Myanmar's government is aiming at developing tourism in the country - but not at any cost. It has drawn up plans to ensure economic, ecological and social sustainability in the sector.
Since President Thein Sein has come to power, Myanmar - also referred to as Burma - has been on a course of liberalization and democratization. The positive changes can be seen in - among other things - the increasing number of tourists flocking to the country. The slow opening up of the country has whetted international interest. In the first half of 2012, 30 percent more tourists travelled to Myanmar as compared with the previous year.
But people in the country are aware of the problems inherent to mass tourism: the destruction of the environment, commercialization of cultural heritage and unfair working conditions for local populations should be avoided before they take root in the tourism sector. That's why the government in cooperation with representatives from economy and civil society as well as with the German Hanns Seidel Foundation has created a policy paper on the development of tourism in Myanmar. The so-called "Responsible Tourism Policy" comprises a list of guidelines designed to protect the environment, promote stable economic growth and reduce poverty. Sustainability is the name of the government's goal.
Three pillars of sustainability
"Sustainable tourism is based on the three principles of economic, ecologic and social responsibility," Achim Munz, of the Hanns Seidel Foundation in Myanmar, told DW.
In order to do it in the most economical way, the government should give top priority to the development of the tourism industry, he added.
"Investments in tourism, for example, investments in infrastructure, are very important for the future economic development of Myanmar." Munz added that it was necessary to exert better control over the market so that the prices remained stable. "At the moment, prices for hotel rooms are skyrocketing. That is a deterrence to visitors."
In terms of ecology, said Munz, the government was planning to build improved sewage treatment plants and recycling systems and to promote the use of solar energy. "The government also wants to start using environmentally friendly busses."
As an advisor to the tourism industry, Nicole Häusler, helped in drafting the strategy paper. "It places emphasis on better integrating poor people, women and children by giving them access to education and training. It will enable locals to find work more easily in hotels and restaurants and as tour guides so they can more easily profit from tourism.
"The government is aiming at promoting small business owners who sell arts and crafts. Farmers and small businesses should profit from tourism as hotels and restaurants will give favor to local products," Häusler explained.
But the theory has yet to be put into practice. Petra Thomas specializes in sustainable trips to Myanmar. She knows all too well how difficult that brand of tourism can be. "We often find ourselves having to compromise, especially in areas in which the infrastructure is not as developed. In certain areas, the streets are in such poor condition that you can't get around flying."
An increasing number of German tourists are turning to tour operators like Petra Thomas who organize accommodation in family-owned guesthouses or tours of small businesses. "The interest in sustainable vacations is growing by the year; increasing awareness of climate change has contributed to that," tourism expert Edgar Kreilkamp of Leuphana University in Lüneburg told DW.
According to a recent study conducted by the research foundation for vacationing and travel (FUR) on German travel behavior, one third of Germans are interested in sustainable tourism. Many of the Germans asked said "they did not want to unnecessarily harm the environment and wanted travel to be sustainable for the locals as well," Martin Lohmann of FUR explained. He pointed out that the cost, on the other hand, was also an important factor. Sustainable vacationing must thus be "affordable for a large number of people. Mass tourism and sustainability are not opposites and they should be combined with each other much more frequently."
The development of sustainable tourism in Myanmar should start to show soon. A master plan for tourism along the guidelines of the "Responsible Tourism Policy" is set to be implemented early this year.