This week, we look at some locations outside of the main tourist circuit, we explore the concept of ecotourism in Burma and its impact on indigenous communities and we introduce some of the controversies surrounding the SEA Games in Burma later this year.
Access to Restricted Areas
Some areas of Burma have restrictions on access by tourists. Historically, these areas often coincide with areas inhabited by ethnic minorities. However “to help to attract even more visitors”, the government “intends to open up more restricted areas in the country to tourists.” Perhaps a bit surprisingly, according to the Minister of Hotels and Tourism, this move is not so much about providing new opportunities to the previously restricted areas, but rather it is a measure to protect overcrowded locations in central Burma such as Bagan. Early March visit to Chin State by the officials of the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism announced that the “Chin region would be upgraded for a tourist site”.
“Cheek tattoos and tribal customs draw eco adventurers to Chin State”
“Chin State’s combination of exotic tribes and natural wonders has made it a hit with ecotourists who are often eager for the opportunity to sleep in huts in villages so they can observe tribal customs and lifestyles firsthand.” One of the most appreciated traditions here is the custom of cheek tattooing.
Although ecotourism is primarily intended to protect and enhance natural endangered areas by reinvesting the benefit of tourism in the preservation of these areas, the upsurge of ecotourists in Chin State raises some questions. Chin State gained popularity as an alternative destination for war-torn and now inaccessible Kachin State. There are also continuing reports of human rights abuses in the Chin State, including allegations of forced labor and religious persecution.
We may also question the success of ecotourism in terms of promoting the well being of local peoples. The Chin state is promoted as a fun holiday destination for its natural places and “exotic tribes.” Where do we draw the line between exploring local cultures and instigating “human safaris”?
For instance, Pastor Shwekey Hoipang from the southern parts of Chin State discusses how “in a place like Chin State where people are not well-educated and informed, there has been concern that the local community might be negatively affected […]. We have heard sad stories about exploitation of the Padaung women for tourist attractions in eastern Burma and Thailand”.
And from Mon state, here is a forthright testimony which sheds more light on access to places outside of the tourist circuit. The author describes how, despite the recent opening up of Burma to political reforms and tourism, foreign visitors’ movements are still restricted and monitored. “I was surprised last week when, after taking an American tourist to see my village in Mon State, near the border with Thailand, my family came under scrutiny by the local authorities […]. After I stayed with a foreign friend at a guesthouse in Moulmein (Mon State’s capital), my ID card and his passport were confiscated. If it was not for the owner of the guesthouse, who intervened, I do not know what the police would have done”. It does raise significant and pressing questions with regard to political reforms, the commitment of local authorities and their interaction with foreigners.
The 27th Southeast Asia Games, the largest sports event in Southeast Asia, will be held in Burma at the end of 2013. While “Burma is billing the December Games as its coming out party after 49 years of military rule”, there has already been some controversies around it.
One of the main criticisms is that Burma has stacked the competition with many indigenous sports disciplines that only few countries know and that Burmese athletes have a good chance of winning “in order to weaken the hand of stronger nations [and] to boost its normally mediocre standing in the medals table.” Charoen Wattasin of Thailand’s Olympic Committee argued that “this sort of thing shouldn’t happen. The charm of the SEA games has diminished significantly in recent years”. Some sport officials already threatened to boycott the Games or “to send a weaker team in protest”: “Why should we send a large delegation and spend a lot of money when we are clearly in a disadvantaged position?”
In connection to the SEA Games, the Hotels and Tourism Minister Htay Aung declared that “over 10,000 hotel rooms will be available at the Nay Pyi Taw Hotel Zone in 2014.” These mostly high quality accommodations are aimed to guarantee that there will be enough hotel rooms for the SEA Games that will host more than 5000 athletes and a large number of spectators. We may wonder, however. what happens with these 10,000 rooms after the games?
Have all a good week!