Western sanctions prohibiting commerce with the country have been suspended or lifted in some cases, and over the past year or so the word has gone out that foreign tourists are welcomed by the Parliamentary government, and certainly by the majority of Myanmar’s people.
Lonely Planet placed Myanmar at Number 2 on its list of the top ten countries for adventure travel in 2012, and the tourist board is scrambling to meet the challenge of an influx of visitors eager to explore the marvels in this relatively unknown corner of the world. Rudyard Kipling said it was a land ‘like no other’ and even today that statement rings true. Perhaps the biggest challenge facing the country as it opens the door to its future is whether it can retain and cherish the very qualities that define its allure.
Myanmar’s Ministry of Tourism has estimated that this year will see a million tourists arriving in Yangon, the country’s main portal – as opposed to around half that number in 2010-2011. The capacity to accommodate those visitors is estimated at roughly 25,000, and that includes the entire country, not just Yangon, Mandalay and the new capital city of Naypyitaw.
For some, this means ‘hurry up and build high-rise hotels’, but for those who hope to save Myanmar from the fate of so many areas in the world that have sacrificed the natural environment and indigenous culture to the demands of a booming tourist industry, it’s a dilemma of imponderable proportions.
Advocates of “ethical tourism” insist that visitors should be aware of both the short and long term impact of such a boom and spend their holiday funds where they will do the most good. That translates to staying in private guest houses, avoiding package tours, eating the local cuisine in establishments operated by locals and generally trying to support the working residents rather than the still-powerful military faction that is well known for its lack of enthusiasm where human rights are concerned.
Whether you call it Myanmar or Burma, this is a small country with huge potential that could go either way in the next few years. Its natural resources include the non-sustainable ones so dear to the hearts of big businesses like oil companies. The richest resources arguably lie in its gentle, gracious people with their devout Buddhist ideals, and in its almost untarnished rivers, mountains and shores. Preserving those riches will not be easy, but informed visitors can do their part to help.