Recent anti-Muslim bloodshed close to Myanmar’s most popular tourist beach raises the stakes for an industry dependent on the former pariah state’s fluid transition to democracy.
Several days of tension spilled into bloodshed on Tuesday in the western state of Rakhine, where Buddhist mobs killed six Muslims and burned dozens of homes in the latest outburst of violence in the strife-torn region.
The riots occurred just a few miles (kilometers) from Ngapali beach, the country’s remote and beautiful major resort, where the tourist season is just getting back into action after the monsoon.
Foreigners are flocking back to Myanmar as a result of dramatic political reforms since direct military rule ended in 2011 that have lifted the veil on a country left isolated by decades of military rule.
As tensions rippled through towns further inland last week, a few scattered tourists at Ngapali padded across palm-fringed pristine sands at up market resorts seemingly oblivious to the violence.
French holidaymaker Lambert Demoulin said he had seen news reports of previous unrest and was “a bit worried” but had decided to visit the area nonetheless.
“It doesn’t’ bother me that much,” he told Agence France-Presse. “I feel really good, I don’t want to leave.”
Ngapali is still safe to travel to, according to updated advice from the British foreign office, but visitors should “monitor local developments and keep in close contact with your tour operator in case the security situation there changes”.
The foreign office counsels against all but essential travel to the rest of Rakhine state, where two major outbreaks of communal violence last year left dozens dead and tens of thousands homeless.
Local businesses told Agence France-Presse they were concerned the unrest could affect them.
“We are worried because of what happened,” said Myat Moe, manager of the Bayview hotel, highlighting the extension to a curfew that restricts movement between 6pm and 6am.
“This is now the beginning of the season so it will impact us a lot more.
Tourism is seen as an important growth industry for Myanmar.
A country ‘unspoiled’ by modernity
A year before the new government came to power in 2010 the country had the lowest visitor numbers of any of its regional neighbors, according to consultants at the McKinsey Global Institute, who estimated it contributed $600 million to the country’s economy and employed 270,000 people.
Since then the country has been tipped as one of the world’s hottest destinations for those eager to see a country “unspoiled” by modernity.
Reforms like the election of democracy champion Aung San Suu Kyi into parliament and the release of political prisoners have seen Myanmar welcomed back into the global community with the scrapping of most international sanctions.
Visitors to Myanmar surpassed the one million milestone in 2012 as reforms took root and the Asian Development Bank has predicted they could be at least 1.52 million by 2015.
McKinsey estimates that by 2030 the tourism sector could contribute $14.1 billion to the economy and employ around 2.3 million people—a boon in a country left impoverished by military rule.
Myanmar economic expert Sean Turnell said the unrest was unlikely to hinder arrivals in the short term because most of those visiting were more adventurous travelers.
“Longer term, however, it could become a big issue,” he said, adding that beach resorts could be the “most vulnerable” to the effects of concern over the violence because of their remote locations.
“At present these are marginal and exotic locations, but longer term they will be critical for the growth of Myanmar’s tourism sector,” he said, highlighting the importance of repeat travel to other tourist-friendly countries like neighboring Thailand.
Around 250 people have been killed and more than 140,000 left homeless in several outbreaks of Buddhist-Muslim violence around the country since June 2012, mostly in Rakhine.
A growing Buddhist nationalist movement, spearheaded by radical monks under the name “969”, has been accused of fanning the flames of hatred and posters for the group were visible near the Ngapali resorts.
The conflicts have cast a shadow over the country’s much-lauded reforms and caused concerns among the international community.
President Thein Sein, who travelled to Thandwe a day after Tuesday’s bloodshed, sought to reassure local hoteliers in meetings in the town on Thursday.
“The best way to get development is for things to be stable,” he said on Thursday, adding that the government would continue “to control things”.
“We have many investors who want to invest here. If we cooperate with them, businesses will grow. This natural beauty can not be found elsewhere.” AFP