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.
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.
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...