Myanmar’s eco-resorts open up Asia’s new tourism frontier

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The Myeik Archipelago, a chain of 800 largely pristine islands, is untouched by the mass tourism seen in neighboring Thailand.
Photo: davidvandriessche.com

A few hours boat ride from the port of Kawthaung, a school of dolphins nudged up to our 30-meter wooden junk. As the captain cut the engine, their silver backs heaved in and out of view; all else was still. Behind us, the Tanintharyi coastline — Myanmar’s skinny southern tail, fringing the Andaman Sea — had receded to a cut-out scene of blue hills.

Around us were islands topped with primordial rainforest and ringed with empty, white-sand beaches, limestone cliffs and mangrove thickets. Small wooden boats bobbed in sheltered bays, their crews snoozing until nightfall, when squid trapping would begin. Sea eagles careened high above. There was not a beep or a rumble from the mobile phones aboard the junk.

We were off the grid in Myanmar’s Myeik Archipelago, also known as the Mergui Archipelago — a chain of around 800 islands, spread over nearly 400km between the far-south ports of Myeik and Kawthaung.

The archipelago has been formally open for business since 1997, but thanks to cumbersome red tape, isolation and erratic investor sentiment it is a seascape largely unblemished by Myanmar’s rush to modernize. It is one of the few places in Southeast Asia where visitors can — for a price — have whole beaches, or even entire islands, to themselves.

But the archipelago is at a crossroads. Divergent models of tourism are being pursued. Small ecologically focused resorts, aimed mostly at Western travelers, have been launched, but large resorts, replete with casinos and yacht marinas, and aimed at a regional mass market, are also emerging. Companies and conglomerates, mostly Myanmar-based, have wrangled concessions for the most promising islands, though all but a few stand empty, awaiting developers.

Government policies that stress sustainability appear to favor the eco model, as do internationally backed conservation plans for the area. The Tanintharyi Tourism Development Committee, a government-backed group of entrepreneurs led by Serge Pun, a leading Myanmar tycoon, is working on a master plan for sustainable tourism that will include protected areas and other safeguards recommended by the U.K.-based conservation charity Flora & Fauna International.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization has declared the Myeik Archipelago’s ecological system to be of “outstanding universal value.” But beneath the water, it is far from pristine. An FFI biodiversity survey issued this year recorded widespread coral degradation due to dynamite fishing and anchor dragging, and found that large predatory species such as sharks and rays were “notably absent” — a sign of an ecosystem damaged by overfishing and practices like bottom trawling.

However, these threats to biodiversity are not generally attributable to tourism. In fact, some believe responsible tourism could provide part of the answer. One is Bjorn Burchard, a Norwegian who moved to Myanmar in 1993 and has pursued various businesses — including a tour company called Moby Dick, on whose boat, the MV Sea Gipsy, I visited the archipelago in early May.

Burchard was a pioneer of beach tourism on Koh Samui, Thailand’s second biggest tourist island, in the 1980s. Then, he said, the island was a “paradise.” He left disillusioned by the hyper-development that had overtaken Samui and many other Thai islands catering to a mass tourism market. In search of unspoiled areas, he began to explore the Myeik Archipelago.

With local business partners, Burchard established the Boulder Bay Eco Resort, which occupies Boulder Island, near the outer reaches of the archipelago. The resort completed its second season this year, running entirely on solar energy, with no air-conditioning, which Burchard claims is unnecessary because of the plentiful sea breezes. The island also hosts marine biologists from Project Manaia, a small Austria-based marine research organization that has created coral nurseries, and the resort’s proceeds have been used to bring in local students from Myeik University.

Other resort projects have also tried to project environmental credentials, albeit through more luxury offerings. Wa Ale Island Resort, a newly completed American investment, resulted from a 2015 Myanmar Forestry Department tender for an eco-resort in Lampi Marine National Park, which lies within the archipelago.

Read full article at Nikkei Asian Review: https://asia.nikkei.com/Life-Arts/Life/Myanmar-s-eco-resorts-open-up-Asia-s-new-tourism-frontier

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