Lessons for Burma from its neighbours

Tom Fawthrop

Burma, an exciting new destination in South East Asia with attractions rival­ling those of neighbouring Thailand, is about to experience a wave of new tourist ar­rivals and a huge expansion of its travel indus­try. With the emergence of a reform-minded government, foreign investors have swarmed into the country and have been thronging the hotel lobbies of the former capital, Rangoon.

Burma is buzzing with an air of fevered expectation and investment opportunity. Travel operators and international hotel groups are a big segment of those want­ing to take advantage of the new business climate. But is this country really prepared and ready to channel the great curiosity of the world in a new and little developed tourist destination, and to ensure that the benefits from the influx of visitors are not confined to the business elite, but also flow to the local communities? What environ­mental safeguards are in place to prevent a tourist invasion in the coming years from inflicting massive pollution on the pris­tine coast alongside the Andaman Sea, and many other areas of natural beauty?

Neighbouring countries like Laos, Cam­bodia, Thailand and Vietnam, each with their more developed tourist industries, can provide some useful lessons for Burma.

Cambodia, once peace had returned after the torments of the Khmer Rouge era, witnessed a huge tourism boom, not least at its legendary temple complex of Angkor Wat. However, the frenetic pace of hotel construction in the nearby town of Siem Reap, where there is little environmental regulation, has triggered major problems through the inadequate planning of water supply and sewerage systems.

The Apsara Authority, the official independ­ent body mandated to provide conservation and protection of the ancient temples, has tried to keep new hotels from encroaching on the temple zone, but they have had little control over the free-for-all of tourism development. The distinguished chairman of Apsara, Vann Molyvann, one of Asia’s most acclaimed ar­chitects, tried to rein in this development, but his dedication to heritage conservation and his strong resistance to investors who want to build even closer to the temples placed him at loggerheads with Prime Minister Hun Sen, who felt Apsara was holding back economic development. Vann Molyvann was pressured to resign. Now there are dire warnings that the excessive use of scarce water resources to sup­ply the many new hotels is threatening the very foundations of Angkor Wat itself.

Another concern is that while the temples have certainly generated tens of millions of dollars, very little of this cash flow has trick­led down to the majority of the poor farmers living in the province of Siem Reap. Much of the food for the hotels is imported from Thai­land and not locally sourced. The majority of visitors buy their tours in Bangkok and fly on Thai-owned airlines. And the main benefici­aries of the Cambodian-owned hotels in Siem Reap are a tiny business elite, many of them related to key members of the Phnom Penh government.

Such short-sighted policies, which put profits before sustainability and bring lit­tle development to the province as a whole, provide a clear example of the pitfalls for any country on the brink of becoming a ma­jor new tourist hotspot.

In Burma, there are spectacular ancient temples in Bagan. Careful planning of con­servation zones and environmental protec­tion are required now if they are to avoid some of the acute problems threatening the temples in Cambodia.

Vietnam also enjoys a number of famed world heritage sites, including the ancient seat of Vietnamese kings in Hue, and the wonder­ful scenery of Ha Long Bay. In the latter, not only do the tourist ferries cause unnecessary pollution, but waste and sewage pour into the ocean from other sources, including a major in­dustrial development zone nearby. The bay is also suffering major sedimentation caused by the removal of mangrove forests from coastal areas to make way for the industrial zone. All the coral has been killed off and only now are belated steps being taken to curb the pollution.

A neighbouring country that Burma could learn a lot from is Laos, which has been ac­tively promoting ecotourism and has made its mark in regional tourism by hosting the World Ecotourism Conference in Vientiane twice over. This landlocked country of moun­tains, rivers and dozens of waterfalls is ideally suited to provide adventure trails in the forests, as well as community-based tourism. It offers home-stay services and its young villagers are eager to be trained as forest guides. It is the kind of tourism that can be demonstrated as driving grassroots development.

There is little doubt that the equally hos­pitable people of Burma would only be too pleased to offer the same eco-tourist services if its ministry of tourism would pass laws to permit families to set up guest houses, offer home stays and encourage community par­ticipation.

The opposition National League for De­mocracy has already declared its belief in “tourism that is ethical and environmen­tally conscious”, and now agencies like Tourism Transparency International will be watching with great interest to examine the policies that the Burmese government itself chooses to pursue in this important sector of potential development.

About the author:

Tom Fawthrop is a freelance journalist and independent film-maker covering South East Asia


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