Myanmar is well-known in the region of Southeast Asia and beyond for having forests, mountains, valleys, and lakes as well as naturally beautiful beaches along the coastline. This varied and diverse natural landscape has been of much help to Myanmar’s tourism industry which has seen a yearly increase in traveller arrivals along with increased transparency in Myanmar’s politics and the resulting opening up of the country.
But today, some popular travel destinations in the country are facing increasing environmental challenges due to uncontrolled tourism activities which are causing irretrievable loss. Presently, beaches with the highest visitor numbers are among the destinations most badly affected by environmental damage.
Improper rubbish disposal
U Kyaw Hsan Naing, Director of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation, said human-thrown garbage was causing environmental issues in and around these beaches more than any natural deterioration.
“Such issues have happened on the beach mostly because of humans, not because of environmental deterioration,” he said.
Blaming hotels and guests for the trash thrown, U Kyaw Hsan Naing said one third of the garbage comes from travellers who visit the beaches as part of a tour groups, and that the quality of the beaches is gradually lowering as well as other environmental impacts.
“We observe that quite a number of beaches in our country are losing quality due to trash being thrown,” he added.
A retired civil servant-turned environmentalist U Saw Moe Myint agreed with U Kyaw Hsan Naing. He said that a third of the trash irresponsibly thrown by travellers is Styrofoam food boxes, plastic water bottles, glass bottles and wrappings. If the undisciplined dumping of garbage cannot be controlled, the environmental effects and deterioration of the ecosystems on Myanmar’s beaches could become even worse than issues faced in the two travel destinations recently closed to tourism in Thailand and the Phillipines.
“If such garbage cannot be wiped out and the undisciplined behavior of throwing garbage can not be controlled, we will have bigger problems than those happening on the other beaches in Southeast Asia,” said U Saw Moe Myint.
Case study of Thailand and the Philippines
In 2011, some scuba diving sites in Thailand were shut down due to weather changes and environmental deterioration. Last October 2017 during an examination conducted by Thai authorities to assess the environmental status, a total of 101,058 discarded cigarette butts – one third of all the garbage – were found along the 1.5-mile beach at Patong in Phuket, Thailand. As a result, smoking has been banned on 20 beaches of the famous Phuket islands and Krabi beaches. Those who are caught lighting up on these Thai beaches could face a jail sentence or a fine of THB100,000.
Moreover, the Thai government has closed Maya Bay on Koh Phi Phi to tourists for the period of a year and three months in order to abate environmental damage occuring there. The bay was made famous by the Leonardo DiCaprio movie ‘The Beach’ released in 2000.
In April 2018 in the Philippines, the government authorities closed Boracay, a famous island for tourists, for up to six months due to environmental degradation caused by the island’s sewage system dumping waste into the sea. In a research report from 2015, after China and Indonesia, the Philippines ranked third among the highest sources of plastic pollution in global waters. Furthermore, a 2017 UN report warned that if uncontrolled plastic use is not stopped, there will be more plastic than fish in the seas and oceans in the coming years.
U Saw Moe Myint said that plastic waste is also a major global problem. Current statistics show that ten percent of plastic waste is buried in the ground, five percent is recycled with the remaining 85 percent floating into the seas and oceans. Because of plastic waste floating in the waters, some one million seabirds and about 100,000 marine mammals die each year as they mistake plastic for food.
Impact on the tourism industry
According to an official from the information branch of the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism, current issues with environmental and ecosystem deterioration may already be having an effect on foreign traveller arrivals to the country. Coupled with sporadic outbursts of conflict in Myanmar’s border regions, traveller numbers have dropped dramatically so far this year.
“We received 3.44 million foreign traveller arrivals in 2017. From January to April this year, there has only been half a million,” said the official.
Even in 2017, Myanmar beaches received some tens of thousands of foreign tourists – a minor number if compared to tourist arrivals at beaches of other countries in Southeast Asia. Soe Thein Htut, leader of a welfare team which carries out environmental conservation work on beaches here, said tourist arrivals to the beaches may continue to decline in the coming years if these environmental issues are not addressed: he foresees worsening damage to sea water and the sand areas continuing to happen because of the dumping of garbage in an undisciplined manner.
“Our team does rubbish collection projects at many beaches. What we see is that such trash makes sea water and sand banks dirty. On Ngwesaung beach, we witnessed visitors having meals at food shops on the beach and then dumping the resulting waste on the beach carelessly. Similarly, the shops have no systematic process or practice for trash disposal,” he added.
Statistics from the directorate of Hotels and Tourism have shown that there has been a decrease in international tourist arrivals due to damage of sea water and sand bank on the beaches of Ngapali, Ngwesaung and Chaungtha which are well-known beach destinations for foreign and local travellers. In 2016, Chaungtha received over 3200 foreign travellers per month but this dropped to 2500 in the following year.
In 2015, major travel website TripAdvisor ranked Ngapali Beach in Rakhine State at eighth among the world’s best beaches but this ranking has fallen to 25th place as of 2017. TripAdvisor creates ratings of visitor attractions around the world using data collected from independent traveller reviews.
An official from Myanmar Green Network, a non-government organization of environmental activists, advocated that educational activities on correct trash disposal should be implemented for locals, visitors and hoteliers.
“Businesses like beach-based hotels are responsible for these issues. Additionally, the authorities should conduct monitoring for careless dumping of garbage on the beaches,” said the environmentalist.
These environmental issues, which are already visible and having effect, are an alarm bell warning us that preventive measures must be conducted in order for the beauty of Myanmar’s beaches not to disappear.