Conflict and internet shutdown hit Mrauk-U tourism 1

The riverside town in western Rakhine has been cut off from internet access since late June when the across all of Rakhine and in southern Chin. The move was criticised by Myanmar-based digital rights and civil society groups, which demanded an end to the blackout. Foreign business chambers in Yangon of “possible reputational impact in the international community and view of Myanmar as a responsible investment destination” as a result.

Rakhine State lawmakers have raised their concerns about the grave impact of the shutdown on the livelihoods and safety of local communities.

Fighting between the Arakan Army (AA) and the Tatmadaw . The military said three AA fighters had been killed on July 26 near the border between Buthidaung township and Bangladesh.

The Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business (MCRB) and UN cultural body UNESCO Myanmar held a conference last month on how Mrauk-U communities can plan for sustainable tourism and promote inclusive economic growth while protecting the site’s cultural heritage assets.

More than 40 participants from civil society organisations, government bodies and local businesses attended.

The that the Myanmar government “continue its collaboration with UNESCO and other international partners to ensure Mrauk-U’s eligibility as a world heritage site.” State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has pledged to implement all the Commission’s recommendations.

The tourist industry hopes that Mrauk-U could follow Bagan and Pyu and become Myanmar’s third entry to the UNESCO list. But tourism in the area is currently almost non-existent owing to the security situation.

Many governments have advised their nationals against travelling to Mrauk-U. The except the southern townships of Kyaukpyu, Ramree, Munaung, Toungup, Thandwe (including Ngapali) and Gwa. The “due to civil unrest and armed conflict”.

MCRB director Vicky Bowman noted that as a result of such advisories travel insurance was often invalid and tour operators did not offer the destination. She also said that the indefinite internet-shutdown was a direct impediment to local businesses, including in tourism, and raised safety issues.

U Aung Htun Lin, Myanmar Tourist Guides Association chair, agreed that the blackout has made it worse for business and industry.

“These matters [ongoing fighting and the internet shut-down] have had an impact on the tourism industry in Mrauk-U. As information is spread instantly in this day and age, the internet blackout and other news can be accessed by those outside [Myanmar]. As a result, job opportunities are lost for the locals,” he told The Myanmar Times.

The tourist season is set to begin in October but it is only feasible “if the situation in Rakhine calms down”. “We want the fighting to end as soon as possible,” U Aung Htun Lin added.

There are also concerns that bad tourism policies can exacerbate conflicts.

The “Do No Harm” Conflict Sensitivity Toolkit produced by the Business Innovation Facility in Myanmar includes a case study of how regulation could create conflict. For instance, requirements under the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism (MoHT) Notification 2/2011 for all “guesthouses” or “lodging houses” licenced to host foreigners to have at least 10 en-suite rooms became a source of tension as it promoted the interests of outside investors over local people providing smaller accommodation.

The Annan Commission also recommended that the government “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”.

There was an opportunity to carry out such reform in the draft regulations attached to the 2018 Tourism Law but the ministry had yet to recognise this, Ms Bowman added.

She strongly advised against establishing a “hotel zone” in Mrauk-U instead of a “zoning” approach with a diversity of accommodation choices. She said hotel zones in Inle Lake and Tada Oo established by the Thein Sein administration had stoked conflict with local farmers, damaged the environment and were commercially unsuccessful.

For U Aung Htun Lin, Mrauk-U is already difficult for visitors to travel to, unlike Bagan which has an airport. Political stability will be a prerequisite for tourists to be attracted and for locals to benefit from increasing employment opportunities.

“We’ve heard about heavy artillery shells falling [in Mrauk-U] and if an ancient structure is destroyed we could rebuild it but it will no longer have the same heritage value. We want all parties to reduce such shootings in these locations.”