Myanmar is a country experiencing change. Emerging from decades of authoritarian rule and economic isolation, it’s turning into a must-see destination that promises unspoilt landscapes and a rich cultural heritage. Tourism can be both a blessing and a curse. Employment creation and economic growth are counter-balanced with the threat of changing landscapes and the decline of local culture as development sets in.
Tourist hotspots like Bagan, Inle and Kyaitiyo are known for their vast natural beauty and they are seeing the effects of domestic and foreign tourism in the last few years. Inle Lake in eastern Myanmar, the second largest lake in the country, is experiencing pressure from both agricultural practices and tourism. Its ecosystems are under threat from contamination by pesticides and fertilisers and the floating gardens which are indigenous to the region, are being over-farmed. Species are disappearing and the local communities which depend on the lake, are now exposed to contaminated water systems. This combined with the rise in the number of hotels and guesthouses on the lake, add to the pressures on the fragile ecosystem.
The impacts of the tourism industry are being felt by the locals who do not see the mushrooming hotels and guesthouses as bringing them opportunities. Non-menial roles are given to migrant workers who have no knowledge of the local culture or environment and they are left with low-paying roles. Their children, seeking employment, leave for the city and as a result, the local community suffers.
For one hotel and resort owner on Inle Lake, the preservation of both community and ecosystem are part of her business. Yin Myo Su was born and raised in the region; her father started a guesthouse in 1976 at a time when the country was largely cut off from the rest of the world. Yin Myo Su travelled to France to study when most did not have the means to leave. Now running two properties and a foundation with 400 staff, she is grateful for the opportunities that she has had and recognises the role that she can play, “I got lucky. I’ve been away, worked in the private sector and I know that I can use that experience to move things faster here. Money is such a powerful tool that, if we use it properly, we can make change faster than in other sectors.”
Developing a sustainable model that isn’t based on charitable donations and philanthropy is vital for Yin Myo Su, not only for the self-worth of the people, but also for the business. Social businesses have been set up to promote local art forms such as weaving and provide livelihoods for locals; the resort is home to an aquarium that is preserving indigenous fish from the lake; and non-chemical practices are used in the guesthouse gardens where produce is used to showcase local cuisines. Water waste management systems have also been developed so that the business is sensitive to the lake’s ecosystem. “It’s our duty to protect and save our culture and nature. We have to save it preciously for without it, we will all fail,” argues Yin Myo Su.
Yin Myo Su is of the ‘teach to fish’ mentality, seeing herself as a conduit to help people succeed. “We have lots of entrepreneurs in Myanmar. They don’t have formal education or training but they have guts and know that if they work hard they can do something. We have the skills and mentality that we need, but we have to nurture that talent - it will have ripples.”
To help local youngsters reach their potential, she began a training academy to provide vocational skills where they are provided with housing and trained in housekeeping, front- of-house services, English, local cuisine and most importantly, why protecting both traditional culture and the environment are so important. She explains, “Young people are leaving the area as they see the hotels and guesthouses providing employment opportunities for those who speak English better and have different skills. Working in a hotel was not something that they felt that they could do. We show them that they can, but we also encourage them to be independent, to think for themselves and think about the possibilities for their lives outside of the hotel. If they leave after a few years to run their own business, as some have, that makes me very proud. I want them to fly high.”
The secret to building a sustainable business that combines cultural and environmental sensitivities has been passed on from generation to generation in Yin Myo Su’s family and through responsible practice, working with the local people and with the local ecosystem, is now being shared with the entrepreneurs of tomorrow.
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Photographs by Jonathan Perugia of: www.gaiavisual.com