Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Sustainability is key to the future of tourism in Myanmar

Destination management is needed to achieve sustainable tourism, which will contribute to jobs and long-term growth in Myanmar.

A file photo of Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda in Inle Lake. Zarni Phyo / The Myanmar TimesA file photo of Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda in Inle Lake. Zarni Phyo / The Myanmar Times

“This is Burma and it will be quite unlike any land you know about,” celebrated novelist, Rudyard Kipling, wrote over a century ago. Even today, his thoughts hold true, with Myanmar offering a unique experience to the modern tourist in search of something new and different. Since its reforms to open the economy in 2012, Myanmar has emerged as a popular choice for globetrotters. The country’s untapped natural settings and gorgeous locales make it one of the coveted tourist destinations in South East Asia as proven by its inclusion in the Lonely Planet’s Best of Travel list in 2017. The growing tourism sector offers employment opportunities to people across the country’s wide topography, contributing over US$4.6 billion to the economy – approximately 6.6 percent of GDP.

A quick glance at the numbers reveals Myanmar’s potential as a tourist destination. The Ministry of Hotels and Tourism (MoHT) estimates that in 2016, the country had 2.9 million tourist-arrivals. Given that in the past, the data included a large chunk of people – not defined as tourists by the World Tourism Organization – these latest figures are more accurate.

Additionally, the number of tourist arrivals in specific destinations such as Inle Lake and Bagan establishes significant growth trends along with the numbers that have more than doubled at airports between 2012 and 2015. Myanmar also has a significant number of domestic tourists, making up a third of the total GDP contribution from tourism.

The World Travel and Tourism Council ranks Myanmar second internationally in terms of its long-term growth potential over the next 10 years. This projection could lead to the sector contributing to 2.4 million jobs – up from 1.6 million at present.

Understanding the importance of this sector, the Myanmar government has included tourism as a priority sector in the country’s Export Strategy and within the government’s Framework for Economic and Social Reforms. The government has also put into place a Tourism Master Plan (2013-2020), with a strategic focus on developing key destinations sustainably through effective planning and management.

However, while the growth potential is immense, there are several factors posing a threat to developing sustainable tourism in Myanmar. According to the World Economic Forum’s Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Index, Myanmar ranks 134 out of 141 countries. The reasons range from infrastructural challenges, shortage of skilled labour, and poor waste management, among others. To address these issues and proactively plan and implement measures for sustainable tourism, strong and inclusive destination management is needed.

Future roadmap: destination management

The potential of Myanmar’s tourism sector is akin to a double-edged sword. While it holds promises of new employment opportunities and rising income, the major tourist spots are ill-prepared to handle this evolution, and hence are more vulnerable. Increasingly, it is becoming clear that key destinations, such as Inle Lake, Bagan, the Myeik Archipelago and Mrauk-U, to mention a few, need to be effectively managed so that they can develop into sustainable tourist destinations.

A synchronised and coordinated approach to ‘destination management’ led by the state and regional governments – such as Shan State for Inle Lake and Tanintharyi Region for the Myeik Archipelago – is the need of the hour. Destination management is a concept that focuses on managing all the elements of a destination, including environment, tourism assets, skills development and infrastructure, among others. It ensures that all relevant stakeholders – local residents, business community, the government and civil society – in a given destination are consulted and decisions are made on the basis of their inputs.

Implementation of destination management plans requires effective leadership and coordination that can be provided through well-resourced destination management organisations (DMOs). These DMOs act as strategic leaders, enabling business and community partnerships, and pooling resources and expertise to lead and coordinate a range of activities through an inclusive and consultative process. Also, while key agencies like the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism need to coordinate effectively, the state and regional governments should take the lead to manage destinations in an inclusive manner and ensure effective service delivery.

This is where the International Finance Corporation (IFC), a member of the World Bank Group, aims to use its destination management experience in other emerging markets. The IFC – in partnership with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade of Australia and the Department for International Development of the United Kingdom – is supporting the development of key tourist destinations in Myanmar, including Inle Lake, the Bagan Archeological Zone and the Myeik Archipelago, with an emphasis on effective destination management.

A key aspect of this program to date has been to support the implementation of the destination management plan for the Inle Lake Region. A crucial aspect of this effort is the work with the Shan State government and MoHT to establish a DMO to support coordination of key stakeholders so that they can work in tandem to protect this important asset and ensure sustainable tourism growth.

A strong DMO, besides tracking and monitoring, can also lead impactful marketing efforts, while engaging with local leaders and the business community to address issues of waste management to protect the lake. IFC is working together with the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Irrigation to improve and reduce the usage of chemicals on the floating tomato farms, supporting the ministry’s Good Agriculture Practices (GAP) Program in Inle Lake.

It involves over 300 tomato farmers and may affect over 150 thousand people depending on the Lake for their livelihood. Subsequent plans include setting up a DMO in the Myeik Archipelago by working with the Tanintharyi government and relevant stakeholders. When these southern islands start drawing international tourists, it will be crucial to ensure their environmental and social protection for the sake of sustainability.

Myanmar’s tourism sector is at an important juncture – between growth and sustainability. It is time that the government, private sector, development partners, civil society and local residents join hands to identify and address issues to support sustainable tourism. The challenges may be significant, but sustainability alone can create jobs and connect tourists with the local and diversified supply chains, benefiting other sectors and strengthening the country’s future economy.


 

Thitsar Thitsar is a private sector specialist at the World Bank Group.