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19 Jun, 2012

Myanmar Tourism Industry Warned About Downsides of Gold Rush

CHIANG RAI: The Myanmar tourism industry heard more warnings at the June 13-14 Mekong Tourism Forum to beware the downsides of the tourism gold-rush. Industry stalwarts stressed that they were well aware of the emerging issues, and offered assurances that every effort would be made to do things right.

Marking the 20th anniversary since the start of Mekong tourism cooperation efforts, the MTF was attended by 12 public and private sector representatives from Myanmar, up from four last year. The delegation included Vice Minister for Tourism and Hotels U Htay Aung, his second visit to Thailand in less than a month. An entire panel discussion was focussed entirely on Myanmar tourism.

U Htay Aung himself took the lead by pointedly asking the MTF’s keynote speaker, M.R.Disnadda Diskul, chairman of the Mae Fah Luang Foundation, for advice on how to address the rich-poor income gap, widely expected to become a serious issue in the wake of the investor gold-rush.

M.R. Disnadda’s reply: “Everybody is going to rake Myanmar. They want your gas, your oil and your minerals. They are not coming to your country for your well being . They say they want to help you but they are not. They are taking from you. Nobody will help you, you have to help yourselves.”

He added, “You have to work with someone who is genuinely (sincere in) working with you. Are they doing it for themselves or the people? You have to do it gradually, don’t do it fast. Do it step by step but very, very firmly.”

Citing the complexity of addressing the many cultural, economic, social and political problems, M.R. Disnadda noted that the Myanmar people were now moving away from the past, an era when “you were told what to do, what to think.” In future, he said, they will have to learn from mistakes, both those made by other countries in the region as well as those they themselves will make.

Later Mr. Htay Aung outlined the priority actions of the Myanmar tourism industry: improve hotel accommodation, introduce the first star-rating system; improve standards of tourist transport and enhance HRD; upgrade existing tourist destinations and attractions and identify new destinations.

He noted that planning processes were under way to set proper policies and strategies as Myanmar prepared to host its first ASEAN Tourism Forum in January 2015.

On paper, these policies echo the traditional textbook solutions: Attract “quality tourism”, minimise negative impact, promote good practise of sustainability and responsibility, target long term development and make tourism contribute to “harmonious subregional/national integration.”

But U Htay Aung indicated he was “not sure” that these attempts at “systematic management” would produce the desired results.

Two German consultants, Achim Munz and Nicole Hausler, offered indicators of the looming trouble. In spite of clear evidence that Inle Lake, widely expected to be a huge tourism hot-spot, is drying up for reasons yet unknown, the area was already projected to see a doubling of visitors over the next three years.

Asked whether that is an advisable scenario, Mr. Munz replied, “What can you do? The numbers are already coming in. How can you stop them?” The traditional response is to simply try and cater to the projected growth by adding more infrastructure.

He acknowledged that a huge learning process awaits in what will clearly be a chaotic and difficult transition process over the next two to three years.

Ms Hausler said there are 22 ministries involved in various aspects of tourism regulatory controls, and the consultants are trying to ensure they are well aware of the emerging issues and prepared to deal with them.

However, it is not clear what value foreign consultants themselves are bringing to the table. Mr. Munz indicated that more than 100 previous conservation projects had been done in the Inle Lake area but produced “only limited change and impact.”

Now, the new batch of consultants have taken these studies and evaluated them to set yet another starting point for tourism planning, identification of priorities and an action-plan.

Another warning came from Geoffrey Lipman, CEO of greenearth.travel, who urged the Burmese not to be taken in by the “seductive numbers”. Urging them to be “more holistic” in their approach, he said, “these are not tourism issues but national issues and community issues. Putting in more roads to double the numbers may sound seductive but the result will be that you then get twice the number of cars and twice as much pollution.”

Aarti Kapoor of World Vision, a child-rights protection NGO, inquired about the measures to cope with another looming downside of tourism – child sex abuse.

In response, Daw Kyi Kyi Aye, senior advisor of the Myanmar Tourism Federation, said that being herself both a mother and a teacher, she was aware of the importance of protecting children. She, too, offered assurances that it would be taken into account. “We are aware that prevention is better than cure.”