Building peace and sustainable livelihoods through inclusive tourism in Myanmar

8 July 2017
ITC News
The challenge

Tourism is a potential tool for many developing countries to trade on their natural and cultural assets to generate jobs, higher incomes and growth. But translating tourism into sustainable development is far from straightforward. To attract international tourists, countries need investment in transport and hospitality infrastructure, a well-trained industry workforce and an ecosystem of support services. To earn a steady, non-seasonal revenue stream, would-be tourist destinations must develop a diversified portfolio of well-marketed products and services.

Finally, minimizing environmental impacts and including poor communities without exploiting their cultural heritage requires both sensitivity and sophisticated analysis.

Myanmar is one country grappling with these issues. Tourism already accounted for 29.5% of the country’s total exports in 2015; the sector’s revenues are expected to grow at a robust 8.5% annual rate over the next decade. Yet international tourist arrivals are heavily concentrated on six main destinations: Yangon, Bagan, Inle Lake, Kyaikhto, Mandalay and Ngapali Beach. Broadening this to other regions would enable more of the country to share directly in the economic benefits of tourism.

Kayah state in eastern Myanmar is one of the country’s poorest and suffered years of civil war from which refugees are only now seeking to return home. At the same time, the state is endowed with pristine nature and rich ethnic and cultural diversity. However, the low capacity of tourism providers – from hotels and restaurants to local tour operators and guides – has hampered prospects for sustainable tourism development. Until recently, the state was simply not on the map for international tour operators in Myanmar. The little tourism the state did receive tended to consist of short, poorly managed and ethically questionable village visits that left few income gains in the communities in question.

The response

Since 2014, ITC has been working with the Myanmar Ministry of Commerce, Ministry of Hotels and Tourism, Union of Myanmar Travel Association and Myanmar Tourism Marketing to bolster the tourism industry in Kayah state and to make it an engine for sustainable development.

The project seeks to build skills across the tourism value chain and maximize benefits to local communities and businesses. A key objective is to responsibly showcase cultural and environmental resources, thus creating financial incentives for their preservation.

The project aims to identify and tackle bottlenecks at every step of the value chain. This can range from building respectful community-level tourism products where none exist, to training tour operators, building tourism sector business associations and fostering dialogue among governments and market stakeholders.

Community-based cultural tourism products were developed through a multi-step process bringing together youth, the elderly and people from across Kayah state’s ethnic fault lines. Twenty-five Myanmar tour operators based in Yangon were coached on export marketing and assisted to link up with international tour operators. Staff from national and local tourism associations were trained to deliver services more efficiently to clients such as tour operators. The project also published guidelines for developing better destination branding and promotional materials. In addition, ITC is working with the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) to enhance national capacity to gather tourism-related statistics – a prerequisite for effective policymaking in the future.

The results

In four traditional villages ITC helped develop respectful cultural tourism tours, creating jobs and increasing incomes for the ethnic minority residents, who in many cases were post-conflict returnees.
More than 20 Myanmar-based inbound tour operators catering to foreign tourists have expanded their offerings to include the new Kayah state products; ITC is also training the companies to better reach international customers.

Previously absent in the region, local groundhandlers – the industry’s term for local operators dealing with hotels, transport and activities – developed to meet international tourists’ demand for authentic cultural experiences off the beaten path. For example, in 2015 Nay Moe Aung, who had some experience working with domestic tourists, set up 9Generations Travel and Tours. His company now works regularly with Yangon tour operators catering to international clients and is increasingly sought out by individual foreign travellers visiting the state.

International outbound tour operators are another set of important actors in driving tourism to Myanmar. ITC and its Myanmar-based partners worked to promote Kayah state at major international tourism fairs such as the Berlin Internationale Tourismus-Börse in March and the World Travel Market in London in November.

Between 2014 and 2016 the number of international tourists in Kayah state grew by about 140%. According to the Myanmar-based tour operators and Kayah state tourism providers working with the project, client spending in the state almost doubled over that period.

In Kayah, about 30 tourism-related SMEs, ranging from hotels and restaurants to food and beverage producers and groundhandlers, 35 local tourist guides and a pool of 20 trainees from the local government, ethnic villages and tourism associations are earning higher incomes and acquiring skills to expand tourism development.

‘Before the project started, visitors came to Kayah just for one day simply to visit and take pictures, which didn’t benefit the communities,’ said Aung of 9Generations Travel and Tours. ‘ITC is assisting Kayah with job opportunities and income, providing knowledge and opening eyes for socioeconomic development of the region.’

The project has also contributed to post-conflict reconciliation in the state by facilitating cooperation among government authorities, private businesses and local communities, notably through a state Public Private Dialogue Platform on tourism.

‘Tourism can bring peace to Myanmar. ITC’s inclusive tourism project has stabilized peace for Kayah state,’ said Ohn Maung, Myanmar’s Minister of Hotels and Tourism. Both President U Htin Kyaw and Vice President U Henry Van Thio have visited the project, praising it for preserving local culture and creating livelihood opportunities.

The future

In the final six months of the project, through June 2017, product development will be consolidated in two of the four villages, Htay Kho and Daw Ta Ma Gyi, alongside participation in major tourism trade fairs. Myanmar government officials have expressed interest in extending the Kayah state approach to other under-visited parts of the country. In close collaboration with national counterparts, ITC is conducting feasibility studies to identify potential candidate regions.