Myanmar Is Becoming A Tourist Destination, But at a Cost

As more tourists enter the country, environmentalists worry about local ecosystems

Inle Lake
Inle Lake Dieter Zirnig

Myanmar's 2010 elections might not have been exactly free or fair, but under the leadership of President Thein Sein, relations with the rest of the world have thawed, and more tourist have started visiting the country. Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has become more open to the idea of tourism, too, the New York Times says

 In 1995 she appeared to discourage all tourism, telling an interviewer, “Tourists better stay at home and read some of the many human rights reports.” Then in 2011 she urged individual tourists — but not groups — to come to Myanmar, if they go about their travels “in the right way, by using facilities that help ordinary people and avoiding facilities that have close links to the government.”

It’s that last part that presents the most immediate challenge to tourism. Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy, has since said it welcomes any visitors who “promote the welfare of the common people and the conservation of the environment.” And more than one million people visited in 2012, a dramatic increase after years of international sanctions against the country. Travelers can choose not to patronize businesses or individuals that are still subject to sanctions, but the environmental impact of traveling to the  country is just starting to be examined.

National Geographic reports that, already, the increase in tourism to Myanmar has come at the cost of the local environment, especially at the picturesque Inle Lake, a tourism magnet. Environmentalists worry that the lake’s delicate balance is being dramatically upset by more boats and their attendant pollution crowding the waters. William Bleisch, a researcher working in the area, told National Geographic:

"We know that tourism is growing here, and it won't be sustainable if it continues on this trajectory. Given that, I think there is real interest and concern among the local people, among the hotel owners, among the community, among the people who live here and make their livings here, to see that this doesn't destroy the environment, that it doesn't destroy the lake. And tourism can also be very beneficial. It can open people's eyes to new possibilities that are not as destructive compared to some of the things that they've been doing."

The hope is that by focusing on the environment as tourist infrastructure is built, Myanmar will be able to preserve the resources that are drawing people there to begin with.

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