Thou­sands of is­lands are scat­tered along the south­ern Myan­mar coast. We ask if the Myeik Ar­chi­pel­ago is ready for in­creased tourism.

800 is­lands are scat­tered along the south­ern Myan­mar coast in the Myeik (or Mer­gui) Ar­chi­pel­ago.

Norway-Asia Business Review - - Contents - ANRIKE VISSER

Among them the stun­ning Emer­ald Heart Is­land (or Cocks Comb Is­land). While the beauty of the place might sus­pect oth­er­wise, un­til now, herds of tourists haven’t reached the ar­chi­pel­ago yet. This is about to change though, be­cause of the gov­ern­ment led by, de facto leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, ini­ti­at­ing ways to boost and re­form the econ­omy in­clud­ing the de­vel­op­ment of the Myeik Ar­chi­pel­ago for tourism.

The Myan­mar In­vest­ment Com­mis­sion (MIC) ap­proved the con­struc­tion of ten ho­tels to be built on the is­lands in July 2017 ac­cord­ing to U Myo Myint, di­rec­tor of the Min­istry of Ho­tel and Tourism ac­cord­ing to the Myan­mar Times.

And on 29 July 2017, the gov­ern­ment pre­sented their new eco­nomic pol­icy. One of the el­e­ments of the pol­icy is wel­com­ing more for­eign di­rect in­vest­ments (FDI).

On 11 De­cem­ber 2017, two gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials told Reuters of the de­lay of a cor­po­rate law al­low­ing for­eign com­pa­nies to take a stake of up to 35 per­cent in Myan­mar com­pa­nies. U Aung Naing Oo, Head of the Directorate of In­vest­ment and Com­pany Ad­min­is­tra­tion, said the law should be im­ple­mented no later than 1 Au­gust 2018.

Even though the im­ple­men­ta­tion of the re­form takes longer than ex­pected, it is ex­pected that FDI wel­com­ing policies like these are to be im­ple­mented within the next year. When that hap­pens, the is­lands are def­i­nitely an in­ter­est­ing area for in­vestors.

So far the tourism de­vel­op­ment has seen its great­est suc­cess in other lo­ca­tions around the coun­try. Ba­gan’s tem­ples and Inle Lake are al­ready ma­jor tourist des­ti­na­tions for for­eign and do­mes­tic tourists. The Myeik Ar­chi­pel­ago has all the el­e­ments to be­come one too.

It has ev­ery­thing tourists might de­sire: cul­tural her­itage, pris­tine is­lands, div­ing des­ti­na­tions, good seafood, and most im­por­tantly the rep­u­ta­tion of a pris­tine hol­i­day desti­na­tion ( awe guar­an­teed of friends and fam­i­lies).

One rea­son for the lag­ging de­vel­op­ment of the re­gion are the spe­cial per­mis­sions re­quired to visit the is­lands fur­ther off the cost that are owned by the mil­i­tary. Travel agen­cies can ar­range the needed per­mis­sions, but it’s an added price tag to an al­ready ex­pen­sive lo­ca­tion.

At the mo­ment, there are only a cou­ple ho­tels on the is­lands and they do not come cheap. The Myan­mar An­daman Re­sort costs USD 1,500 for seven nights in a Dou­ble Suite.

Day trips are pos­si­ble to the is­lands just off the cost, but the best div­ing ar­eas are deeper into the ar­chi­pel­ago away from the muddy Tanintharyi River water. And the area is huge. Ac­cord­ing to the Min­istry of Ho­tels and Tourism, the Myeik Ar­chi­pel­ago spans 43,344 square kilo­me­tres, that is equal to the area of Den­mark.

So tourists want­ing to ex­plore the ar­chi­pel­ago, have to stay at the ho­tels on the is­lands or book a multi-day yacht trip. The price tag of the Myeik Ar­chi­pel­ago kept large num­bers of tourists away for now. It is un­clear what the prices will be of the ten ad­di­tional ho­tels un­der con­struc­tion, but the ex­tra ho­tels are likely to draw ex­tra tourists as well.

But be­fore large num­bers of tourists

can be hosted on the is­lands, sev­eral is­sues have to be re­solved. Is­sues like the trans­port of fresh water, trash dis­posal and waste­water man­age­ment. Also, there is no emer­gency re­sponse and in some lo­ca­tions, not even cell re­cep­tion.

This means the ar­chi­pel­ago is one fa­tal div­ing ac­ci­dent away from a bad rep­u­ta­tion among tourists. Man­ag­ing these prac­ti­cal is­sues would go a long way in de­vel­op­ing tourism in the long run.

An­other fo­cal point for in­vestors look­ing to set up tourism ini­tia­tives are the lo­cals liv­ing on the is­lands. The Myeik Ar­chi­pel­ago houses sev­eral eth­nic mi­nori­ties of which the most well-known are the Mo­ken peo­ple, in the West of­ten re­ferred to as Sea Gyp­sies.

The Mo­ken live along the coasts of Cam­bo­dia, Thai­land and Myan­mar. Tra­di­tion­ally the Mo­ken live on boats only to come ashore in the rainy sea­son. Moth­ers with young chil­dren and el­ders also stay ashore.

Their reclu­sive life­style has be­come next to im­pos­si­ble in the tourism hotspots of the Cam­bo­dian and Thai is­lands. Some Mo­ken de­cided to stay in gov­ern­ment-spon­sored vil­lages and par­tic­i­pate in cul­tural tours. Ms Ce­cile Clerc, Head of Fundrais­ing at Mi­nor­ity Rights Group, de­scribes tours to among oth­ers the Mo­ken at the Ko Surin Ar­chi­pel­ago in Thai­land as vis­it­ing a “hu­man zoo”.

Other Mo­ken peo­ple look­ing to main­tain their life­style have be­lieved to move away from Cam­bo­dia and Thai­land to the Myeik Ar­chi­pel­ago. But now their life­style is also un­der threat there.

Tourism can of course bring ad­di­tional rev­enue streams, es­pe­cially now that dy­na­mite fish­ing is threat­en­ing the fish­ery rev­enue of the Mo­ken and other lo­cals in the Myeik Ar­chi­pel­ago as stated by Agence France Presse. That is if the Mo­ken want tourists to come to their vil­lage at all.

In other tourism ar­eas in Myan­mar, “en­gage­ment and gen­uine two-way com­mu­ni­ca­tion and trans­parency by busi­ness with stake­hold­ers has his­tor­i­cally been al­most com­pletely ab­sent” ac­cord­ing to the Myan­mar Tourism Sec­tor-Wide Im­pact Assess­ment by Myan­mar Cen­tre for Re­spon­si­ble Busi­ness (MCRB). So the ques­tion is, to what ex­tent lo­cals have a say in tourism projects.

As such, there have been neg­a­tive im­pacts of ho­tel zones re­lat­ing to “liveli­hoods, in­clud­ing the op­por­tu­ni­ties for fu­ture com­mu­nity in­volve­ment in tourism, land rights, en­vi­ron­men­tal con­ser­va­tion and trans­parency” states MCRB. MCRB warns that these neg­a­tive ef­fects can drive forth con­flict which is not good for lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties and busi­nesses.

And ac­cord­ing to Hu­man Rights Watch (HRW), the Mo­ken are al­ready faced with “deep­en­ing poverty, marginal­i­sa­tion, and dis­crim­i­na­tion”. The rea­son for this is that most Mo­ken are state­less “mak­ing them more vul­ner­a­ble to hu­man rights abuses and de­priv­ing them of ac­cess to other rights, in­clud­ing the med­i­cal care, ed­u­ca­tion, and em­ploy­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties that Thai and Burmese na­tion­als en­joy”.

A way for­ward is in­clud­ing lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties like the Mo­ken in the de­ci­sion-mak­ing process. Lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties de­serve to have a choice if tours are to be or­gan­ised to their vil­lages and their pic­ture to be taken.

MCRB states that “en­gage­ment, con­sul­ta­tion, and par­tic­i­pa­tion of a wide range of stake­hold­ers should form the ba­sis of tourism de­vel­op­ment projects from the very start” es­pe­cially in “eth­nic mi­nor­ity and post-con­flict ar­eas”.

Tourism it­self will also ben­e­fit from an in­clu­sive ap­proach with lo­cals. First of all to avoid con­flict, but also to se­lect the right vil­lages to en­gage in com­mu­ni­ty­based tourism. Com­mu­ni­ties that can and want to set up fa­cil­i­ties for tourists like restau­rants and sou­venir shops.

Ad­di­tion­ally, tourism ini­tia­tives can only suc­ceed if the en­vi­ron­ment is pro­tected. As stated above, many lo­cals de­pend on fish­ery which is in a dire state al­ready.

Flora and Fauna In­ter­na­tional (FFI) con­ducted a 4-year long re­search project to iden­tify core con­ser­va­tion ar­eas for pro­tect­ing bio­di­ver­sity.

Ac­cord­ing to 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”.

The re­search re­sulted in the Myeik Zona­tion Map dated 30 April 2017 iden­ti­fy­ing im­por­tant bio­di­ver­sity ar­eas. “The gov­ern­ment has cur­rently pledged to re­view the pend­ing con­ces­sions [of ho­tels] to make sure they re­ally ful­fil en­vi­ron­men­tal re­quire­ments and have proper en­vi­ron­men­tal and so­cial im­pact as­sess­ments,” says Mr Frank Momberg, Asia Di­rec­tor for Pro­gram De­vel­op­ment at FFI, on 24 May 2017.

Keep­ing the rec­om­men­da­tions of FFI and MCRB in mind to make sure lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties pros­per in­stead of crum­bling un­der tourism pres­sure, could pave the way to a flour­ish­ing tourism in­dus­try in the Myeik Ar­chi­pel­ago. A tourism in­dus­try that learned from is­sues in other touris­tic ar­eas to bring ben­e­fits to do­mes­tic and for­eign busi­nesses, com­mu­ni­ties and tourists alike.

PHOTO: SHUT­TER­STOCK

PHOTO: SHUT­TER­STOCK

Above left: The crys­tal clear wa­ters of the Myeik (Mer­gui) ar­chi­pel­ago has started ap­pear­ing on the ad­ven­tur­ous tourist's itin­er­ary. Mass tourism has still not en­tered this part of Myan­mar, but it is only a mat­ter of time be­fore that hap­pens un­less...

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