NEW DELHI: Myanmar is a beautiful country, and now with its transition to democracy from decades of military rule, it is easier to visit than it ever was. Myanmar’s current government has removed many of the hurdles that made tourism difficult, now targeting 4.5 million tourists this year. The number is quintupling of the number just five years ago -- when the new government began initiating reform.

A new report, however, concludes that Myanmar is not prepared for this change. According to the reports, based on the Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business (MCRB) second sectorwide impact assessment (SWIA), in collaboration with the Danish Institute of Human Rights (DIHR) and the Institute of Human Rights and Business (IHRB) -- “increased tourism will also have negative impact.”

The report outlines a number of concerns. “The first is that some of Myanmar’s flagship sites such as Bagan, Inle and Kyaiktiyo, are already under environmental and social pressure from the effects of tourism. This is impacting on livelihoods and the long-term viability of these places as tourism destinations. That pressure comes as much from a rise in domestic tourists as it does from foreign tourists. Domestic tourists greatly outnumber foreign tourists, particularly at certain pilgrimage sites. It highlights the need – already mentioned in the Tourism Master Plan – for destination management plans, drawn up with the participation of local groups as well as all relevant government authorities and tourism businesses, which should inter alia address the question of carrying capacity, before steps are taken to actively market the destination further or expand hotel room capacity. These plans will need destination management organizations, led by local government, which should include representatives of public, private and civil society organizations. They should promote grassroots participation in tourism planning and decision making. Effective destination management is a local governance issue. Donors who want to invest in improving good local governance should consider the urgent need to invest in destination management organizations and prime tourism sites.

The frequent findings from field research of negative impacts caused by ‘hotel zones’ – areas of land compulsorily acquired and set aside for concentrated hotel development – are a consequence of the above-mentioned absence of participatory destination management. They also reflect the fact that land is possibly the most complex challenge any business investing in Myanmar with a land footprint will face. The reform of the land policy and laws in Myanmar is incomplete. It is characterised by a patchwork of old and new laws and regulations that leads to overlap, contradiction and confusion that can, and has been, used to deprive people of their land. Land is often the most significant asset for most rural families, but they are vulnerable to exploitation and have limited protection under the existing and even new land laws. The negative impacts of hotel zones relate to impacts on livelihoods, including the opportunities for future community involvement in tourism, land rights, environmental conservation, and transparency. They can be a driver for conflict. This assessment reinforces the need to embark urgently on the review of the status of hotel zone development, identified as necessary in the Tourism Master Plan. It is recommended that this process be initiated by a multistakeholder debate, to contribute to the drawing up of a zonal planning framework, as mentioned in the Master Plan. The aim should be to avoid negative impacts which could damage natural and cultural heritage and the well-being of local residents. It is recommended that decisions to further develop hotel zones should be suspended until the completion of this review. Linked to this, a further common finding of the sector-wide assessment for tourism (and that for the oil and gas sector), was that engagement and genuine two-way communication and transparency by business with stakeholders has historically been almost completely absent. This has led to mistrust, misunderstanding and occasionally conflict.

Businesses, whether those already present or investing for the first time, need an in-depth understanding of local priorities and concerns, through greater engagement with, and accessibility to, workers, local communities, national level stakeholders and the local and national media. Appropriate engagement from the start of relationships with workers and communities matters because it demonstrates respect, where, until recently, they have often experienced either neglect or reprisals for complaints. Engagement, consultation and participation of a wide range of stakeholders should form the basis of tourism development projects from the very start. This is particularly important in ethnic minority and post-conflict areas where it is essential to take the time to engage directly with as wide a range of stakeholders as possible to get a more complete picture of the conflict and communal dynamics, and to understand how local people would like to see the destination opened to tourists and benefits shared. Furthermore, the lack of judicial and non-judicial mechanisms for effective resolution of complaints means that constructive and responsible approaches to establishing operational mechanisms to resolve grievances will be even more important.

Finally, during this transition period, safeguards for the environment, society and human rights are lacking, or poorly monitored and enforced, due to low awareness as well as weak government, business and civil society capacity. Rapidly changing labour laws and low awareness of rights means workers and in some cases, employers, are not well informed of even the most basic labour rights protections. While that function is often filled by trade unions in other countries, in Myanmar, trade unions are only just emerging after many years of prohibition. The forced labour previously associated with the last military government has almost disappeared. But the increasing use of temporary workers and labour contractors, as well as inadequate enforcement by Government of new laws risks replacing this with other forms of labour exploitation, especially of vulnerable groups such as female workers.”

The report suggests developing Myanmar as a “destination for smaller numbers of high-spending tourists looking for an experience that makes Myanmar special.” This is proposed as an alternative to simply increasing the number of tourists -- and follows the Bhutan model of tourism where only high spending tourists are encouraged and facilitated.

Link to the full report: