square kilometre Bagan cultural heritage site. Another lesson can be learned from Cambodia, where Siem Reap saw a staggering 8,000 percent increase in tourist volume in the 1990s. The 1994 recommendations by the Zoning and Environmental Management Plan (ZEMP), adopted by the International Coordinating Committee for the Safeguarding and Development of Angkor, did not materialize in 12 years. Tim Winter notes that, ‘In early 2005, rather than being a space of luxury hotels and landscaped gardens, the zone is little more than a grid of roads and kilometers of wire fencing.’ Winter attributes the sorry state to ‘the evolution of Siem Reap’s tourism industry as a series of discordant economic, cultural, and political scapes and flows.’

As for tourist satisfaction, especially in ethnic tourism, ‘authenticity’ will be hard to come by as freedom to travel within Myanmar remains restricted. Almost every tourist sight is staged in Myanmar. The country’s security issues are likely to be a hurdle to many tourists who would like to venture beyond well-trodden paths. The ongoing instability in Myanmar continues to deprive tourists’ access to the areas sold to them by tour operators. In October, Mrauk-U, a tourist enclave in Rakhine State, was declared closed to tourists after another communal clash broke out in the area.

If Myanmar is to avoid Thai-Laotian-Cambodian tourism pitfalls, the authorities have to be dead serious about their commitment to RTP. As China and India are set to become the world’s largest mass tourism export countries with an estimated annual output of 50 million travellers, infrastructure development in Myanmar must focus on managing and facilitating cross-border tourism market. Other key sectors of top priority must be making tourism development inclusive and democratic, area protection, industrial regulation, code of conduct for all stakeholders, environmental impact assessment for each tourism development projects and sustainability indicators. The efficacy of RTP can be evaluated if its ‘action points’ are time-framed by Myanmar Tourism Master Plan.

There is an urgent need for a critical debate on mass tourism in Myanmar, particularly the viability and frailty of the Myanmar Responsible Tourism Policy that will soon be framed by the Myanmar Tourism Master Plan. The irony and paradox of mass tourism are most concisely captured in the recent official brochure for responsible tourists visiting the country; ‘Practice safe sex. Prostitution is illegal in Myanmar.’

A report titled ‘Responsible Tourism in Myanmar: Present  Situation and Challenges’ by Ko Ko Thett will be published by the Burma Centre Prague in December. The author works at the Department of Development Studies, University of Vienna.