Myanmar’s rising collection of eco-lodges, which are tapping a new breed of eco-conscious travellers, are helping to lift communities out of poverty while preserving cultural traditions. By Marissa Carruthers
As travellers become more aware of their footprint and the impact they have on locals, hopes are being pinned on Myanmar’s mounting eco-lodges piquing the interest of conscientious tourists seeking to truly immerse themselves in local life.
Myanmar is home to diverse landscapes, rich culture – it has 135 ethnic tribes – and a series of off-the-beaten-track spots that tick all the boxes for modern travellers. Community- and eco-tourism is a niche steadily being developed across the country, pushed by the rise in lodges and boutique resorts built and operated sustainably while working with struggling rural communities.
Charmaine Goddard, general manager at Wah Phyu Villa, which rose in the coastal village of Magyizin, Ayeyarwady in February, said: “With global warming at the forefront now more than ever, people are more aware of what they do when they go on holiday; they want to know they’ve benefited local people.”
The eco-lodge is among the latest to open amid a strengthening movement of sustainable and community-driven tourism across Myanmar.
Goddard added: “We get a lot of private bookings and people ask what we do with our waste and how we work with villagers. It’s huge, and becoming a very big part of tourism.”
In 2011, the newly-formed Ministry of Hotels and Tourism set about launching a series of community-driven tourism products across the country under its Community-Based Tourism (CBT) initiative.
Several have since sprung up across Myanmar with the aim of ensuring communities benefit from the predicted rise in visitors while driving tourists to undiscovered areas.
As well, recent years have seen tourism entrepreneurs build sustainable lodges that work directly with neighbouring villages to share the tourism dollar and help improve life.
Swe Yi, co-owner of Loikaw Lodge by the Lake in Kayah State, said: “CBT is probably the most sustainable tourism approach in Myanmar as it can significantly contribute to poverty reduction and paves the way for a sustainable, economic tourism model.”
Yi and her husband Jens opened the 12-room lodge in October 2016 and learned about the newly-developed CBT initiatives of the Kayan, Kayah and Kayaw tribes, funded and led by the International Trade Centre.
Under the initiative, a series of programmes were developed to offer visitors culturally-rich experiences in villages across the state. Its success saw similar initiatives roll out in other areas of the country, including Kachin and Shan states, Magway Division in Myaing, and Chin State.
Yi, who continues to send clients to villages, added: “It’s important the best practices of these programmes is shared to accelerate the learning for communities who want to start their own programmes. At the same time, it’s important the government, private industry and respective communities agree on a framework that helps CBT develop in a sustainable manner.”
Kyaw Swar opened A Little Eco Lodge in his home area of Inle Lake in late-2016 with the aim of using tourism as a tool to elevate the lives of the impoverished communities he grew up among. He has since landed two awards from the Product and Package Innovation Competition run by UK Aid for his innovative community-led projects for ikat weaving, and a treasure hunt-style cookery class in a neighbouring village. He recently added four rooms, bringing the total to 10.
He said: “Travellers want to be more responsible and think about how and where the money they spend is used. This is a great opportunity for Myanmar, especially small-scale entrepreneurs and locals. They can’t compete with larger global and local businesses that have resources, finance, knowledge and technology. By developing CBT, communities can earn directly from clients.”
Edwin Briels, managing director of Khiri Travel Myanmar and co-founder of Lalay Lodge, which opened this February in the remote fishing village of Maung Shwe Lay in Ngapali as a sustainable lodge that works hand-in-hand with villagers, said this movement is opening up new opportunities by appealing to the longhaul markets of Australia, Europe and the US.
He also noted an increase in interest from regional travellers seeking authentic, immersive experiences. Said Briels: “We are seeing a lot more regional travellers wanting to go back to an Asian village atmosphere; almost like stepping back to the old days of Asia.”
The sustainable lodge trend is also helping develop new destinations and encourage visitors to veer away from Myanmar’s main tourism spots. As arrivals grow, it is hoped this will alleviate the issue of over-crowding that other regional tourism stars have struggled with.
Said Goddard: “Because Myanmar’s tourism industry is behind other South-east Asian countries, it can pick up on the mistakes of others and learn from them. The government doesn’t want to see places over-run, so it encourages sensitive development in emerging destinations.”
But to truly tap into its tourism potential, there has to be closer work between the government and private sector to push and promote such initiatives. Noted Yi: “The big challenge is to market these lodges and experiences to international markets, which can only be done with government and private industry support.”