Responsible Tourism in Myanmar: Current Situation and Challenges



Year: 2012

Author: Ko Ko Thett

Commissioned and published by: Burma Center Prague


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Executive Summary

Without legislation, touristification of Myanmar has already begun. The country’s tourism infrastructure was strained by half a million arrivals in the first half of 2012, compared to nearly 400,000 in 2011. In September 2012, the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism of Myanmar signed the Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam Tourism Cooperation (CLMV), which aims to welcome 25 million visitors to the region, with four million ‘exchange visitors’ in each country, over the period of 2013-2015. The CLMV contradicts the responsible tourism policy committed by the Ministry in the same month and ignores the ‘value over volume’ advice given to the Ministry by the UNWTO. Since the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) is widely expected to be voted out in the 2015 elections, Myanmar’s membership of the CLMV is also seen as the former generals’ attempt to ‘make hay while the sun shines’.

Tourism came to Myanmar during the time of ‘high colonialism’ and saw its peak in the 1920s when the famous Irrawaddy Flotilla Company (IFC) was carrying up to nine million passengers a year. Since independence in 1948, the country’s tourism sector has never been developed due to civil war during the parliamentary era (1948-62) and closed-door policy by the socialist regime (1962-88). In the 1990s, the junta that succeeded the quasi-socialist regime set tourism high on their development agenda, however this agenda was shunned by the international community due to evidence of human rights violations involved in tourism infrastructure projects until 2011. Mass tourism development in Myanmar is therefore in its infancy, facing an array of challenges, particularly in light of responsible tourism commitments.

For Professor Harold Goodwin, responsible tourism policy is about ‘making places better to live and better to visit.’ It 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 the local communities in the countries which have reached a certain standard of human rights governance. Given Myanmar’s structural corruption, crony capitalism, widespread poverty, ongoing human rights issues, communal violence and civil war, it is doubtful if responsible tourism will deliver its noble promises, sustainable development and social justice, even if it is set to become a driver for economic growth for Myanmar in the coming decades.

Through a human rights paradigm, responsible tourism affords responsibilities to all the stakeholders in a destination country, with a focus on the social, economic and cultural rights of the destination level communities and their environments.

From toll roads, roadside petrol stations and telecommunication companies to hotels and resorts, crony businesses now dominate every sector of economic life in Myanmar. As the Myanmar government has opened the sluice to mass tourism, crony businesses are competing with foreign companies in tourism investment. Given their interest in tourism infrastructure, it is likely that Myanmar tourism industry will be dominated by crony businesses and foreign investors in the near future. Similarly, independent travellers and adventurers will still find their travels in Myanmar restricted due to the country’s security problems.

Responsible tourism in any place is welcome. However, the current Myanmar Responsible Tourism Policy may undermine the ultimate goal of responsible tourism, sustainable development, if it continues to favour the current Myanmar economic dynamic dominated by crony capitalism at the expense of political, ecological and cultural sustainability. It is doomed to fail from the start if the related Ministries continue to use responsible tourism as a cash cow to attract investment and tourists into the country. The efficacy of the Myanmar Tourism Policy can be determined only when each of its ‘action points’ is set in a time frame for effective implementation and evaluation by the Myanmar Tourism Master Plan.

The current Myanmar Responsible Tourism Policy presents no recommendation or makes no commitment on the manageable volume of tourists in light of Myanmar’s tourism infrastructure development over the next few years. It is not country-specific, it is generic and can be applied to any country developing a tourist sector. Despite ten workshops held at major tourist enclaves, the policy cannot be classified as location-specific and inclusionary to a bottom-up process. The development of tourism as a national priority sector has yet to be legislated. No timeframe is set to implement 58 action points, the priorities of each one favour the state and businesses, not the wellbeing of destination level communities.

Echoing UNWTO advice, the report argues that the key to responsible tourism is not volume but value. ‘Visitor management’ is paramount if tourism were to be responsible in Myanmar. Given that China and India are set to become the world’s largest mass tourism export countries, tourism infrastructure development must focus on managing and facilitating a cross-border tourism market. Special attention should be given to the assistance and empowerment of small and medium enterprises in Myanmar’s tourist industry. Other key actions of top priority include area protection, industrial regulations, local sourcing, code of conduct for tourists and businesses, environmental impact assessment and sustainability indicators for each tourism development project.

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 is soon to be framed by the Myanmar Tourism Master Plan. ‘One of the most fascinating aspects of travel in Myanmar is the opportunity to experience a corner of Asia that, in many ways, has changed little since British colonial times,’ says the Lonely Planet. It remains to be seen how this place of authenticity will be reshaped by mass tourism as a force of globalisation in the near future, and how the state of Myanmar will responsibly respond to the challenges brought about by mass tourism.


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This project is supported from resources of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic within its Transition Promotion Program