Thursday, 17 July 2014

Burma's Struggle to Stay Ancient

Burma's historical relics received a huge boost in June, when the nation hosted its first United Nations World Tourism Organization conference on tourism and heritage protection. Days later, Burma made an even more auspicious debut when a group of Pyu towns, with ruins dating from the first to ninth centuries, became the first site in the country to make it onto the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Nobody questions the extraordinary breadth of Burmese heritage. Burma was once one of Asia's most advanced civilizations, home to major cities and temples. In the 19th century, Burma flourished as one of the jewels of the British Empire, a grandness still evident in historic mansions and ornate government edifices in almost every city, most prominently the former capital of Rangoon.

Rare in Asia –or anywhere else –many of these buildings and neighborhoods survive virtually untouched in a kind of suspended animation, thanks to a half century of rule by governments that promoted extreme isolation, and world-wide sanctions. But as speakers made clear at the conference in Mandalay on June 12, the future of this heritage now depends on Burma's ability to balance preservation with the unprecedented pressures of tourism.

Since reforms launched in late 2011, Burma has reclaimed a place on the world travel maps. Just two decades ago, desolate Burma counted its trickle of tourists in the thousands. Last year, the country received two million visitors, according to U Htay Aung, Union Minister of Hotels and Tourism. This year, he said, the figure should top three million. The heady growth should continue through the decade, with many projecting seven million visitors by 2020 –among the world's most explosive tourism growth rates.

A procession of speakers at the Mandalay conference extolled the need for sustainable development. Many, including government officials speaking privately, admitted that the vast challenge may be beyond Burma's ability.

"Nowadays the growth is a little dangerous," conceded Kyan Min Htin, vice chairman of the Union of Myanmar Travel Association. "There's a lot of work to be done. This country has been closed for 50 years, so it's going to take some time."

Minister Aung made a surprise appearance at the conference, coming straight from a signing ceremony with international chain Hilton Hotels, for five Burma properties. "Heritage is like a necklace," he said. "We need to wear all our heritage on our neck."

Despite such admonishments, little beyond lip service was paid to protection. One senior tourism official explained privately that a new tourism master plan includes heritage protection, but not at the expense of development and jobs. The focus, he confided, will be more roads, air links, hotels and training. "We face great challenges with the current growth rates," he said. "But we cannot afford to slow down."

There are notable exceptions. Rangoon Heritage Trust, run by esteemed writer U Thant Myint-U, has spearheaded zoning regulations designed to protect relics in one of Asia's best-preserved cities. The trust organizes free heritage walks to highlight community awareness, and notes a few recent battles in which historical considerations trumped rampant development. "I'm very optimistic," says the Trust's senior program manager Rupert Mann.

An index of Rangoon heritage buildings is underway. Mr. Mann estimates that as many as 3,000 pre-1970 structures survive in the downtown alone. While the city's skyline has already been altered by some high-rises, he said officials support preservation. Within weeks, Rangoon is expected to adopt regulations that would delineate downtown development zones.

Still, Rangoon remains an exception. Around the country, there is scant planning for unique yet vulnerable heritage sites, amidst local and national mandates to build faster. Even in Rangoon, there are plans to add thousands of hotel rooms. Already many historic structures have fallen in advance of planning.

Equally urgent is protection of intangible heritage, which speakers described as the rich cultural and ethnic traditions in one of Asia's least developed countries. A scattering of international organizations are engaged in projects to identify and protect such heritage but the approach is piecemeal and the impacts will admittedly be small.

One speaker roundly praised was Yin Myo Su, who grew up along the shores of Inle Lake, among the country's most popular and threatened tourist areas. Her family ran a pioneer guesthouse four decades ago and she now operates her own boutique resorts, organic gardens and a restaurant of local cuisine. An ardent entrepreneur, she just launched a platform to help other small, local hotel owners share marketing and booking. She also runs a nonprofit fund that finances a tourism training center that recently turned out its first graduates. They will receive on-the-job training at a guesthouse deeded to the foundation.

After decades of waiting, there are finally guests at Burma's formerly desolate inns. That is reason for cheer, but also concern. "I'm happy," Ms. Su conceded, "and proud for my country, but I'm also scared for the future."

Mr. Gluckman is a Bangkok-based writer.

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