The question of how to travel responsibly in Myanmar has long loomed over the country’s tourism sector.
For many years, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi urged foreign tourists to impose a tourism boycott, while countless commentaries and blogs have grappled with the question of how to travel the country’s rural areas in a way that’s both environmentally sound and supportive of local communities.
Tourism numbers soared following the nation’s opening in 2010, suggesting that many have made peace with this dilemma. However, the issue of what constitutes ethical travelling is perhaps even murkier today, as many groups in-country have started using the confusing term “ecotourism” to describe destinations and itineraries.
The ambiguity of the term is highlighted by the fact that the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism’s website lists the Yangon Zoological Gardens as an ecotourism site – but paying a small fee to have your photo taken with an Asiatic black bear that spends its days chained to a park bench can hardly be considered environmentally sound or supportive of local communities.
In the private sector, the website of the Yangon-based Myanmar Travel Expert tour company mentions the Hukaung Valley Tiger Reserve in Kachin State as an ecotourism destination, making no mention of accusations that hundreds of farmers have been displaced from the reserve area, their land now covered with cassava, tapioca and sugarcane plantations owned by the Yuzana Corporation.
According to Ivy Chee, the regional director of the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA), despite “ecotourism” being an increasingly popular term for travel providers there is no precise, widely agreed definition.
Ms Chee explained that playing fast and loose with the word hardly makes Myanmar unique.
“Across all of [Asia’s tourism market], things are not being addressed properly,” she said.
To that end, PATA and its international partners plan to hold a conference in Manila in the Philippines next month at which they will push to create specific criteria for ecotourism – ones that can be applied across Asia and eventually the world.
“We will align our advocacy and speak with one voice. We will have a consensus,” she said.
Ms Chee said “real ecotourism” in Asia will be successful “if you have a benchmark system everyone can follow”.
“If everyone comes up with their own term, things can get messy,” she said.
PATA released a report last month on sustainability in the tourism sector, identifying trends and making recommendations for the future.
“In tourism specifically, semantics still cloud the idea of corporate social responsibility through terms such as ‘ecotourism’, ‘responsible tourism’, ‘green tourism’, ‘sustainable tourism’ and so forth,” the report said.
“Perhaps neither semantics (nor, arguably, motivation) surrounding [corporate social responsibility] are that important; rather what counts is the end product – that collectively, we are doing what’s right, doing it with integrity, and, in the case of travel and tourism and the visitor economy, ensuring that the very reason behind why we travel does not disappear.”
Reference “The Myanmar Times”
by “Bill O’Toole”