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Anticipating Irresponsible Tourism - Has Burma Got It Right?

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The responsible tourism movement is slowly catching on and for the first time at the last World Travel Market (WTM), the Responsible Tourism conference was standing room only. On the other side of the world in East Asia, Myanmar has also been busy, and took advantage of the environmental focus at the WTM to officially launch its Responsible Tourism Policy. And although the policy is attractive, there is one major flaw to be addressed.

Myanmar has been in the spotlight since 2010 after the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, long-term political prisoner and human rights activist, now chairperson and general secretary of the ruling party, the National League for Democracy. After almost 50 years of being under military rule and locked out of the international landscape, the country is opening up to the rest of the world with a huge focus on tourism.

In the last year, country has seen rapid development of its infrastructure (the country now has over 200 hotels), a surge in tourist arrivals and a first visit from Obama; the growth of Myanmar is an upward curve hereon. In the first six months of 2012, international arrivals increased by 30% compared to 2011 (Ministry of Hotels and Tourism). However, despite this wave in development and tourism, the Burmese government remains very cautious and has consequently developed a new policy to regulate tourism in the country.

The government recognises that although success is assured and that tourism will continue to grow in the short-term at least, it has also pointed out that Myanmar risks potential unsustainable tourism growth and negative impacts on the environment, its culture and society. "Myanmar will not be a second Thailand," said Mr. Achim Munz, a representative of the policy committee, at the WTM Myanmar Responsible Tourism Policy launch conference last November. "We are very clear about where we want to go," he said.

Although trying to tread carefully, the Burmese government is optimistic about this responsible vision. "The policy isn't a reaction to irresponsible tourism, but more a prevention", said Mr. U Phyo Wai Yar Zar, Secretary of the Myanmar Tourist Federation. While most countries adopt a get-rich-quick attitude to tourism, Myanmar prefers a long-term sustainable development to this type of short-term boost and Myanmar proves to be a pioneer in recognising that although a country can benefit from tourism, it can also be a threat.

The launch conference panel reasserts that due to the way Myanmar is being marketed, through its "unique attributes", it will not appeal to the mainstream tourist looking for cheap sun, sea and lager. The focus is on attracting a particular type of traveller "We warmly welcome those who appreciate and enjoy our heritage, our way of life and who travel with respect," reads Myanmar's responsible tourism vision statement. The plan is to focus on two main channels: nature and spiritual tourism.

In response to the challenge of implementing this new vision, the Nay Pyi Taw Responsible Tourism Statement was drawn up last February. The nine aims of the policy touch on social equality, cultural diversity and authenticity, conservation and enhancement of the environment, competitiveness not just on price, but on product richness, diversity and quality, and training and rewarding of the workforce.

Mr. U Phyo Wai Yar Zar has been in charge of the initiative, together with Mrs Nicole Häuser, representing the Hanns Seidel Foundation in Berlin, which has played a huge role in identifying the pitfalls and solutions in developing Myanmar's tourism industry.

The research behind the policy has been carefully carried out; several regions have been included in workshops allowing the government to identify local needs and ideas. "Identifying what is locally important is vital", said Dr Harold Goodwin, another affiliate of Myanmar's new tourism policy at the last WTM Responsible Tourism conference. "We owe it to the world to use tourism to make a place better by visiting it."

At the Nay Pyi Taw concluding conference, the 22 ministries representing the public sector, the private sector and international tourism professionals attended and agreed that a plan needed to be hatched in time for the big boom. The fact that so many ministries showed such an interest in creating a Responsible Tourism Policy showed recognition and an understanding of each ministry's role as essential if the approach was to be a holistic one. "Responsible tourism doesn't just concern tourism, but touches on all aspects of life: water, fishing, climate, trade, transport, construction, human rights..." said Mr. U Phyo Wai Yar Zar.

The overall outcome was that more rules and regulations were needed in order to control tourism and to avoid making the same mistakes as other countries. The nine aims, or 'Action Plan' was elaborated, the focus being on the inclusion of every individual, from hoteliers to staff, locals and visitors. A handbook has also been printed as a token of the policy. It educates the foreign visitor by giving lots of tips on how to behave in Myanmar, as well as a few local phrases. The guide will be widely available to foreign tourists, and will play a significant part in spreading the kind of tourism the government wants to develop.

The government's plans are being implemented with such fervour that one can only wish for success. However, despite the impressive efforts being made as the country opens up to the rest of the world, one must question how the policy will be implemented when local entrepreneurs start being accustomed to the colour of money. In the face of a development that could bring in a small fortune, will the corners remain square? When we put the question to the panel, we were accused of immense pessimism by another attendee to the conference; however, for the policy to work it is vital to remain realistic. Making sure a responsible tourism policy is respected at every level of a country's structure is no walk in the park, and as much as one can anticipate irresponsible tourism, one must also anticipate the repercussions of temptations to cut corners, as demonstrated in many countries across the world. The example I like to use is that of Mauritius. Beautiful and attracting affluent visitors from across the world, it has experienced a hotel boom mid-2000s. In less than 10 years, the number of hotels on the island has tripled. Despite the investment in the island's tourism industries, a large fraction of the local population still struggles to make ends meet and get around the island. Public transport for example, hasn't improved since the 90s. Tourism in Mauritius is a clear example of how it has not quite benefited the local population in ways that this type of investment should have.

Mrs Häuser and Mr U Phyo Wai Yar Zar agreed that sanctions need to be put in place in order to ensure that the nine steps of the policy are being followed. This might be something that will be developed over the next few years, they said.

Myanmar has proven to be a pioneer in its elaboration of a Responsible Tourism Policy, even if there is still plenty of room for improvement. The distinguishing feature is that the policy was called for organically, from the heart of the country - its people. This alone makes a huge difference in how tourism is going to develop in the country. However, it is vital to recognise that drawing up rules and regulations does not suffice. As Dr. Harold Goodwin said at the WTM Responsible Tourism conference, for a change to really happen any responsible tourism policy needs to include sanctions and transparent reporting. The policy is a great start but it is necessary for continuous and rigorous groundwork to control that the vision is being implemented correctly. It is essential for Myanmar to develop better measures fast if it wants to be ready in time for the big bad mass-tourism machine.