Conservation-led tourism at southern Myanmar praised during inspection

Proudly contributed by Keith Lyons

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Myanmar State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi with Wa Ale Resort founder Chris Kingsley and staff of Wa Ale Resort in Mergui Archipelago.

Innovative conservation initiatives to protect fragile marine and land habitats on an island in the Mergui Archipelago have been applauded by Myanmar’s leader and key ministers during a recent inspection tour to the far south region bordering Thailand. State counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi visited the new Wa Ale Resort (https://waaleresort.com) in the Andaman Sea off the coast of southern Myanmar and Thailand as part of a high-level three-day tour of including the main towns of Myeik, Dawei and Kawthaung.

Accompanied by four senior ministers, including the minister of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation U Ohn Win, and the Tanintharyi region Chief Minister Daw Lae Lae Maw, Myanmar’s elected leader inspected the new minimal-footprint facilities at Wa Ale island, which received its first visitors last year. Wa Ale Resort is the only resort development within the Lampi Marine National Park, Myanmar’s first marine protected area, and a designated ASEAN Heritage Park. The whole Mergui Archipelago of 800 limestone and granite islands which extends over 500km into neighbouring Thailand, is on the tentative list for UNESCO World Heritage status.

As well as hearing from the Forestry Department’s Nyi Nyi Kyaw about plans for nature-based tourism in the 50,528 acre national marine park, the dignitaries learnt about the area’s unique biodiversity of evergreen forests, mangroves, sandbanks, coral reefs and underwater grasses. The marine park is home to over a thousand species of animals, plants and marine life, including kingfishers, macaques, brahminy kites, and ‘Nemo’ clownfish.

Founder of Wa Ale Resort, Chris Kingsley, says it was an honour that Wa Ale island was selected as the only resort for the high-level visit and that the Myanmar leader was personally interested in the conservation efforts in the archipelago, which had previously suffered from illegal and unreported overfishing including dynamite-blast fishing, poaching and smuggling. “Aung San Suu Kyi had heard about the archipelago’s new conservation initiatives and the development of eco-resorts, so she was interested in the conservation side of our barefoot luxury resort, including the protected turtle nests on our main beach, our natural-tone tented villas which blend with the dunes and jungle, and even our spring-fed outdoor rainforest showers.”

The private resort gives 20% of its profits and 2% of its room revenues to the Lampi Foundation to fund conservation and community efforts, which saw the establishment of a turtle hatchery before the resort was built, with the on-site security provided estimated to have saved over 4,000 green, hawksbill, and leatherback turtle eggs from predation and poaching.

Kingsley says the collaborative conservation-led tourism approach is a model for private-public partnership. “Our project could not have been successful without the full support of the Myanmar Forestry Department. Its director general Nyi Nyi Kyaw and wildlife director Win Naing Thaw have helped our conservation efforts immensely. The Myanmar Navy’s Tanintaryi regional command Commodore Zwe Win Myint is also actively supporting all our conservation efforts.”

Aung San Suu Kyi thanked the staff at Wa Ale for their endeavours and reiterated the importance of environmental protection not just for the fragile island ecosystem, but for the country and its future. “She is concerned about the environment, and the need for conservation, not just of the coral reefs of the archipelago but also the mega-fauna such as sharks, manta rays, whale sharks and dugongs. Aung San Suu Kyi wanted to hear about what was needed to further protect the marine national park, which is Myanmar’s first internationally-recognised marine park. She was especially interested in the educational role we play at Wa Ale in educating guests and staff about the sea life diversity and the need for environmental protection, and how we are working with local fishing communities through the Lampi Foundation.”

Kingsley said it was a treat for local staff to meet the country’s leader, particularly as Wa Ale is one of the most remote islands in Myanmar, more than two hours by boat from the main gateway ports of Kawthaung and Myeik. “She was very impressed with the facilities at Wa Ale, and also the natural setting, the presence of birds such as hornbills, and also our efforts to have a minimal impact on the environment, for example by not using plastics and growing some of our food.”

During the island inspection, the delegation also visited Ma Gyun Galet Salon fishing village, the largest settlement of the Moken semi-nomadic seafaring ethnic group. The Moken are skilled at swimming and diving and are known to be able to dive for a considerable time without any breathing apparatus.

At a meeting with the Moken community, Aung San Suu Kyi said the government wants the Moken to develop while maintaining their culture and practices, and outlined the need for health and education. Community members spoke about wanting travel businesses directly benefiting locals, the need for regulations so they can maintain their traditional small-scale fishing practices, the provision of a clinic and middle school on Lampi as well as the desire to have mobile phone coverage on Lampi island. Aung San Suu Kyi committed her government to develop long-term plans for the nine Moken settlements in Myanmar and the one village in Thailand, where up to 3,000 Moken remain.

Later, in the main town of Kawthaung, across the border from Thailand’s Ranong, Aung San Suu Kyi said while Myanmar was a nation of natural wealth and beauty. “It is the duty and responsibility of all to maintain and nurture these beauties and wealth.”

While some of the new resorts in the Mergui Archipelago, such as Wa Ale Resort, Boulder Bay Eco-Resort, Awei Pila, and Nyaung Oo Phee, have an emphasis on environmental protection and conservation, the first resort in the outer islands, Myanmar Andaman Resort, no longer provides overnight accommodation, but instead has been hosting day-trippers from Singapore and Malaysia aboard the 740-cabin Star Cruises SuperStar Libra and the 3,500-passenger Genting Dream cruise boat.

A meeting to establish a Destination Marketing Organisation (DMO) to cooperatively develop and market tourism activities will be held in Kawthaung in early March 2019, as part of a longterm aid project by the Italian-government funded NGO the Oikos Institute (https://www.istituto-oikos.org), which has been working with conservation staff and local fishing communities on sustainability on Lampi island, with a field station for environmental research established at the Lampi Marine National Park Visitor Centre.

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