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Community members, conservationists and tourism experts urge for heritage management and sustainable tourism for Mrauk U

Sunrise above the Dukkanthein Paya temple in Mrauk U. Myanmar (©Getty Images/ rchphoto)

Community members, conservationists and tourism experts urge for heritage management and sustainable tourism for Mrauk U

Mrauk U, the ancient capital of the Rakhine Kingdom, is rich in historical, cultural and religious heritage but remains relatively unknown to the outside world. The Rakhine Advisory Commission, led by the late Mr Kofi Annan, proposed to mitigate this by recommending the Government of Myanmar to “continue its collaboration with UNESCO and other international partners to ensure Mrauk U’s eligibility as a World Heritage Site”. The rationale being that a World Heritage designation would offer Mrauk U international recognition and visibility which in turn could potentially lead to increased tourism and economic development.

The Rakhine Advisory Commission also recognised the tourism potential of Rakhine state, but emphasized the importance of ensuring that income from increased tourism should benefit local people, and noted that “the Government should address regulatory issues that currently constrain SMEs and family businesses, which include removal of the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism prohibition on guesthouses and B&Bs of less than ten rooms, that presents barriers to entry for family-owned enterprises”.

The current lack of tourism in Mrauk-U, due to the security risks caused by recent clashes, provided an opportunity for the local heritage experts and tourism stakeholders to take a step back to reflect on how the community could take ownership and leadership in finding the balance between heritage conservation and sustainable tourism.  

Within the framework of supporting the continued nomination process of Mrauk-U, UNESCO supported a study tour for the members of Mrauk U community to Kalaw and Inle followed by a Multi Stakeholder Discussion in Yangon.

A delegation of Mrauk-U local community participated in a three-day study visit the help of Kalaw Tourism Organization and the generous support of Inle Heritage. The visit offered the Mrauk U delegation to gain insights into two local tourism organizations which are working towards the common goal of sustainable development for their local communities.

The main purpose of the study visit was to empower the local community of Mrauk-U to discuss specific topics and issues related to tourism development and to identify main challenges and opportunities of tourism in Mrauk-U. The visit programme was arranged around the themes of 1) Tourism Attractions and Activities, 2) Tourism and Community and 3) Tourism and Environment. Focusing on the themes, participants were able to discover the role of the community, role of destination management organizations and forms of sustainable tourism and activities.

Daw Kyawt Aye Than, a study visit participant, shared her thoughts on her experience. “It was a great opportunity to learn real-life tourism issues in two of the leading destinations in Myanmar. We were able to learn the best practices of waste management, which is a priority issue to be addressed in Mrauk U, and the development of sustainable forms of tourism which are relevant also for Mrauk U,” she said.

The study visit was then followed by a multi stakeholder discussion in Yangon on 10 and 11 July which was co-organized between UNESCO and the Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business (MCRB). Joining Mrauk U delegation were representatives and experts from across the tourism industry. More than 50 stakeholders from different tourism fields were engaged in this activity including the local community, government authorities, tourism experts and international development agencies.

In her opening remarks, Min Jeong Kim, Head of UNESCO Myanmar, mentioned that it was the first time that a multistakeholder meeting for Mrauk U tourism was being organized. She highlighted that “while tourism is an important sector for local development, unless it is managed properly, it can be a destructive force for heritage conservation. Mrauk U, where tourism is still not very developed, has the chance to get it right from the start.”

Vicky Bowman, Director of MCRB, also emphasized that “It is a well-known fact that conflicts have high impact over tourism but it is important to be aware that tourism may also lead to conflict sensitivity.  For example, in Myanmar, hotel zoning is one of the factors leading to tourism related conflicts.”

Attention was also called on the impact of new tourism law leading to a lively discussion with engaging questions from the audience. U Kyaw Kyaw, member of parliament from Mrauk-U constituency, voiced out that “The legal structure that favours tourism development is lacking in Mrauk-U and it is important that we have strong policies in order to achieve sustainable development.”

Daw Kyawt Aye Than from the Kalaw Tourism Organization pointed out that “There is no way to promote sustainable tourism without the sector-wide coordination and engagement among all relevant stakeholders in the community.”

Before and after experiences of managing tourism at Sri Ksetra, the first World Heritage site in Myanmar, was also shared by U Kyaw Myo Win, Department of Archaeology Site Manager of Sri Ksetra. To promote sustainable tourism, he said “the need to focus on zone management and conservation is critical in tourism intervention.”

The two-day multi-stakeholder discussion provided an opportunity for the local community, tourism experts and the relevant authorities from Mrauk-U to address the issues related to the sustainable development of tourism while conveying the message that the integrity, authenticity and heritage values of the site should be safeguarded.

Main photo caption: Dukkanthein Paya temple in Mrauk U. Myanmar (©Getty Images/rchphoto)