Friday, August 18, 2017

Marketing main roadblock for community tourism

Community tourism projects struggle to market their products and services, according to speakers at the Communities and Tourism Conference held in Nay Pyi Taw on June 13-14.

Pa-O community-involved tourism stall at the Communities and Tourism Conference held in Nay Pyi Taw on June 13-14. Photo - SuppliedPa-O community-involved tourism stall at the Communities and Tourism Conference held in Nay Pyi Taw on June 13-14. Photo - Supplied

The event was organised by Hanns Seidel Foundation (HSF), Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business (MCRB) and Myanmar Responsible Tourism Institute (MRTI). Existing community tourism projects, new initiatives, tour companies and professionals took part in the conference. It was also attended by around 15 legislators from areas where communities had expressed an interest in tourism involvement.

New destinations represented at the conference included Myeik archipelago and Lampi, trekking in Danu regions in Shan State, Ngayokekaung, Gwa, tours in the Yangon area, Tamarind Lake Village, and Kantpetlet, according to the press statement from the three organisers.

Six community tourism initiatives – Myaing, Indawgyi, Pa-O region, Kayah State, Upper Ayeyarwady dolphin project, and Thandaunggyi – shared their experiences over the last few years as well as presented the main challenges they faced.

Despite seeing a growth in visitors, including domestic ones, and increases in community income from those ventures, all projects encounter challenges in marketing their products.

Vicky Bowman, MCRB director, told The Myanmar Times that the challenges depend on individual projects. Common issues she listed are identifying the market and targeting it, reaching out to new markets, online marketing and the lack of visitors during low season.

For example, she said the challenges from one of the more successful projects in Kayah include the low levels of trust in the post-conflict context and the fact that tourism training alone is not enough in remote areas. Successful projects also depend on resources for more infrastructure, basic needs and a more integrated community development approach. And stability is a key factor: tension between government and ethnic groups impacted the replication of that particular project in Daw Ta Ma Gyi.

Other common challenges include continued restrictions on access and overnight stays by foreigners (which reduced local earning potential), lack of skilled human resources and lack of local knowledge about what foreign tourists want and how they behave.

Ms Bowman said one challenge was, in the case of visits and overnight stays, whether or not tourism businesses were able to offer a reliable product in view of the unpredictability of government permissions.

Why is community involvement in tourism important?

U Nyunt Win Naing, MRTI chair, told The Myanmar Times that community tourism was important for Myanmar because of the employment opportunities it created for local communities, new community income through local products, among other benefits.

Achim Munz, resident representative of the HSF, echoed the view.

“More and more local communities want to get involved in tourism, because they see it can create local jobs and new sources of income, and reduce pressures for migration to the city. 

“These communities are also increasingly asking their elected Member of Parliament how they can get started.  Moreover, they are often not clear about rules and regulations and how to apply for licenses.  

“A lot of unclarity and red tape still exists here,” he said.

Vicky Bowman stressed the need to recognise community tourism as a business.

“NGOs can be very helpful to get a project started. But the most sustainable community tourism initiatives are the ones driven by the natural entrepreneurs in the local community.

“They may be producing local food and souvenirs for a nearby tourism hub, or they may be running a small restaurant, guesthouse or adventure activity.

“For those entrepreneurs to be successful, the government needs to understand their challenges, including how they are hindered by unnecessary red tape, and make it easy for them to innovate and grow,” she said.

The press statement added that the community tourism projects highlighted the importance of promoting environmental awareness and protecting and building pride in and knowledge of local culture.

Achim Munz cautioned against local communities artificially showcasing their culture.

“It is an important aspect to use the local culture as a tourism attraction or product, but also, at the same time, preserving it and taking care of its authenticity.

“I think tourism development in communities can infuse and strengthen the pride/ knowledge of local culture and environmental awareness,” he said.

Nicole Haeusler, MRTI adviser added that “Sometimes it’s the ordinary things the locals take for granted, like local cooking and farming or travel by oxcart, that the visitor finds most interesting.”

Mr Munz told The Myanmar Times that the aim of community involvement in tourism should be to include the communities in the development process and allow members of the communities to have the opportunity to develop tourism businesses.

“In Myanmar, we do not have elected mayors or councils in communities or villages.

“For community-based tourism or community involvement in tourism, this means to also establish participatory decision-making processes, so there are more equal business opportunities in tourism within the community,” he said, adding that the participation should help communities to be better informed and more confident when dealing with outside investors.  

Policy on Community Involvement in Tourism

The Myanmar government’s Policy on Community Involvement in Tourism (CIT) defined community involvement as “allowing a significant number of local community members to gradually gain substantial control over the development and management of tourism activities in their region”.

“CIT means to create wealth for local communities. CIT encompasses all ethnic groups in Myanmar. Therefore, it is sensitive to local cultures and beliefs of all people,” the policy document stated.

The policy aims at strengthening civil societies in tourism, capacity building for community-related activities, encouraging local entrepreneurship through micro- and local enterprises and diversifying and developing quality products and services at community level.

A Tourism Sector Wide Impact Assessment (SWIA) published by the MCRB in February 2015 strongly recommended the full implementation of the Community Involvement in Tourism Policy (CIT), as well as the participation of, consultation with and the inclusion of local communities in tourism development.

The SWIA’s other recommendations cover the importance of companies taking active steps to build local capacity to provide goods and services to spread economic benefits on a local level.

“That [CIT] policy needs to be fully rolled out, including the facilities for B&B [Bed and Breakfast] and ultimately home-stay.

“Social investment [commonly known as ‘CSR’] programs by companies should build on community requests, an informed analysis of community needs, coordination with local government programming and a link to business strategy, rather than be approached as ad hoc philanthropy,” the assessment noted.

The SWIA said that tourism development in the country appears to be taking place through two parallel tracks, with some areas being the subject of the CIT policy and others facing decisions made by government and large corporations, often from outside the area, without prior community consultation and with the potential to generate conflict.