Two eco-tourism projects in the remote Mergui archipelago have the potential to demonstrate how sustainably-managed small-scale tourism rather than mass tourism can develop the island group off the coast of Myanmar and Thailand. Emphasising habitation protection and ecological restoration, the foreign-inspired endeavours could serve as an example for other planned developments in the region.
The Wa Ale Island Resort (www.waaleresort.com), set to open later this year, is located on a small island within the Lampi Marine National Park. Offering barefoot luxury, the exclusive retreat is the dream of Benchmark Asia’s Christopher Kingsley. “Wa Ale is a well-planned conservation resort that allows travelers to access one of the most unspoiled areas in the world for the very first time.”
Sanctioned by the Myanmar ministries of natural resources and environmental conservation, and hotel and tourism, Kingsley says the mission of the luxury camp is to enable guests to experience intimately the natural beauty of the archipelago, in a way that encourages responsible and sustainable care for the environment.
Before the private resort was built, the Lampi Foundation, which will receive 20% of the resort’s profits, worked with conservation experts from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and Myanmar scientists to preserve the habitat of local sea turtles. A hatchery was established allowing a safe environment for green, hawksbill and leatherback turtles.
While most of the 800 islands that make up the archipelago are uninhabited, recent decades has seen illegal fishing, with fish stocks depleted through dynamite fishing which has damaged the coral reefs which flank most islands. Acknowledging the presence of the sea-faring foraging Moken (sea gypsy) ethnic group, the Lampi Foundation has been working with nearby villages to prevent poaching, improve livelihoods, healthcare, and education.
When Wa Ale Island Resort opens, it will aim to make the wild tropical environment more accessible through experiential. soft adventure excursions on land and in the water, exploring the extensive coral reefs, lush evergreen forests, seagrass beds, and ancient mangroves. There are opportunities for chance encounters with wildlife, including sea turtles, dugong, dolphin, manta rays, kingfishers, macaques, hornbills, brahminy kites, and nemo fish. The islands are ideal for swimming, snorkeling, diving, kayaking, paddle-boarding, nature walks, bird-watching, and beach safaris, but unlike nearby Phuket, there is no development and there are no other tourists.
In keeping with the low-impact ethos, the 11 tented villas and three treetop hideaways are decorated with matching natural hues, with much of materials recycled and repurposed from the region, including old boat timbers and hardwoods salvaged from demolished buildings.
The vast archipelago, spread out along 600km of the Andaman Sea in the Bay of Bengal, borders Myanmar and Thailand. It is only in recent years that foreigners were allowed into the islands aboard liveaboard dive boats. Wa Ale is only the third resort to open, with the large Myanmar Andaman Resort (www.myanmarandamanresort.com) the first island-based accommodation having dropped its ‘eco-‘ label and now seeming to cater mainly for weekly cruiseship visits.
In 2017 the Boulder Bay Eco-Resort (www.boulderasia.com) opened on one of the outer islands, with rustic cabins set back from the sheltered reef beach. Its sister operation, Sea Gipsy (www.islandsafarimergui.com) takes visitors island-hopping.
At Boulder Island, fish are already returning to trail coral restoration areas established by Project Manaia (www.projectmanaia.at), the Association for Ocean Conservation, where discarded fishing cages are being used to found new habitat for coral in reef broken by boat anchors or dynamite fishing.
Boulder Bay Eco-Resort has started a collaboration with the local Myeik University to give field training for marine biology students and teachers on coral identification, surveying and conservation. “We want to empower locals to be involved in the future of this region,” says the resort’s founder Bjorn Burchard.
Both Boulder Bay Eco-Resort and Wa Ale Island Resort are initiatives in southern Myanmar endeavouring the protect and preserve the environment and could serve as case studies for conservation-led development in a region that has for decades been a victim of unregulated resource exploitation.
Wa Ale Island Resort through the Lampi Foundation is supporting the work of conservation within the Lampi Marine National Park, Myanmar’s only protected marine area, and Chris Kingsley believes the model of Wa Ale could set a precedent for any future tourism projects in the archipelago.
About the Author:
Keith Lyons (keithlyons.net) is an award-winning writer from New Zealand, who has lived and travelled extensively in Asia. He was a main contributor to to ‘The Best of Myanmar: The Golden Land of Hidden Gems’ (KMG, 2017), and editor and co-author of ‘Opening Up Hidden Myanmar’ (Duwon Books/Tenko Press, 2018). He is currently working on a coffee table travel book on the Mergui Archipelago with photographer David Van Driessche (www.davidvandriessche.com) to be published in early 2019.