Myanmar: The New Tourist Frontier

Old Bagan
Photo by Chistopher Michel

In 2011, the Republic of the Union of Myanmar initiated political, social and economic reforms after 51 years of military rule.  As a result of these reforms—most notably the democratic elections of 2012 that brought Aung San Suu Kyi back into formal politics—Myanmar, or Burma to many, saw an unprecedented growth in international tourist arrivals and receipts—from US$165 million in 2008 to US$534m in 2012.  As a result of this global interest and endowed with natural beauty, ancient Buddhist sites and a friendly and welcoming population, Myanmar is turning into the new tourist frontier.  Recognizing and capitalizing on the country’s unique situation, the government of Myanmar unveiled the Tourism Master Plan (2013-2020) this June in order to create additional economic growth while attempting to safeguard Burmese culture and the environment. Thus, the Myanmar Tourism Master Plan attempts to create a more conducive environment for mass tourism and ensure that the mistakes of other tourist destinations do not occur in Myanmar; however, despite its commendable intentions, the success of the plan depends on civil society action to hold leaders accountable.

According to the Master Plan—which is funded by both the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the Norwegian Government—the government intends to pursue six broad initiatives in order to boost tourism arrivals and receipts by 2020.  These initiatives are tailored directly to the realities experienced by tourists. For example, the country’s infrastructure, although sufficient, is not geared towards maximizing tourism experience.  In order to get to the main tourist sites, such as Bagan, Mandalay or Inle Lake, from Yangon—the main port of entry—there are four options: bus, train, airplane or car.  The busses are the most economical but take almost 18 hours to get up to Bagan—unless you are there for more than a week, the round-trip alone takes about two days. Trains usually are unreliable due to poor track maintenance (they are the same tracks from colonial days). Airplanes are often fully booked due to limited aircraft, and cars can only be rented with a local driver.  Addressing these infrastructure concerns, as well as accommodation shortages and visa impediments, are some of the main pillars of the Master Plan.

Another issue that emerges from this debate is environmental sustainability and social standards.  The Master Plan’s third initiative—Strengthen Safeguards and Procedures for Destination Planning and Management—is the most important initiative of the six as it outlines ways to ensure sustainability and uphold ethics and values.  Being the new tourism frontier, Myanmar will have to learn from the mistakes of previous tourism destinations around the world such as Bali, Indonesia, Thailand and others. Hopefully, the country will recognize the mistakes made by uncontrolled development in Bali, where the Balinese have been in a constant battle with the tourism industry over water, power, food, land prices and taxes, pollution and environmental degradation (see “Holidays in Hell: Bali’s Ongoing Woes”).  Moreover, it is important for the government and civil society groups to crack down on child sex trafficking and prevent the country from turning into a ‘sex tourism’ destination, a label that some countries in Southeast Asia continue to battle with to this day.  Both the government and civil society have a role to play in preventing these mistakes from happening.

In order to uphold these social standards and ensure sustainability, the government and civil society must take action.  Regulation in the past has come in the form of the, Tourism Law, which requires any tourist-related business to obtain a license to operate.  This licensing scheme has become a double-edged sword; regulation of the industry has prevented overdevelopment, while at the same time, lining the pockets of those with connections to government (see “Visiting Myanmar: It’s Complicated”); on the other hand, an unregulated industry could lead to a repeat of tourism-related social and environmental degradation experienced in other countries. For many years prior to the political reforms in 2011, the party of Aung San Suu Kyi, the National League for Democracy, urged foreigners to stay away from Burma since the majority of money spent would feed the junta (see “Suu Kyi urges Britons to boycott Burma”). Even though the Master Plan indicates that the Tourism Law will be reevaluated and certain licensing processes streamlined, this revenue stream will most likely continue to be exploited by corrupt officials (Transparency International ranked Myanmar 172 out of 176 on the Corruption Perceptions Index in 2012).  Thus, the time is ripe for civil society to become involved in the tourist industry and hold its leaders accountable. The newly launched NGO, Tourism Transparency, is one initiative that fills this void as it attempts to promote an “open and accountable tourism industry in Myanmar/Burma.”

In the end, only time will tell as to whether or not tourism in Myanmar will benefit the public economically but also preserve certain aspects of culture and the environment. With a lack of transparency and accountability, tourism will continue to benefit the government and local elites.  Although a fledgling democracy, Myanmar has had a rich history of civil society action, and it will not be surprising if protests surface as a result of either uncontrolled overdevelopment or massive government revenue that does not benefit the people.  As the new tourist frontier, Myanmar will surely be a battleground of foreign businesses, the government, and civil society for many years to come.

Christopher travelled to Myanmar in June 2013 right after the Tourism Master Plan was unveiled.

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2 thoughts on “Myanmar: The New Tourist Frontier

  1. “Master Plan—which is funded by both the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the Norwegian Government” – what on earth have civilized nations to do with an autocratic regime. Can’t they wait until democracy has been fully restored rather than propping up a failing regime?

  2. Among the general objectives that a national tourism plan might include are: attaining a certain level of sectoral growth; improvement of employment conditions; maintenance of an appropriate foreign balance of payments; balanced regional development; conservation of the natural and cultural heritage as sustainable tourism resources, and the promotion of areas with high tourism potential.

    Let’s save pristine beauty of State’s tourist spots

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