Just across the border from Thailand, southern Myanmar attracts visitors from Thailand, but often only for short visa-runs, casino visits or Buddhist pilgrimage. New initiatives are going to change that, as Keith Lyons finds out.
Can one of the most unexplored and undeveloped regions adjacent to Thailand transform itself from natural resource exploitation and smuggling to become a sustainable tourism destination for those living and working in Thailand? That is the Million Dollar Question being asked on both sides of the border. Southern Myanmar, with its new overland border crossings with Thailand, as well as the most popular Ranong-Kawthaung sea route, is trying to get its act together to entice more visitors from Thailand.
Southern Myanmar’s Tanintharyi region, the narrow strip down to the nation’s southern tip, recently unveiled ambitious plans to boost growth through responsible tourism. Once part of the Siam and Thai kingdoms, and now sharing a land border with Thailand along the Tenasserim hills, the sought-after and fought-after territory is rich in natural resources. But its legacy from the distant and recent past means it lags behind its Kra Isthmus neighbour Thailand.
A turning point in Tanintharyi fortunes came last week when politicians, diplomats, officials, tourism operators, travel agents, NGOs and environmental groups came together to re-orient the region towards tourism. In the southern Myanmar port of Kawthaung, the STAR project was launched to promote sustainable and responsible tourism, with 1.35 mil Euros (US$1.5 mil) from the Italian Development Agency, delivered through sustainable development experts from the Oikos Institute. The institute will work with Burmese officials and groups, along with Italian universities, tourism organisations, Architects Without Borders, and accommodation chain Ostello Bello. Oikos has been working in the area for more than a decade, including assisting with the challenges at Myanmar’s one and only marine protected zone, the Lampi Marine National Park in the Mergui Archipelago. The new project is trying to tap into the untapped potential of the region. While much of the sparsely populated region relies on subsistence agriculture, palm oil production, rubber plantations, forestry and mining, Tanintharyi’s riches are found offshore in the Andaman Sea, with pearl farms, bird’s nests, and fish.
The region has a wide variety of biodiversity, from ridge-to-reef, and also a rich cultural heritage in the semi-nomadic the Moken sea gipsies, who have gathered, collected and traded sea products for more than five centuries. However, despite having one of the most productive fisheries within Myanmar, the last few decades have seen over-fishing reducing fish stocks, with dynamite fishing wiping out many species on some coral reefs. With limited processing facilities, almost all the bounty of the sea is traded in – or smuggled into – Thailand.
It is the 800 islands scattered off the coast of southern Myanmar, the Mergui archipelago, which is the hidden jewel in Myanmar’s crown. Extending some 600km, with another 40 islands on the Thailand side of the sea border, the limestone and granite islands are largely uninhabited, and as well as featuring fringing coral reefs teeming with tropical fish, the area has extensive seagrass meadows, mangrove forests and wet evergreen forests. Dugong, or sea cows, the only marine mammal that feeds entirely on plants, grazes on the seagrass, though the gentle creature is occasionally accidentally caught in gill nets, or sometimes hunted for its meat. Large sharks and manta rays are found on some of the outer islands and dive spots, hornbills nest on some islands, while green, hawksbill and leatherback turtles come up to lay their eggs on sandy beaches.
The Moken are semi-nomadic, having been encouraged or forced to settle by the Myanmar authorities, but still take to the water in wooden canoes (kabang), the main living-quarters boat towing behind smaller one person canoes. The sea gypsies comb the tidal flats for sea urchins and sea cucumbers, take the flesh out of Giant Clams, and gather shells such as Tiger Cowrie for decoration and jewellery.
On Lampi island, one of the largest and now Myanmar’s only marine national park, more than 250 bird species have been recorded, including herons, egrets, terns, kingfishers, raptors such as sea eagles and Brahminy kites, and the Dodo’s surviving relative, the Nicobar Pigeon.
The Mergui Archipelago was off-limits during the decades of military junta rule, but now ‘the forbidden islands’ are opening up to limited tourism. A handful of the islands have been earmarked for resort development, and while some were earlier allocated to cronies, there has been a more transparent open tendering process for some selected islands. New resorts must follow strict environmental guidelines which include not cutting large trees, no structures on the coral, and no commercial laundry facilities. Soft adventure-focused Boulder Bay Eco-Resort (boulderasia.com) was one of the first to open last year, while barefoot luxury Wa Ale Island Resort (waaleresort.com), with sea turtles nesting on a protected beach, received its first guests to tented villas and treehouses in October this year. This coming weekend will see the opening of the 24-room Awei Pila (aweipila.com), owned by boutique hotelier and balloon safari company Memories Group.
The STAR Project is helping with the establishment of a Destination Marketing Organisation (DMO) this year to better promote the region. One of the participants at the programme launch, Jon Bourbaud, the General Manager of Awei Pila, believes a coordinated approach to destination marketing will help everyone involved. “Raising awareness is always key to promoting a new destination. You need people to know where they are coming to and what is exciting about visiting the destination, not only that there is a beautiful hotel or resort for people to stay at.”
He sees working together as important. “This is one of the last remaining ‘untouched pieces of paradise’ on earth, the more we can join together to promote the area, assists with strengthening better infrastructure and support services, such as flights, transfer services, pre and post stay experiences for guests.”
It is only since Myanmar’s moves to democracy in 2011 that more visitors have ventured into the region. Between 2011 and 2015 international visitors more than doubled. Last year Kawthaung recorded 340,000 visitors, and the number is likely to be similar for 2018. However, many of these were Thais heading for weekend gambling trips to Grand Andaman Hotel’s casino, a short boat trip from Ranong, and many of the Westerners were only in Kawthaung for a few minutes on visa runs from Thailand.
There are increasing efforts to market the region to Thailand, said the Tanintharyi director of the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism U Nyo Aye. “Thailand is just 30 minutes away by boat, and we want more tourists from across the border. Currently, there are many visitors who come on day trips, but we want visitors to stay longer.”
There are only nine accommodation options in Kawthaung area, and mere 200 rooms in the area, according to Oikos Responsible Tourism Advisor Dr Andrea Valentin. “These days, travellers are more sophisticated, and they have higher expectations. In Kawthaung, just like the rest of Myanmar, the hotels don’t provide good value for money, compared to other places.”
She is worried that trash on beaches will also put off visitors. “Tourism has to be planned for the Tanintharyi region, otherwise it will create more problems. There are good prospects for growth, but it needs to be coordinated, and to involve everyone, including communities and villages.”
New overland border crossings with Thailand and better roads in the region mean travel is now easier than before, and now tourists can go on routes previously out-of-bounds for foreigners due to security concerns. The development of a cycling route along the coast would encourage cycle touring and benefit local communities, says Daniele Alleva, Oikos project manager of STAR. Locals could host visitors, provide services and even make handicrafts, he says. “This might require the authorisation for foreigners to visit places and stay overnight.”
Alleva, who has worked for 30 years in sustainable tourism, warned that the current activities in the region – particularly fishing and forestry – are unsustainable. “If the seas are overfished, there will be no jobs. If the forests are logged, there will be no jobs. We need to put an end to these unsustainable and uncontrolled activities. Instead, responsible tourism can enable visitors to explore the diverse nature and culture of the region. There is a great potential, this region is not yet discovered. There are islands, beaches, waterfalls, and villages.”
What visitors need are professional and rapid services, says Alleva. “For example, developed itineraries and routes, professional guides, handicraft studio, restaurants serving local cuisine, and activities such as trekking, snorkelling and boat trips.”
He says it will require re-training for locals. “There are other kinds of jobs in tourism, for example, taking tourists snorkelling to see the biodiversity on the coral reef. I am sure being an environmental guide can more profitable than fishing.”
Awei Pila’s Bourbaud says responsible tourism is paramount for a destination such as southern Myanmar. “With everything we know about climate change now and the impact of plastics on marine life and our oceans, we have a great responsibility to make sure that we set things up properly from the beginning. We have a great opportunity to collectively see this area turn a page in the current view of tourism in Myanmar, that will not only be of assistance to us but we hope also for the region and the country.”
By Keith Lyons