Published by Mizzima Weekly
Curbing the negative impact of tourism in Myeik Archipelago.
Myeik (or Mergui) is a harbour town in the south of Myanmar. Many people here work as fishermen, in little shops or construction, and now also tourism.
The real attraction though is not the mainland, but the 800 or so islands scattered around its shore all the way to the border with Thailand. In Thailand and some lesser extent Cambodia these islands have already been developed for tourism, but here in Myanmar development has just started.
The hopes of investors and tourists alike are high. The islands are already being marketed as untouched and pristine, something every tourist loves to hear.
An article by Vogue of 12 May 2017 titled ‘8 Reasons to Skip Thailand and Head to Myanmar Instead’ is just one of the many signs that Myanmar could become the next tourism hotspot. Bagan and Inle Lake already experienced the impact of major domestic and foreign tourism, and now Myeik and its archipelago are next.
Until now, tourism in the archipelago existed but the numbers were relatively small compared to other hotspots. This is about to change with the construction of 10 new hotels on the islands of the Myeik Archipelago reported by The Myanmar Times in July 2017.
Additional hotels and tourism bring in additional jobs, but lessons from Bagan and Inle Lake tell us negative impacts also occur in hotel zones. Especially regarding “livelihoods, including the opportunities for future community involvement in tourism, land rights, environmental conservation and transparency” hotel zones can be a disadvantage, according to the Myanmar Tourism Sector-Wide Impact Assessment by the Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business (MCRB).
So, the question is if local communities in and around Myeik will benefit from increased tourism to the area or if the negative impacts on the environment and community will overshadow the positive effects.
Regarding the environment, one of the most important aspects for people in the area is fishing. May people in the archipelago depend on fishing for their livelihood. Last July we published how the Moken (or Salon) people are threatened by illegal dynamite fishing.
According to Flora & Fauna International (FFI) the “Myeik Archipelago, once a haven for biodiverse [sic] coral reefs, seagrass [sic] areas, mangroves and pristine beaches, has experienced a dramatic decline of its fisheries in the last decade due to overfishing and illegal fishing practices”. Add major numbers of diving and snorkelling tourists to the mix and you have a serious threat to the already fragile state of coral reefs.
To curb the threat, FFI conducted a 4-year long research to advice the government on which island are okay to develop for tourism and which areas should be treated with care. “We have a tourism expert, Andrea Valentin, who is working for us and has done a comprehensive review and assessment of current tourism operations and services. That report gives an overview of what is happening; how many dive centres, how many approved by MIC [Myanmar Investment Commission], how many resorts are planned, where are they planned. This information is put in a map as well and overlaid with environmentally sensitive areas. The government has currently pledged to review the pending concessions to make sure they really fulfil environmental requirements and have proper environmental and social impact assessments” says Frank Momberg, Asia Director for Program Development at FFI.
This resulted in the Myeik Zonation Map dated 30 April 2017 which identifies important biodiversity areas and the Hotel and Tourism Development map showing planned, pending and existing tourism projects.
Another potential threat is communities being forced into welcoming tourists to villages and their picture being taken without consent.
The Myeik Archipelago is destined to be a site for so-called community-based tourism and the first selected villages were recently announced. Community-based tourism projects “would take place in Ma Kyone Galet Salone village in Kawthaung, also known as a sea gypsy village, Don Nyaung Mhaing village in Myeik and San Hlan village in Dawei,” according to U Nyo Aye, Director of the Hotel and Tourism Department of Tanintharyi Region, to The Myanmar Times.
But communities themselves do not always have a say in such initiatives. A 2015 survey among 6 community-based tourism projects across Myanmar by MCRB identified a “[t]op-down approach by development partner and/or private sector partner” and “needs and ideas of community are not taken into consideration” as important factors in the failure of projects.
The main lesson from the survey and impact assessment by MCRB is that communities should be engaged and consulted from the start. “Many committees are being formed to discuss tourism development, but they mostly consist of people from outside [the area]. There need to be more local voices,” says Thein Than Htay, Programme Associate at MCRB.
The Moken people especially will get a lot of interest from tourists drawn to the romantic lifestyle of living on a boat even though many Moken now live on land.
Moken villages in Thailand and Cambodia have also been called human zoos, and the Myanmar government should prevent forced participation of ethnic minorities in community based projects in Myanmar.
On the upside, there have been new jobs created thanks to tourism development so far, especially for tour guides and hotel personnel. When community-based initiatives on the islands are implemented upon request by the communities themselves following the needs of villagers, communities on the islands can flourish as well from increased tourism.
The best case scenario includes local communities benefitting financially from tourism development via for example souvenir shops or restaurants and they have a say in tourism development from the start.
Additionally, other livelihoods like fishing are not jeopardized by hotels and diving trips in important biodiversity areas, but focus on other areas instead. To do so, the Myanmar Investment Commission should check if hotel licence applications are located within the protected areas identified by FFI and if so, how they are planning to protect these sensitive areas.
This way communities and the environment are protected from tourists expected to flood the area in the upcoming years. For many minorities there is no other place to go to.