Responsible Tourism in Burma

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Responsible Tourism in Burma

Message  Admin le Mer 28 Sep 2011 - 6:23

(Interview) – In early September, Dr. Andrea Valentin accompanied a Thailand-based organization dedicated to promoting community projects in Southeast Asia and gave a series of workshops on responsible tourism and how to address both positive and negative impacts in Burma. She spoke to representatives from the government’s Ministry of Tourism in Bagan, and to members of the National League for Democracy at their headquarters in Rangoon.

She spoke with Thea Forbes of Mizzima about the key issues and the potential for responsible tourism in Burma.



Dr. Andrea Valentin, holding a microphone, accompanied a Thailand-based organization dedicated to promoting community tourism projects in Southeast Asia, where she gave talks to government officials, travel industry personnel and NLD members on responsible, sustainable tourism. Photo: Mizzima

Question: What were the main topics of the responsible tourism workshop presented at the NLD office on September 15th?

Answer: I prepared two presentations and group exercises about the impacts of tourism for the one-day workshop at the NLD headquarters in Yangon. First, I held a “Responsible Tourism in Myanmar” presentation, which was the same presentation I had given three days before at a government workshop on community-based tourism in Bagan. The Bagan workshop was the official reason for my visit to Burma. I received a tourist visa and volunteered my knowledge about tourism to both the government and the NLD. The Bagan workshop was approved and paid for by the Ministry of Tourism, the Myanmar Tourism Board and members of the Myanmar tourism industry. I’m not sure if they were aware of my intention to hold another workshop with the NLD. I was left alone after I left the NLD building on my last day. The presentation I held for both the NLD and government focused on what constitutes responsible tourism, best practice examples, tourism statistics, future tourism development options for Burma and some criteria for developing truly sustainable tourism beyond public relations.

After the first presentation, I divided the NLD audience into small groups to discuss the positive and negative aspects of five objects: an egg, a book, a very old Kyat note (money), a stone and a flower. Each group then discussed the positive and negative aspects of their object. This can be a very effective exercise to get the positive and negative impacts of tourism across to a community that doesn’t know so much about tourism. I hope the participants will use this exercise when they go back to their communities. For example, an egg is “fragile, easy to damage,” money evokes “greed: but is also an “income opportunity,” a book provides “information and knowledge” but also “wrong information can mislead.”

After this, I asked them to compare the positive and negative aspects about each item with tourism, which resulted in a very healthy debate about the economic, social and environmental impacts of tourism. All the participants were amazing – they were critical of tourism and hopeful at the same time. And by all participants, I mean all participants, not only the NLD people but also participants from Bagan. Everybody showed the same keen interest in wanting to learn about sustainability. I hope they will all use this knowledge wisely.

Mizzima: What could responsible tourism do to help the sustainable development of Burma?

Answer: Transparency can transform the way tourism stakeholders conduct business in Burma. A transparent tourism industry could reshape development practice in the sense that businesses and government must respond to visitors’ calls for corporate social responsibility (CSR) standards and develop truly sustainable tourism.

Mizzima: How do you think tourism can be used to empower civil society and other nongovernmental organizations in Burma?

Answer: Well, first of all I should clarify my values: I believe it seldom makes sense to isolate permanently, no matter how unpleasant the tyrants who govern. I’m pragmatic and an idealist and I believe in engagement. Sanctions failed to shift power, but it convinced the Myanmar government that the country gains from engaging with the world. Tourism could be an opportunity for CSOs (civil society organizations) and NGOs inside and in exile.

Tourism is going to happen anyway, but it’s unclear how. We should use this situation. Tourism can bring a lot of cash into Burma, but whether it can reduce economic hardships of the poor and poorest is the most important question. If the communities on the ground are empowered and receive a fair share of tourism, responsible community-based tourism projects can contribute to sustainable rural development throughout the country.

Economies need cash and it’s idle to suppose otherwise. Most economic hardships in Burma are in the rural areas. Only when the poor and the poorest are better off, we can speak of democracy in Burma. Participating in responsible tourism projects, community-based tourism including all stakeholders and following a bottom-up approach could be a chance for NGOs and CSOs to engage.

So we support sustainable tourism development initiatives in Burma, but for true sustainability we need to push for real reforms, away from PR talk.

Likewise, if tourists to Burma are politically aware and spend their money wisely, tourism can be useful. For example, NGOs in Burma could open their doors and invite small numbers of visitors to learn about their activities. Visitors could donate their knowledge and skills, cash, books, technological stuff – the options are wide. In any case, we hope NGOs will consider tourism as an option for engagement, and we encourage them to make statements for or against it. We will interview a wide range of NGOs about tourism, and we will publish this information on our website.

Mizzima: What do you think is the biggest misconception about the tourism industry?

Answer: Perhaps the biggest misconception is that there exists such thing, a coherent “tourism industry.” Tourism is a fractured collection of very different people with different interests. The stakeholder group for tourism in Burma includes the Ministry of Tourism, Myanmar Tourism Board, tour operators, travel agents, airlines, hotels and accommodation, buses, trains, taxis, horse cart drivers, local communities, tourists, residents, shops, bars, teahouses, restaurants, NGOs and many more. So it’s hard to talk about “the tourism industry” as such. We must understand that there could be many different stakeholders involved in the development of responsible tourism. But for tourism to be sustainable in Burma, local community members must participate in and benefit from local tourism development following a bottom-up approach, not top-down – and that is the biggest challenge.

Mizzima: The SPDC made 1996 their “Visit Myanmar Year,” what are the necessary tangible signs of progress you would like to see in Burma before another “Visit Myanmar Year” becomes ethically and morally viable for Tourism Transparency?

Answer: Oh, please don’t misunderstand Tourism Transparency - we think it’s ethically and morally viable to visit Burma! We support politically aware travelers visiting Burma! Why is it unethical to visit Burma, but it’s fine to go to China? What’s the difference? We don’t want to tell anyone what to do or where to go, all we say is tourists please be aware when you visit places. Know where you’re going and support the locals. But the decision whether and how you go is yours, of course!

If the government and MTB want to create another “Visit Myanmar Year,” then so be it. I hope they will call it “Visit Myanmar Responsibly.” We are looking forward to working with the Myanmar government and other stakeholders in order to bring transparency to responsible tourism pilot projects.

The type of tourism development we call for requires informed participation of all stakeholders and strong political leadership to ensure consensus building. Achieving sustainable tourism is a continuous process. It requires constant monitoring of impacts and introducing preventive and corrective measures.

Mizzima: Could you tell us a bit about Tourism Transparency?

Answer: Tourism Transparency is a new NGO that works for an open and accountable tourism industry in Burma. Our aim is to bring transparency to tourism in Burma. Our website is a platform of exchange about tourism, and our main target are tourists who seek practical advice on how to travel responsibly in Burma. In collaboration with a range of civil society organizations (inside and outside Burma) we provide information about responsible tourism options. We publish a list of tourism businesses and their owners so that tourists can make better-informed decisions on their holiday.

Mizzima: You also gave a workshop to members from Burma's new government, can you tell us which members you met and your general impression of the reception of your workshop?

Answer: I met members of the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism, the Myanmar Tourism Board, members of the Archaeological Department in Bagan, Myanmar Hotel Association, Tour Operator Association, NGOs, Myanmar Egress, Myanmar Tour Operators, Tour Guides, Hotel and Restaurant Managers as well as the local residents of a small community near Mount Popa, where we went to visit a potential future responsible tourism project.

The organizers and participants at the workshop were incredibly friendly and warm. They were wonderful, particularly the tour guides. All seemed very keen to learn. They really seek dialogue and want to engage. They bravely look into a new future. Please do not forget that they are under immense pressure themselves. I can’t imagine it was easy to get this particular workshop approved at the highest level. I think they were worried, particularly about me; I was told so. But I guess they saw the benefits of having someone sitting there who’s both hopeful and critical about tourism. So I recognize and applaud those actors that are making a difference and I wish others are encouraged to emulate these good examples.


Senior NLD leader Tin Oo chaired a workshop on responsible tourism in Burma presented by a Thailand-based tourism group at NLD headquarters in Rangoon. Photo: Mizzima


Mizzima: Can the tourism industry be utilized to help aid the transition to real democracy in Burma? If so, how?

Answer: The Myanmar government will need support from democratic organizations for developing truly responsible tourism, otherwise these projects will not be perceived as credible. Once the word about unethical business practice is out, tourism companies can face boycotts and reputational risks. Tourists will prefer supporting businesses that are engaged in effective outreach programmes, so it is possible to empower communities by creating transparency. We believe in the future there will be greater scrutiny by the public over investment in Burma, by growing networks of civil society monitoring groups and by campaigners and journalists. All this heightens reputational risks for unethical tourism practice in Burma.

Tourism Transparency engages with industry members, with international tour operators offering tours to Burma (from Germany, UK, etc), and local tour operators in Burma. We think businesses should not be expected to live up to higher standards than the government, but they do have to balance the practical with the moral and embrace increasing calls for CSR practice (corporate social responsibility) from their own customers.

Mizzima: How can tourism be utilized in Burma to help protect the environment and its cultural diversity?

Answer: Well, this would be the application of responsible tourism theory on the ground, acting upon environmental, social and economic responsibilities. Development that meets the needs of the present. Participation and ownership of tourism at all tiers of Burmese society are absolutely essential. Economically, it is important the country maximizes local economic benefits by increasing linkages and reducing leakages. Socially, it is important to 1) combat the sexual exploitation of human beings, 2) ensure that tourism contributes to improvements in health and education and 3) maintain and encourage social and cultural diversity. Environmentally, the establishment of regular environmental impact assessments (EIAs) can constitute the first step to ensure the negative impacts of tourism are reduced to a minimum. Resources need to be used sustainably, and that includes waste reduction and over-consumption. If Burma’s tourism stakeholders show true commitment to manage the country’s stunning natural and cultural diversity sustainably, they will also consider volume and type of tourism that the environment can support. This will show they respect the environmental integrity of vulnerable ecosystems.

Mizzima: Do you think that corruption in Burma plays a big part in slowing down the development of sustainable tourism? If so, how can this be fought?

Answer: Corruption is the main obstacle to developing sustainable tourism in Burma, and a good way to combat corruption is by providing transparency. The problem is that many tourism stakeholders tiptoe around the issue of who benefits, so it’s not easy to say who gets what. It’s very blurry.

So no doubt it will be difficult to implement truly sustainable tourism projects in Burma. For example, environmental impact assessments are practically non-existent, or at best cosmetic, yet the government pursues a responsible tourism marketing strategy, with support from powerful donor agencies. Some promising projects are in the initial pilot phase, and Tourism Transparency applauds these efforts. But for now it is unclear whether the benefits will be fairly shared with the communities on the ground.

Mizzima: In February 2009, Burma granted visa-on-arrival for cross-border Chinese tourists arriving at Myitkyina through chartered flights from various international airports in China to travel and onto Yangon, Mandalay and Bagan, what is your opinion of this move, and can the tourism industry keep up with such a rapid influx of tourists?

Answer: Visa and immigration policies are generally framed by politics and ideologies that stem from economic imperatives and favourable political relations between states. So it’s perhaps not so surprising that Burma granted visa-on-arrival to Chinese tourists. The Chinese tourism market will be the most important tourism market in the future, and Burma has opened its doors early. I’m pretty sure the ministry will discuss the visa-on-arrival scheme in upcoming parliamentary sessions.

In terms of capacities: the tourism infrastructure in Burma is insufficient. They will be likely overwhelmed by a sudden influx of tourists. Ad-hoc development to quickly cater for this sudden influx of tourists will result in unsustainable forms of tourism, which can spoil the country’s attractiveness as a tourist destination in the future.

Mizzima: According to the Pacific Asia Travel Association, during the first six months of 2011, Burma welcomed just over 190,300 tourists, a 29 per cent increase over the same period last year. The tourism industry is clearly expanding rapidly; what would you say are three key things that travelers should ensure they do to help promote the sustainable development of Burma through their travel?

Answer: Before the journey, read up about Burma, about politics, the local culture, about the do’s and don’ts. Research the Tourism Transparency tourism directory and make notes where you want to go. If tourists want to visit Burma with a tour operator, we encourage them to check out the operators’ ethical stance. Potential customers could ask their tour operator for specific information about where their money goes when they book with them. If tourists want to donate, it is better to support social projects rather than individuals. Research about projects that you can visit on your trip are on our website. Tourists can bring some useful gifts such as books, magazines, CDs, USBs, or an old laptop.

In Burma, be aware of where your money is going – check out our tourism directory and learn who owns the tourism businesses. Prefer locally owned teahouses, restaurants, shops or businesses that engage in effective outreach programmes. Try to keep your money within the local economy. Engage, engage, engage. Talk with people but don’t bring up politics (let them bring it up). Trust your instinct – if you feel uncomfortable, change the subject or leave. Buy locally. Go to the market and discover all the amazing things they offer. Purchase their products, arts and crafts.

Back at home, talk about your travel experience with your friends and family, and explain to them how you attempted to travel responsibly. Start a travel blog, and link it to our site. Contribute to the responsible tourism movement by adding your story, photo, video, opinion piece, poem or anything else you can come up with. Comment on places you stayed in our tourism directory. Write comprehensive feedback to your tour operator. Include what you liked and disliked, and add suggestions how they could reduce the negative impacts and increase the benefits to the local communities. Always be constructive in your criticism.

Mizzima: What are some successful tourism projects that have inspired you, is there any one country or one project that you feel would benefit Burma?

Answer: Well, there is always the danger of responsible tourism projects being undermined by government, community or businesses that use the rhetoric but cannot substantiate the claims. But some best practice examples I mentioned in the workshops were: Costa Rica, which has managed to protect a larger proportion of its land than any other country in the world because they combined a large national park system with eco-tourism, a partnership that has won worldwide admiration. They are using eco-tourism wisely.

Other countries I mentioned were Laos, Vietnam and Thailand. In Thailand, the CBTI (Community Based Tourism Initiative) particularly stands out. In the workshop I focused more on bad practice examples so that Myanmar can learn from past tourism development mistakes.

Mizzima: Could you tell us a bit about yourself and how you first became interested in Burma and how that transpired to the birth of Tourism Transparency?

Answer: Tourism Transparency is a research-based project. It stems from the results of my Ph.D research in which I examined how independent travelers visit places and what they think and know about politics. I found many were apolitical but perceived themselves as “more ethical” than their package tour counterparts, whereas others were aware about the situation in Burma but they just didn’t know how their visit could help the people.

I formed a group of like-minded people who were convinced that while the tourism cynics were correct to be critical of tourism in Burma, they did not offer any better alternatives. We think a simplistic analysis that assumes all visitors to Burma are self-centered individuals who support the military junta is neither correct nor helpful. Neither is the suggestion that tourists are the saviours of Burma. Instead, we need to learn more about tourism, about the various impacts and about potential benefits. Such knowledge can then be adapted to Burma.

So Tourism Transparency is an alternative tourism network that encourages ongoing discussion about a new brand of aware and responsible tourists.

Mizzima: What's in store for the future of tourism in Burma?'

Answer: To create sustainable tourism is an immense challenge for all tourist destinations in the world. Tourism is like a fire, you can cook your food on it, or it can burn your house down.

The future of tourism in Burma could go either way.

I hope the government will use their position wisely and develop a sustainable tourism strategy including all stakeholders, bottom up. I hope they will not begin superstructure development in pristine settings. In the workshop I emphasized that sustainable tourism makes business sense because it is what the customers of tomorrow demand. They don't want to visit superstructures in Burma; they want to learn about nature, culture and traditions. And travelers are getting more sophisticated and are aware of green-washing, so the tourism industry has to prove its brave intentions of sustainability.

So on a practical level, this means that the government and the tourism stakeholders need to begin to conduct impact assessments (environmental, social, economic) when they develop tourism. By pursuing a strategy of sustainability and responsibility for tourism development, the government of Myanmar shows they are looking ahead to a new future.

Mizzima: What do you think of the government's current strategy towards tourism?

Answer: The government's current tourism development strategy is unclear, but I was told the new strategy paper will come out in November. We are in a critical phase right now; it could go either way. So perhaps I can comment more on past strategies.

The tourism sector was first encouraged when the Burma’s Tourism Law was enacted in 1990. After that separate administrative bodies were formed such as the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism in 1992. Since then entrepreneurs and foreign investors have developed tourism infrastructures, and what is referred to as 'superstructures' by the Myanmar Ministry of Hotels and Tourism (MMHT). Since then a low inflow of foreign investment has resulted in a situation where more than 85 per cent of foreign direct investment in Myanmar goes to mining, oil, gas and power. According to MMHT investment in tourism was around 3 per cent (July 2010).

I think it's pretty clear tourism for the government is a sector with vast potential and comparative advantage, and I hope the government will make a commitment to develop tourism by integrating all stakeholders and following sustainability standards.


For more information about Tourism Transparency, go to

http://www.tourismtransparency.org/


source http://www.mizzima.com/edop/interview/5987-responsible-tourism-in-burma.html
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Date d'inscription : 31/05/2009

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