Myanmar diaries: A case for pro-poor tourism

In Myanmar 32 percent out of a population of 54 million live in poverty.  Myanmar is the poorest country in South East Asia. (Source: United States CIA Factbook)

70% of Myanmar’s population live in the rural areas and in most of the villages there is no running water and electricity supply

The young and the old are not spared the daily routine of finding clean water from streams and artisan wells

This resourceful man is using solar cells from a torchlight to power his radio and poor children find every opportunity to make some extra cash for services

This couple survives by extracting palm sugar, converting it to sweets and local brew for sale

In  villages people have to share their living space and drinking water with their cattle and goats

Bullock carts are the most common form of transportation in these villages

Those who can afford motorbikes, cars or tractors pay higher prices at the village pump

There is a general consensus that tourism can have a massive impact and could become central to developing Myanmar’s economy while at the same time reducing  poverty of the masses and provide employment for the growing number of youths.

With the democratising reforms of the Government and easing of trade sanctions by the United States and Europe, Myanmar can expect an increasing influx  of visitors and tourists.

Myanmar has much to offer and to date have submitted a tentative lists of 8 sites for designation as world heritage to UNESCO.

The Ayeyarwaddy River runs through Myanmar from north to south. It is 2170km long and the most important commercial waterway of Myanmar. Soon this river will also provide the electricity to jump start the economy.

Along the eastern bank of the Ayeyarwaddy River in the Mandalay, lies the plain of Bagan, where the remains of some 2000 Buddhist pagodas and monuments continue to awe visitors . The grandeur and historical significance of this site matches those of the Angkor Complex in Siem Reap in Cambodia and Borobudur in Central Java.

The Pagoda on top of Mount Popa, 3000 feet above sea level is like a scene out of a Harry Potter movie.  The Pagoda is home to the 37 spirits called Nats who govern the daily live and beliefs of the rural folks

Unfortunately, at the moment, it appears that those who benefit from the country’s tourism sector are government cronies, members of the military and rich businessmen and not the poor and poorest of the population.

There is a lack of tourism infrastructure.  Large-scale development projects serve only to enrich a few and contribute to inflation making the poor even poorer. There is a need for the Myanmar government to incorporate poverty elimination objectives into their tourism strategy.

Dr Andrea Valentin, the founder of Tourism Transparency, (an NGO)  recently presented a paper at the Responsible Tourism Conference in Myanmar’s new capital, Naypyidaw.  In his paper “Benefits of pro-poor tourism”  he stressed the importance of putting the people and not those privileged few at the centre of the development agenda in order to ensure a sustainable tourism strategy. This will not only serve to improve the economy but also help in the eradication of poverty in Myanmar.